Jesse James (Fox, 1939)
Jesse James on the screen 2: The talkies
I find it quite curious that after the (now lost) silent Paramount Jesse James of 1927, with Fred Thomson (which we were discussing last time – click the link for that) more than a decade passed without another portrayal of the Missouri outlaw on the silver screen. After all, America’s other favorite good-baddy outlaw, Billy the Kid, got the big-budget major-studio treatment in 1930, directed by top name King Vidor. You’d think Jesse would have been back too.
But there were several reasons why not. For one, silent Jesse James movies had been somewhat controversial, exciting as much criticism as praise for the way they romanticized and glorified criminal activities. For another, Billy the Kid lost money for MGM and what you might call A-picture Westerns languished for most of the 1930s in the doldrums; the genre was relegated to short second features and juvenile programmers. A third reason was that the James family was protective and litigious. They jealously guarded their rights to the story. The outlaw’s son, Jesse James Jr, had taken Paramount, then the late Fred Thomson’s estate to court over supposed breaches in the 1927 picture – though he lost both times. The formidable Zerelda Elizabeth Cole James Simms Samuel, Frank and Jesse’s mother, didn’t die till 1923 and had presided shrewdly over the James ‘heritage’, as had her son Alexander Franklin ‘Frank’ James till his death in 1915. He too took various theater companies to court for stage plays they put on without the family’s permission.
But as the 30s wore on, Paramount ventured to make a couple of big oaters, The Plainsman (1936) with Gary Cooper and Wells Fargo (1937) with Joel McCrea, and these were successes. In ’38 the majors thought it was probably time to have another go. That year too there was a Broadway hit, Missouri Legend, written by Elizabeth Ginty, starring Dean Jagger as Jesse. The real Frank and Zerelda were safely departed now – though Jesse James Jr hung around till 1951 and doubtless watched carefully over any infringement. He needn’t have worried: Fox’s 1939 picture pretty well defined Jesse James in the public imagination for a whole generation (the film was re-released in 1951). It gave us a Jesse as a bold and dashing Robin Hood figure with right on his side. It was in fact a whitewash.
But a whitewash in color. Fox had long held out against the dreaded Technicolor but finally gave in. Warners would do the same with their big Western of ’39, Dodge City, though Universal, Paramount and United Artists put theirs out in black & white still (MGM missed the boat that year, or the noon stage anyway). The budget of Jesse James was considerable, $1.6m. As an example of the studio’s largesse, they found a locomotive and some railroad cars for the train-robbery scene in Little Rock, Arkansas and had them shipped 250 miles to the Missouri location. Money seemed to be no object.
The film was, too, a star vehicle. The studio’s handsome headliner Tyrone Power, in his first Western (proper Western anyway) topped the cast as Jesse, and Henry Fonda, very much up-and-coming, was brother Frank. Sultry Power was a hot property in ’39. He’d been Alexander in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Count Axel in Marie Antoinette and Ferdinand de Lesseps in Suez. He specialized in dashing, faintly exotic lovers and/or swashbucklers. Not the obvious choice for a Western, but he did well.
They also put Randolph Scott in there, though in a lesser part (he is the fictional family friend who stands by Jesse but falls for his wife). He doesn’t arrive till about twenty minutes in, and doesn’t mount a horse or fire a gun, just smiles and is nice to the James family. Still, Randy was in it. They had Jane Darwell as Ma James, Brian Donlevy as the railroad company’s heavy and John Carradine as Bob Ford. So the cast list was quite glittering.
Actually, Carradine (left), of that noble Western dynasty, is excellently villainous as the coward Robert Ford, shooting Jesse James in the back as Jesse stands on a chair adjusting a picture. Carradine told an amusing story of how he was in front of a theater when the picture was showing and “a little kid said, ‘Did you shoot Jesse?’ and I said, ‘Yes’. And the son of a bitch kicked me in the shin!” Many comparisons have been made between Robert Ford and Judas, although the comparers seem thereby to assume that the murderous thug Jesse was in fact Jesus. Jesus, Jesse, same number of letters, begin with J. So does Judas, come to that, but hey.
There were a couple of acting weaknesses. They cast Nancy Kelly as female lead - hardly the glamorous screen idol, and not the greatest of actresses, I think (she was later nominated for an Oscar so I guess that’s just my unfounded opinion) but attractive and quite well known in minor parts. Her character is a pain most of the time, either being soppy and wet when Jesse is around or whingeing and whining when he isn’t. They had to rewrite history a lot to accommodate her role but that was par for the course.
The kid, Jesse Jr, was a mistake too. Henry Hull as the friendly newspaper editor and father of Jesse’s wife-to-be Zee (he wasn’t of course) overacts wildly, as was his wont, in a chewing-the-scenery way, but it did at least provide a comic turn.
The other outlaws in the James gang are not drawn strongly. They remain in the background and no Youngers are even mentioned. (Warners repaid the compliment by not having any Jameses in their picture The Younger Brothers). It was a bit like the Wyatt Earp films: you don’t want strong brother Earps who might upstage your star Wyatt. Better to have shadowy unknowns.
I did however like the wicked railroad boss McCoy: Donald was much less Meek than he was in Stagecoach later the same year as the timorous whiskey drummer. Here he is ferocious, in a timid way of course, as the duplicitous, vertically-challenged railroad chief. He came back in the sequel and did another couple of Westerns. He is always fun to watch.
Darryl Zanuck had Henry King direct. King went right back to 1915 in the movie business and had helmed several silent Westerns, but never a talkie. His films were not uniformly fine but David Quinlan says, “When he returned to Americana, the simple rural qualities of America in times past, he was well-nigh unbeatable.” And Jesse James was Americana in excelsis. King would of course go on to direct two fine pictures with Gregory Peck, The Bravados (1958) and the absolutely superb The Gunfighter (1950), one of the greatest of all 50s Westerns.
In early 1938 King began scouting for suitable locations. There’s a great story, apocryphal or not, of how he and assistant were riding mules on their search when they came across a remote cabin. They asked “an elderly mountaineer” (according to the movie’s pressbook) if he knew of a place where a stream ran through a clearing. Asked why, King said “We’re going to shoot Jesse James there.” The amazed old-timer replied, “You mean to tell me you fellers don’t know Jesse’s already been shot?”
The screenplay of Jesse James was by Nunnally Johnson, who had been writing movies since the silent days and was noted for his The Prisoner of Shark Island for John Ford in 1936. Johnny Boggs, in his excellent book Jesse James and the Movies, says Johnson based his script “on a melodrama he had seen years earlier, the writings of John Newman Edwards [the inspiration for Henry Hull’s Rufus Cobb editor character], pulp versions of Jesse’s life, and a play, The Purple Mask.” So much for balanced research. Zanuck had been approached by William S Hart on behalf of Jesse James’s granddaughter Jo Frances James with a manuscript of Jesse’s life but Zanuck was unenthusiastic, preferring to go with the Johnson version.
The plot is a travesty of history, but as I have often said, we don’t watch Western movies for historical analysis, but for fun, and Jesse James is a whole lot of fun. It’s a post-Civil War story (Hollywood tended, with exceptions – as we shall see in later posts and as we saw last time with the 1921 silent one - to avoid the awkwardness of guerrilla conflict in a story about a goody) and the big villains are the railroads.
I don’t usually go into the plot of Westerns in any great detail but to contrast the factual and fictional accounts I’ll just say a bit here. In the movie, the St Louis Midland RR is buying up land at a measly fraction of its value. The company thug Barshee (Donlevy) strong-arms hesitant or reluctant farmers. But when he comes to the James place, Frank biffs Barshee and Jesse shoots him in the hand when he goes for Frank with a scythe. All this is too much for poor Ma James (Darwell), a maternal apple-pie figure of great sweetness (clearly she had never read about the real Mrs Samuel), who takes to her bed in a swoon. Local editor Major Cobb (Hull) appears and tells the boys that the railroad has issued warrants for the boys’ arrest for assault. Frank and Jesse reluctantly leave their ailing mama and take to the hills. While they are away, Barshee turns up with henchmen, doesn’t believe that the James boys aren’t there, and fire-bombs the house, killing Mrs Samuels.
Well, we’re still only in the first reel and the nonsense already abounds. Though it became an established ‘fact’ that many people ‘know’, there is no evidence that Jesse James fought the railroads for such reasons, or even at all. He didn’t even start robbing trains till 1873, and then it was really the express companies that suffered from his depredations, the ones who used the railway network to transport cash, not the railroad companies themselves.
Mrs Samuels as they call her (they added an –s to her name, as movies were often to do) did not live alone at the farm with Frank and Jesse. All the other family members seem to have been written out altogether. The fire-bomb attack occurred in January 1875, much later than shown, so was not the cause of the James boys starting a life of crime, and it was initiated not by the fictional railroad man Barshee but by Pinkerton detectives. In it, Mrs Samuel, who was very far from a sweet, dimpled apple-pie mama, was badly injured in the arm but not killed.
And that’s just the first few minutes of the show. It doesn’t get any more accurate after that. But I won’t go on in this vein. You probably know the facts of the case anyway and as I say, that’s not what such movies are for. They aren’t supposed to be documentaries. In any case they couldn’t sell a true life of the murderous thief Jesse James, not then. The public would never stand it. Even when Fox remade the story in 1957 and called it The True Story of Jesse James, it wasn’t. There are many books on Jesse James. If you want a really authoritative factual account of his life I suggest Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by TJ Stiles (2002). It’s excellent. But this cinematic hooey is interesting as it cemented so much myth and legend, and later movies were to repeat the inventions until they became ‘fact’.
Tyrone Power was a dashing, if rather Spanish-looking, Jesse. He actually turned out to be quite good at Westerns, and showed it in another Fox oater, of 1951, the underrated but very excellent Rawhide.
Henry Fonda was fine as Frank and he gave the movie some weight and critical acclaim. This film was in fact a prototype of Fonda's future Western roles: quiet class, nuanced power. He is superb, far better than the part or the script deserved.
The American Humane Association slammed the picture as “one of the most bare-faced wanton attacks of cruelty to animals in the past few years” and indeed, there are some shocking and shameful stunts, especially the one (done by Cliff Lyons) in which a horse was killed jumping off a cliff into a lake. They greased up a chute and blindfolded the poor beast.
The music is bold and martial. The photography, by George Barnes, is rather good and it was filmed in true Missouri locations, very nice in a green and rural way. In fact the locations were about the only authentic element of the film. But Jesse James is a fun picture that gallops right along and though wildly unauthentic is an essential part of the Jesse canon. The Los Angeles Times remarked that “Historians may be thoroughly irked over much that happens during the unspooling of Jesse James. But the public who is interested in entertainment will find this a rip-roaring melodrama with excitement, thrills and human interest.” The New York Times called it “the best screen entertainment of the year” – but that was on January 13, before we get too excited - and said it was “an authentic American panorama, enriched by dialogue, characterization, and incidents imported directly from the Missouri hills”, which must surely be the only time the adjective authentic has been applied to this movie (Jesse’s granddaughter said that the film’s connection with reality stretched about as far as fact that the hero was called James and rode a horse). Variety said “Jesse James, notorious train and bank bandit of the late 19th century, and an important figure in the history of the midwest frontier, gets a drastic bleaching. Script by Nunnally Johnson is an excellent chore, nicely mixing human interest, dramatic suspense, romance and fine characterizations for swell entertainment.” So all in all it went down pretty well.
Later critics have liked it too. The BFI Companion to the Western called it “Excellent. Topped only by the 1957 remake.” Brian Garfield said, “A huge excellent cast bolsters this exciting whitewash of the outlaw James brothers” and added that compared with later Jesse James movies this one was “like comparing a long, satisfying, rich novel with a slight novella.”
Commercially, Jesse James was a huge success for Fox, only beaten at the box-office by Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz and tying with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mr Smith Goes to Washington. It was such a smash hit that although Jesse had been killed, a sequel was inevitable. Fonda could still reprise his Frank act and in fact in its way The Return of Frank James, directed the following year by Fritz Lang, no less, was a better movie. As we shall see next time.