Tuesday, July 23, 2019

LEGENDS OF WESTERN CINEMA WEEK: Post 3 of 5, Movie Night Double Bill of Jesse James (1939) and The Return of Frank James (1940)

The LEGENDS OF WESTERN CINEMA WEEK is an online celebration running from July 21 - 27. It is hosted by Heidi of Along the Brandywine, Olivia of Meanwhile, in Rivendell and Hamlette's Soliloquy.

The outlaw and Civil War guerilla fighter Jesse James (1847-1882) was a popular hero of the press and dime novels during his short life and career and ascended to mythology after his death. His deeds and personality were exploited for the stage and later for the screen. Name recognition alone made Jesse James an important character in western films since the silent era.

Jesse James Jr. (1875-1951) played his father in two films released in 1921, Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James as the Outlaw. The character of Jesse has been portrayed as everything from a scalawag to a psycho by such actors as Roy Rogers, Alan Baxter, Dale Robertson, Lawrence Tierney, Clayton Moore, Macdonald Carey, James Keach, Reed Hadley, and Audie Murphy. 

Writer Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, The Woman in the Window) took the legendary Jesse James and fashioned an entertaining and exciting motion picture released in 1939. Jesse James is essentially a character study of the psychology of an outlaw. Also coming under scrutiny in the screenplay is the perfidy of the legal system and the corruption of too powerful corporations.

Director Henry King was a master of many genres with most having a welcome touch of Americana. He created many of the 20th Century Fox classics, from In Old Chicago to Carousel. Jesse James was the fourth of eleven movies King directed starring Tyrone Power beginning with Lloyds of London in 1936 and ending with The Sun Also Rises in 1957. 

The St. Louis Midland Railroad represented by a ruthless Brian Donlevy, cheats illiterate farmers out of their land. Difficulty with the James family results in the death of Mother James played by Jane Darwell, and her boys Frank played by Henry Fonda and Jesse played by Tyrone Power, turning outlaw to exact revenge. The St. Louis Midland Railroad is their prime target and they have a special message for the passengers who are their victims: "Don't forget to sue the railroad for all you give us, 'cos they're responsible."

Nancy Kelly, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Spencer Charters

The troubled economic times of the post-war era find many admiring the actions of the James brothers. Others, like Jesse's love Zee played by Nancy Kelly only see the anger and violence eating away at a man's soul. Those many who are still able to see the good in Jesse try to help. The local marshal played by Randolph Scott is sweet on Zee, and brokers a deal with the railroad president played by Donald Meek. Jesse agrees to turn himself in for one charge of robbery to please Zee and the couple marries prior to Jesse serving his time. The minister at the country church is only too happy to perform the ceremony for the celebrated Jesse James. "Why, I'd given up preaching and was making an honest living off the land until that dad-swinged railroad swindled me out of my own home."

The railroad goes back on their word, Jesse is broken out of jail by Frank, and the gang goes on a crime spree for the next decade. Zee stays with Jesse until the birth of their son then in despair returns to her uncle, a newspaper editor played by Henry Hull. "Jesse'll be an outlaw as long as he lives. I know it now. ..... He's like a horse you can't break. He's crazy with wildness and there's nothing you or me or him or anybody can do about it."  

The movie is filled with eye-filling scenery from the Missouri locations filmed in glorious 3-strip Technicolor by George Barnes. Exciting chases and action sequences accompany the honest soul searching of the characters. A cast of familiar character actors includes John Carradine as Bob Ford, Ernest Whitman, Slim Summerville, J. Edward Bromberg, Willard Robertson, Charles Middleton, and George Chandler. Jesse James, along with the release the same year of Stagecoach, proved a turning point in the respect for the A level western.

The tragic and wasteful death of two horses involved in one of the stunts in the film led to the studios agreeing to supervision by the Humane Society when animals were involved in a film. It became desirable to receive the notice that "No animals were harmed or injured in the production of this film."

Of note:
John Carradine, Donald Meek, Louise Platt

John Carradine, so oily and nervous here as the turncoat Bob Ford played the sympathetic gambler Hatfield in Stagecoach. Donald Meek, so duplicitous and longwinded here as railroad president McCoy played the meek and kind whiskey drummer Peacock in Stagecoach. 1939 was a good year for actors and for movie-goers. 

The year following the release of the successful Jesse James feature saw 20th Century Fox return to the legend with  The Return of Frank James with Fritz Lang (Western Union) directing a screenplay by Sam Hellman (Frontier Marshal).

Henry Fonda returned as Frank James, along with Ernest Whitman as the loyal Pinky, Henry Hull as newspaper editor Cobb, George Chandler as his assistant Roy, J. Edward Bromberg as the detective George Runyon, Donald Meek as railroad president McCoy, and John Carradine and Charles Tannen and Bob and Charlie Ford.

Jackie Cooper, 18-years-old and four years out from his MGM contract which made him one of the most popular child stars of the 1930s, co-stars in The Return of Frank James. He portrays Clem, the orphaned son of one of the James gang whom Frank has taken under his wing. Frank, Clem, and Pinky are working a farm and keeping away from society and out of trouble. Eventually, news reaches them of Jesse's death and the Ford brothers subsequent conviction and reprieve. Frank sees his only course of action is to exact vengeance on the Fords.

Frank thinks it is only right that the St. Louis and Midland Railroad finance his search for the Fords, but his robbery is botched by the interference of the disobedient Clem. The night manager of the office is shot by an errant shot from a deputy. The death is blamed on Frank and he and Clem are fugitives. Their search for the Fords leads them to Denver.

 Jackie Cooper, Gene Tierney, Henry Fonda

Gene Tierney makes her film debut as Eleanor Stone, a headstrong young woman of means who is determined to make a place for herself as a reporter with her father's newspaper, The Denver Star. Anxious for a scoop, she falls for the phony story of Frank James' death in Mexico planted by Clem and Frank, going by aliases. By 1942s Rings on Her Fingers, also opposite Henry Fonda, lovely Miss Tierney will no longer give the appearance of trying too hard.

Bob and Charlie Ford are appearing in a stage production depicting their brave takedown of Jesse James. When they spot Frank staring at them from box seats, the chase is on. It is an exciting sequence over rugged California terrain which ends in the accidental death of Charlie and the disappearance of Bob.

Frank must then decide whether to continue his pursuit of Bob Ford or return to Missouri where Pinky has been wrongly convicted of being an accomplice in the robbery and murder. Much to Clem's disgust, Frank races back to Liberty to save Pinky from the gallows.

Major Cobb, the loquacious newspaper editor acts as Frank's attorney. The trial basically becomes a sideshow of the Major playing on the sympathies of the jury for one of their own against the railroad, and against the exploitative Yankees. It is a ploy which works in Frank's favour, yet the final showdown with Bob Ford remains.

The Return of Frank James has the same Technicolor aesthetic from George Barnes and the same music from David Buttolph, along with the familiar characters to give a sense of cohesiveness to the two stories released by Twentieth Century Fox. This unnecessary sequel to the earlier classic is well-made but doesn't rise above the standard revenge western.

Of note:
 Henry Fonda, John Carradine

Tom Joad and Casey in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath from the same year as they played Frank James and Bob Ford in our feature.


  1. These are two I have not watched yet, but would like to see. Especially the first one, as I like Tyrone Power a lot. Henry Ford I can kind of take or leave, so not sure I'll ever get around to watching that one.

    I was born in rural Iowa less than 10 miles from where Jesse James robbed his first train, which has always made me kind of fond of the James brothers.

    1. I can truly recommend the 1939 film, and the 1940 sequel is only for when you don't have anything else you'd rather watch.

      If time travel went along with train travel, I don't think there is anyone I'd rather be robbed by than Tyrone Power.

  2. RONNY COX is 81 today. He did an episode of BONANZA titled NEW MAN. It was from the final season when TIM MATHESON was a cast member. He also guest-starred on MURDER, SHE WROTE and DIAGNOSIS MURDER. He has a long and varied career. He has worked with BARBARA EDEN, REBA MCENTIRE, MARG HELGENBERGER and PATTY DUKE. He did a short-lived TV series APPLES WAY in the 70s. He played George Apple and LEE MCCAIN played his wife. She later starting going by FRANCES LEE MCCAIN. Their children were played by VINCE VAN PATTEN, PATTI COHOON(they were both guest-stars on GUNSMOKE), and ERIC OLSON. A girl named FRANNY MICHEL played a daughter the first season which was a short season. She wore glasses. Then KRISTY MCNICHOL took over the role. This was before Kristy was a household name. MALCOLM ATTERBURY played the grandpa.

    1. I meant she later STARTED going by FRANCES LEE MCCAIN.

  3. I later remembered that ERIC OLSON did a GUNSMOKE ep also. It aired the final year. It was titled THE IRON MEN and guest-starred CAMERON MITCHELL. Eric played the son of the character played by BARBARA COLBY. Miss Colby was in the first episode of COLUMBO titled MURDER BY THE BOOK where she blackmailed the killer played by JACK CASSIDY. It also had MARTIN MILNER. Sadly Barbara Colby became a homicide victim in 1975 shortly after she had filmed three episodes of PHYLLIS the spin-off of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. She had been on MTM twice as SHERRY and then played JULIE on PHYLLIS starring CLORIS LEACHMAN. LIZ TORRES took over the role. According to imdb Miss Colbys passing was on JULY 24, 1975,44 years ago tomorrow. She had just turned 36. To end on a happy note some people are just know watching COLUMBO and GUNSMOKE and discovering her talent, like many other guest stars, especially ones that weren't household names.

    1. I meant some people are just NOW watching COLUMBO and GUNSMOKE.

    2. 1. I have seen Ronny Cox often, but couldn't get into Apple's Way. I like sappy, but it was too much for me back in the day.

      I well remember the tragedy of Barbara Colby's murder. She was such a talent.

      Columbo and Gunsmoke were such well-written shows that they highlight their actors to their very best.

  4. I really enjoyed this review of one of my favorite westerns ( and I'm looking forward to your take on The Detective as well ). As is often the case, the first film was better than the "return". Jesse is made out to be a good guy fighting injustice up until the point when his villainy becomes an obsession....it may not be historically accurate but I like when Hollywood tries to made the baddies have a good streak in them!

    Every time I watch a western I worry about whether the horses were injured ( in 'Tribute to a Bad Man' there is a scene where they are "de-hoofed" ). I recalled that there was a film where horses were killed and could never remember which one it was.....how sad to find out that it was Jesse James.

    1. It is disturbing to know that there was a time when animals and extras were not accorded the respect and safety they deserved. At least something good came out of it.

      I don't mind Hollywood playing with facts when they create their fiction. In the case of Jesse James, we are lucky to have such an excellent movie.

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