Low-budget Jesse James
Jesse in the 1950s
Jesse James remained through the 1950s, or at least until 1957, in the realm of the low-budget Western. Universal’s mid-budget Kansas Raiders in 1950 (click for our review), with Audie Murphy as Jesse, was accompanied by more, ahem, economical pictures from Lippert such as Gunfire (a Frank James story) and The Return of Jesse James (another ‘dead-ringer for Jesse’ tale). Although The Great Missouri Raid in 1951 was from major studio Paramount, it was still far from a big-budget blockbuster. The same year RKO had Lawrence Tierney as Jesse, one of the many badmen in Best of the Badmen, with Jack Buetel, Robert J Wilke and Bruce Cabot as Youngers. In 1953 there was another minor Jesse part in Republic’s Woman They Almost Lynched (click for our review). That year too Lippert was back with The Great Jesse James Raid, with Willard Parker as Jesse., and Columbia replied in 1954 with Jesse James vs the Daltons (actually another son of Jesse yarn) starring Brent King. And in 1954 Don ‘Red’ Barry was back as Jesse (he’d been the Missouri outlaw in the Roy Rogers picture Days of Jesse James in 1939, click the link for our estimation of that one) in the pretty dire Jesse James’ Women, released by United Artists. So you see, not exactly A-picture fare.
Today let’s look at Donald Barry’s contributions to the Jesse James celluloid myth.
Donald Barry de Acosta, born Milton Poimboeuf in Texas in 1912, was a successful football player, of the short-and-stocky kind (he was 5' 4½" or 1.64m tall) who was noticed by John Wayne and got some small roles in the 1930s, often as juniors – as a student, cadet or bellboy, for example, in which his lack of height perhaps helped. He was the eponymous Wyoming Outlaw in Wayne’s Three Mesquiteers flick of 1939, and he did a couple of pictures with Roy Rogers that year too, in one of which, as I have said, he was Jesse James. His big break came in 1940 when Republic studio boss Herb Yates, who had bought the rights to the Red Ryder comics, cast Barry as Red.
Directors William Witney and John English had been assigned the serial to be made, and Witney, called by Quentin Tarantino "one of the greatest action directors in the history of the business”, left an entertaining memoir, with the not very pithy title In a Door, into a Fight, Out a Door, into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door. In this he made it very clear that he and English had a very low opinion of Barry, who was far from amenable and less than modest. The main visual gag of Red Ryder was that he was vertiginously tall, and he had a small boy as a sidekick which made the contrast great. Barry’s stature condemned him in the eyes of his directors, even if his behavior didn’t. But Yates was convinced that Barry was the new ‘Western’ James Cagney, and insisted on the casting. In any case, Adventures of Red Ryder was a major hit, and Donald Barry was for ever after Don ‘Red’ Barry.
Afterwards, when Bill Elliott and Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane became Red for feature film versions, Barry made a goodly number of B-Westerns directed by George Sherman, such as The Apache Kid and A Missouri Outlaw (not Jesse). Often these were ‘Kid’ parts; he was the Tulsa Kid, the Cyclone Kid, the Sundown Kid, the Sombrero Kid, and so on.
In 1942 he apparently returned to the Jesse theme when he starred in Jesse James Jr. This was a completely predictable 56-minute black & white second feature, with Al St John providing the comic relief as Pop Sawyer, but it wasn’t a Jesse James story at all, doubtless to the chagrin of the largely juvenile audience of the time. The moviemakers were just exploiting the name to get the viewers in.
In 1950 Barry was Billy the Kid (aged 38) in Lippert’s I Shot Billy the Kid, hastily produced to cash in on their surprise hit of the year before I Shot Jesse James. But in 1950 Red (he was still ‘Red’) returned to the James myth in Gunfire.
This was a Frank, rather than Jesse James tale, and in fact was known in France as La Vengeance de Frank James. Lippert had made The Return of Jesse James the previous year but couldn’t really call the new one The Return of Frank James because Fox had snaffled that title in 1940.
The picture, a typical 59-minute black & whiter, was directed, produced and written by William Berke, so there aren’t many others to blame – except Barry, for he had set up his own company and Gunfire is announced as ‘A Donald Barry production’. Richard Fleischer recalled of Berke that he "was known as King of the B's. For years and years he had made nothing but pictures with ten or twelve day shooting schedules, minuscule budgets of about $100,000 and no stars. Without bothering with editing or any postproduction chores and with short shooting schedules. And he was going nuts".
The idea behind Gunfire is that after the assassination of Jesse, a certain outlaw, Bat Fenton (Barry) is a “dead ringer” for Frank James (Barry), and decides to use that happenstance to pretend to be Frank, robbing banks, stages and trains and striking terror into the hearts of the citizens of Colorado (the story centers around Creede). The James gang rides again. This was of course exactly the plot of The Return of Jesse James.
The picture co-starred Robert Lowery, Pat Garrett to Barry’s Billy in I Shot Billy the Kid, as ‘Sheriff John Kelly’. As he will kill Robert Ford, Jesse’s assassin, this must be their version of Ed Kelley or O’Kelley who shotgunned Bob Ford to death in Ford’s tent saloon in Creede on June 8, 1892. This Kelley was not a law officer and certainly not ‘sheriff of Creede’. After the murder he committed he was sentenced to life imprisonment but was released on October 3, 1902 after a petition was launched in his support. He was, however, killed on January 13, 1904 while trying to shoot a policeman.
Lowery was Batman for Columbia in 1949 but he did quite a lot of Westerns, starting with small parts in A-movies, in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk and in the Tyrone Power The Mark of Zorro, but after that it was pretty well B-Westerns all the way. He co-starred with Barry in The Dalton Gang in ’49, then did Border Rangers and these two Bs, I Shot Billy the Kid and Gunfire, in 1950.
We see the Main Street showdown in which Ford (Roger Anderson) draws on Kelly but Kelly gets him with a shotgun. Much of the plot and even some of the characters (with different actors) were taken from I Shot Jesse James, so we also get the fictional character Cynthy, whose favors both Bob Ford and John Kelly solicit. In I Shot Jesse James Cynthy was played by Barbara Britton; this time Pamela Blake does the honors.
We open with an outlaw Matt Riley (Steve Conte) visiting Frank James (Barry). Frank is very respectable and the movie perpetuates the myth that Frank James got religion. Barry’s Frank is reading scripture. “Holy Bible, huh?” says Riley. And Frank quotes it to all and sundry, using the “vengeance is mine” bit to justify his not going after the Fords with a gun. He has an apple-pie wife and two ideal kids, to enhance the ‘perfect family man’ image. Actually, his wife, Emily (in fact it was Annie) is played by Barbara Woodell. Now Ms. Woodell was a serial Mrs James because she played Jesse’s wife in both I Shot Jesse James and The Great Jesse James Raid. Frank’s young son lies to Sheriff Kelly to give his dad an (unnecessary) alibi and Frank takes off his belt in order to beat the child, to teach him not to lie. This is meant to indicate Frank’s decency and probity to the audience. I don’t think it would these days.
There has to be some comic relief so we get a vaudeville turn from Wally Vernon as Clem, a drunk in the saloon whom Sheriff Kelly takes on as a deputy to reform him (he sobers up and shapes up). Vernon was a New Yorker with quick-fire Runyonesque diction and a fish out of water here but he did a dozen oaters with Barry.
Frank does go after Charlie Ford, though, despite the strictures of scripture and the pleading of his spouse. He has a consumptive cough as he rides along. Meanwhile, the faux Frank James, outlaw Fenton (Barry, also), is robbin’ banks and stages and trains with gusto, showing his face and having his accomplices call him ‘Frank’ so that everyone now thinks Frank James is back on the owl hoot trail. There’s a crooked saloon owner, obviously, Simons (Leonard Penn) who has a saloon gal named Flo (probably short for Floozy) played by Jan Sterling. He gives the gang the lowdown info. It will not end well for him. Despite the minimal budget there are a few exterior location shots (Iverson Ranch, it looked like) but of course the majority is done with cheap interiors, with the characters explaining the plot to each other. The quality of the image on the DVD isn’t bad, though.
It’s no worse than many a B-Western, I suppose, though not much better either. Still, you could watch it, especially if you are a Frank & Jesse fan.
Barry did two more low-level oaters with Berke in 1950 but he would be Jesse James again in 1954. I’m sorry to say that I find this picture third rate. Barry starred in it, directed, produced and co-wrote it.
The surprise in the credits comes when you learn that Barry’s co-writer was DD Beauchamp. Deronda Daniel Beauchamp (pronounced bo-champ), 1908 – 1969, was a great figure of the Hollywood Western, especially the B-Western. ‘Bud’ Beauchamp wrote or co-wrote 131 oaters, for the big screen and TV, between 1947 and 1972. Most were pretty low-grade fodder but there were highlights, like the quite classy 1953 Glenn Ford picture The Man from the Alamo and the not-too-bad 1955 Kirk Douglas Western Man without a Star. In 1954 he worked on Universal’s Destry remake, another Audie Murphy flick Ride Clear of Diablo (one of Audie’s best) and the John Payne/Dan Duryea vehicle Rails into Laramie, as well as Jesse James’ Women. He must have been overridden by Barry on the last one; the low quality of the script makes that evident. By the way, it is my (untested) belief that Saul Rubinek’s character WW Beauchamp, the dime-novel writer in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, was a homage to Deronda Daniel, or, as I prefer to think of him, Daniel Deronda.
Anyway, where were we?
Against a background of Yes, we’ll gather at the river sung as a drone-like dirge, the opening words are Barry’s when he, as Jesse, says, “Cole, Frank, go get it.” So we’re only five seconds in and we know it’s all going to be completely false. As if Jesse James was the big boss man whose hirelings obeyed his bidding like servants (or, more appropriately in the James family’s case, like slaves). It doesn’t improve in historical accuracy from there on.
Barry sounds like a cheap gangster more than a Westerner, but I suppose that was appropriate in playing Jesse James. Still, I wish he hadn’t adopted a smug grin as his acting style.
There is, however, one good thing about this picture: there are two derringers. “You’re pretty handy with that pop gun,” Jesse tells the saloon whore, and a gambler pulls one while getting away with his ill-gotten (through cheating) gains. Saloon gals and gamblers - classic derringer users.
“We invented train robbery,” Cole Younger (Sam Keller) says at one point. No, Cole, you didn’t. That honor would have to go to the Reno brothers who, in 1866, held up the Ohio and Mississippi Railway near Seymour, netting $16,000. Michael Carr gives us a bolshie Bob Ford, who appears to be a leading gang member. In fact the acting by everyone is C-movie bad. Of course, even good actors wouldn’t really have been able to overcome such lousy dialogue.
Jack Buetel is Frank this time and when you have seen him as Billy the Kid in The Outlaw you know that Buetel might have won an acting contest if matched with a block of wood but it would have been a close-run thing.
Universal hopeful Peggie Castle is the saloon dame. In 1949, Ms Castle was voted Miss Classy Chassis by members of the United Automobile Workers Union from seven Western states. There’s a celebrated fight between Peggie and her rival, Cattle Kate (Betty Brueck), an even more distasteful version of the Destry Rides Again one. You get the impression that Barry salaciously relished it. The two gals also have a showdown gunfight in Main Street in the last reel but it fizzles in anti-climax.
The whole picture is far too long. There are two bad songs we have to sit through. There’s a prize fight supposedly under Queensberry Rules, which didn’t come into use in the US until 1889. The photography and sound are poor. At the end Jesse gives money to a parson. All in all, this movie is best avoided.
To be fair to Barry (I do try) his performances in some non-Westerns weren’t all bad. Reader Barry Lane cites Duke of West Point, Only Angels Have Wings, I'll Cry Tomorrow, and Walk on the Wild Side. But I fear he never did make a good Western, or lead in one anyway. And he never did return to the James legend. Probably just as well. His irascibility, fueled by heavy drinking, didn’t do his career any good. He descended to smaller and smaller parts, did TV work, and generally fell into decline. His various marriages broke down. In November 1955 Susan Hayward got into a fight with another actress who caught her visiting Barry's apartment, which made the tabloids. On July 17, 1980, Barry shot himself in the head at his home, shortly after police had left the residence after investigating a domestic dispute.
Next time we’ll look at some other, non-Don, Jesse James B-movies, and then we’ll move on to Fox’s big remake of 1957.
But until then, e-pards, Güle güle.