Jesse James on the screen
The American Robin Hood
He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain.
The Ballad of Jesse James
Jesse Woodson James (1847 - 1882) was a teenage Confederate guerrilla guilty of war crimes, then a robber of banks, stagecoaches and trains, and murderer. He was shot dead by a fellow member of his gang wanting fame and reward. He was possibly a psychopath, certainly a sociopath and racist, even by mid-nineteenth century standards, a proto-terrorist, and definitely a criminal.
No, no! Jesse James was a hero of the West, America’s Robin Hood and a martyr. Dashing and brave, he stood up for the small man and the South against Northern corporate interests and the railroads. He was unjustly hounded by the Chicago Pinkertons who brutally attacked his sainted mother’s home, maiming her and killing Jesse’s simple-minded brother.
Maybe you are a partisan or one or other of these views.
What is certainly true is that Jesse James the legend is far better known than JW James the murderous thief. Countless books, songs and movies have convinced generation after generation that Jesse James was a great figure of American history, someone to look up to and admire.
There is of course no doubt whatever on which side of this debate Hollywood stood. Recent depictions have redressed the balance a little. Colin Farrell in 2001 was no saint (the slogan of American Outlaws was ‘Bad is good again’) and Brad Pitt in 2007 in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was distinctly dangerous. However, even they were hardly dyed-in-the-wool racist psychopaths, and most film versions avoid the Civil War altogether (though there are exceptions). And for most of cinematic history the various Jesses were dashing, spotless heroes.
And it started right from the very first depiction of Jesse, in silent movies.
We’ll be looking in the coming few posts at portrayals of Jesse James on the big and small screen. Today it’s the earliest ones. In his very interesting 2011 book Jesse James and the Movies (which I can recommend) Johnny D Boggs makes the point that early silent movies, of which Westerns represented a considerable proportion, were disposable entertainment products. Records in those early days were pretty well non-existent, and titles were changed from one theater to another. All of the silent movies featuring Jesse James except the 1921 one (see below) are now lost, even the big Paramount picture of 1927 starring the famous Fred Thomson. But Mr Boggs identifies a few. The first appears to have been The James Boys in Missouri, an 18-minute Essanay production of 1908 featuring Harry McCabe - though we don't know which character he played. One would imagine that Essanay founding partner GM 'Broncho Billy' Anderson would have played Jesse. He seems to have directed it. The Moving Picture News reported that many audiences were outraged at the lawlessness portrayed, and the film was banned in several US cities, such as Chicago.
Other titles promoted at that time were The Life of Jesse James and The Life and Death of Jesse James. These may have been different films or the same picture with different titles. Essanay's motion picture was possibly modeled on a successful play, The James Boys in Missouri by George Klimpt and Frank AP Gazzolo, in which Klimpt played Frank. It was staged in Kansas City in 1902 and Frank tried legal measures to get it stopped, but the show went on. Essanay cashed in by immediately producing The Younger Brothers, directed by E Lawrence Lee, released in June 1908. It also ran it problems with censors.
There was possibly a three-reeler featuring Jesse James in 1911, but no cast or production company is known. In Racine, Wisconsin, a theater manager put a notice in the local paper saying that the picture shows "Jesse James and his wild life, ending with his reform and making a good citizen. There is nothing objectionable [in the film]." Sounds like he was getting his rebuttal of immorality in early. In the fall of 1914 a five-reeler appeared - once again, cast and production company unknown - and an advertisement claims that Frank James himself appears in it, though this is thought to be highly unlikely. The following year we got The Near Capture of Jesse James from Luna Productions. It probably starred Dot Farley.
But the silent movie we do have is the 1921 picture Jesse James Under the Black Flag.
Jesse James Under the Black Flag was a film in which Jesse E James, known as Jesse James Jr (1875 – 1951), starred as his father. Jesse James Jr was an interesting character. The E in his name was for John Newman Edwards, the Missouri journalist and champion of the outlaw. In his youth Jesse Jr went by the name of Edwards in order to conceal his identity but later on the name Jesse James became more attractive and valuable. He studied law and owned a pawnshop in Kansas City, practicing law there. In 1898 JJ Jr was arrested and stood trial for train robbery. Exciting stuff. But he was acquitted. He moved to California in the 1920s and ran the ‘Jesse James Inn’.
He appeared in and produced two 1921 films with his sister Mary: Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James as the Outlaw. The only extant version (as far as we know) is an edited 1930 release of the two films, under the title Jesse James Under the Black Flag, with narration taking the place of most of the original inter-titles, plus musical accompaniment and sound effects. It lasts 69 minutes. Each of the two original films has been shortened to approximately half its original length.
Today, it’s only watchable as an historical document. As a Western movie, it’s pretty hard going. Partly this is because of the narration, which is plodding, dull, and badly delivered by someone who is far from a professional. As it accompanies the action throughout, it becomes fairly tiresome by the end.
Partly also it is because Jesse Jr is hardly believable as Jesse Sr. He was certainly no actor and he was in his rather podgy late forties at the time, so not terribly convincing as a seventeen-year-old guerrilla.
Intro text on screen announces that we are about to see:
Jesse James Jr.
In an authentic life of his father
Under the Black Flag
And as the most hunted outlaw in American History.
We are then told that it will be:
A play based upon Facts [I notice Facts has a capital letter; I don’t know if that’s significant]
Written and Directed by
Franklin B Coates
With the valuable assistance of
Jesse James Jr.
Harvey C Hoffman
And William Grimes
Franklin Coates was a writer, actor and director, born 1879, unknown year of death. He was the bad guy in the 1920 silent Tarzan picture.
I do not know who Bill Grimes was but Harvey Clark Hoffman (1873-1964) was a neighbor of the Howard family in Kansas City and a friend of ‘Tom Howard’ (in other words Jesse James Jr). Hoffman became a Jackson County marshal and interrogated several men claiming to be Jesse James in the 20th century, debunking their claims.
Then The Ballad of Jesse James is heard, with some of the lyrics on screen.
We open with Jesse Jr in his very palatial home in California, where he is visited by writer Franklin B Coates (played by himself) who has come to discuss the final chapter of Jesse’s book about his father. We meet also “Mrs. Jesse James Jr.”, also played by herself, but only in a walk-on and then immediately walk-off part.
At the same time, Jesse Jr’s daughter Lucille (Diana Reed) has fallen for a handsome aviator, Robert Standing (Jack Neil), who asks dad for her hand in marriage. Jesse says that Bob must read the book first, to understand who her grandfather was, and if he still wants to propose afterwards, he can have her hand. So he starts leafing through the pages, the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, and we are in Civil War Missouri with a 17-year-old Jesse.
Jesse is joining up with “Charles William Quantrell” (Harry Hall). He shows Quantrell the scars on his breast where Federal soldiers have tortured him and he swears allegiance to the black flag. Right from the outset it is clear that the “Federals”, as they are called, are the treacherous atrocity-mongers and the guerrillas are noble and true. The pedantic voiceover fellow tells us that “Federal soldiers burned homes, and Missouri settlers organized under the able leadership of Charles Quantrell.” Bill Anderson (FG McCabe) appears but there is no ‘Bloody’ before his name and he is a brave ally of Jesse’s.
We see the family of Cole Younger (Harry Hoffman) driven from their home and their farm burned. Cole, impotent to stop it, also joins Quantrell.
They make a raid on Plattsburg and ride in, wasting all their ammunition by shooting their pistols in the air, and the Federals, with good cover and rifles, do not hit a single one. “Jesse James risks his life to save his pal,” we are told. Later, Jesse is shot from ambush and badly wounded, and goes home to his ma to be nursed.
General Order No. 11 is highlighted as a great injustice. It’s a bowdlerized version and though the camera zooms in on it the print is anyway such now that you can’t read it, so you have to know. It concentrates on the first part:
All persons living in Jackson, Cass, and Bates counties, Missouri, and in that part of Vernon included in this district, except those living within one mile of the limits of Independence, Hickman's Mills, Pleasant Hill, and Harrisonville, and except those in that part of Kaw Township, Jackson County, north of Brush Creek and west of Big Blue, are hereby ordered to remove from their present places of residence within fifteen days from the date hereof.
Those who within that time establish their loyalty to the satisfaction of the commanding officer of the military station near their present place of residence will receive from him a certificate stating the fact of their loyalty, and the names of the witnesses by whom it can be shown. All who receive such certificates will be permitted to remove to any military station in this district, or to any part of the State of Kansas, except the counties of the eastern border of the State. All others shall remove out of the district. Officers commanding companies and detachments serving in the counties named will see that this paragraph is promptly obeyed.
So we see families packing up miserably and leaving.
There’s an evil half-breed, Murdock (obviously the bad guy would be a half-breed) who is expelled by Quantrell - for being a half-breed - and after the war takes up bank and train robbing, pretending to be Jesse. A woman train passenger does not believe Murdock: “It could not be Jesse James because he would never insult a lady", she tells a companion. Naturally, Jesse is entirely innocent and only wants to be a “useful and law-abiding citizen”. This too became a standard trope of Jesse James on the screen – his ‘crimes’ were committed by someone else, using his name. Still, there are wanted posters out for him.
He is nearly captured when he goes on a heroic mission to a neighboring farmhouse to fetch the “dolly” of a sick baby. Luckily, he evades capture and brings the doll safely back to the ailing child, who then duly recovers. This part is particularly cloying.
It really is a low trick by Murdock to pretend to be Jesse but he is soon unmasked and “hanged from the highest tree”, so that’s alright. He was only a half-breed anyway.
There’s a dance and an overlong rodeo (you get the impression that they wanted to use up the footage) and they both look rather silly with the speeded-up film of the day.
The Pinkertons bomb the James place and Ma James is wounded and Jesse’s poor little half-brother slain.
It’s only now, when he is proved to be the upright citizen he always was, that Jesse proposes to Zee Mimms. Then all rather suddenly they are married, have two children (Jesse Jr looks about ten) and live a happy domestic existence.
Then we get the raid on Northfield, Minnesota. Now, so far throughout the story, both in the war and afterwards, Jesse has been nothing but a shining hero, gallantly saving friends and enemies alike (he helps a Pinkerton detective out of a ditch) and by no means guilty of any banditry whatsoever, perish the thought. Yet suddenly, and with no explanation, he, Frank (uncredited actor) and the Youngers try to rob the bank in Northfield but are expected there and driven off. Why is that? We are not told. Anyway, they get away, though the Youngers are taken after a valiant and bloody gunfight.
In the final reel, the Ford brothers arrive and are trusted by Jesse (though not by Zee), Jesse straightens the famous picture and Bob Ford shoots him in the back with a pistol Jesse had given him as a present. Thus died “an American Robin Hood”, says the narrator.
The movie ends with bad grammar as Standing reads the final words of Coates’s book which say that Jesse could not live “in a world which belongs to you and I.”
Well, e-pards, it really is the most dreadful tripe.
In fact, it’s one of the worst Westerns I’ve seen.
Still, it’s a fascinating historical document and important to see if you are a serious Western buff (and if you aren’t, why are you reading this blog?)
The other silent movie of the 1920s which featured Jesse James starred the famous Fred Thomson as the outlaw in the 1927 Jesse James. This Paramount Jesse was again bold and true. In an interview with Photoplay, Fred compared James to Robin Hood (not the first or last time that parallel would be drawn) and said, “He was a strong, fearless man without the trace of a mean trait.” He stressed how many people “still cherish the memory of him for the many kind deeds that he performed.”
Directed by actor Lloyd Ingraham (162 Westerns!) and written by Fred’s wife Frances Marion, the picture had Nora Lane as Zee, Mary Carr as the redoubtable Mrs James-Samuel and James Pierce as Frank. Jesse E James is billed as “technical advisor”.
The picture was pretty controversial. It did well at the box-office, grossing $1.2m – very good money for the late 20s, especially as it was competing with the talkie The Jazz Singer. And some reviews praised it – more or less. The New York Times called it “entertaining, chiefly because it gives to the bandit-hero a lightning-like mental equipment and an unrivaled acrobatic ability.” Thomson was well known for his athletic stunts. But the review did also say “it is as a whole disappointing as a character study of the famous outlaw.”
But there was very negative press too. Variety sententiously judged that “It’s strictly a film for the roughnecks and the gallery … an uncalled for, useless and dangerous story of Jesse James.” Ouch. And a theater owner in Chicago let people in free, saying, “After seeing the picture it was impossible for me to take their money.”
Both IMDb and Lost Film Files have this movie as being lost although silentera.com states that a print exists. I hope it does. The negative does not, and the story of why is interesting. Producer Harry Joe Brown, famous for those great late 50s Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Westerns that we were reviewing recently, was, in the 1920s, a producer of silent Fred Thomson Westerns. Late in 1928, Thomson, then only 38, stepped on a rusty nail, ignored the injury and died of tetanus on Christmas Eve. After his death theater owners withdrew his films from circulation, “considering it poor taste to profit from a deceased star”. In 1951 Brown was approached by a major network keen to buy Thomson Westerns for TV. “When Brown admitted that he had burned the negatives,” Boggs tells us, “the network official nearly swooned.” What a tragedy.
When I’m a billionaire I’ll have agents scouring the globe for a print and my own private movie theater where I shall watch it and gloat and not invite you.
Come back soon, for we shall move on to talkie Jesses.