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Jesse James (1939)

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After railroad agents forcibly evict the James family from their family farm, Jesse and Frank turn to banditry for revenge.


, (uncredited)


(original screen play)
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Cast overview, first billed only:
J. Edward Bromberg ...
Johnny Russell ...
Jesse James Jr. (as John Russell)
Charles Tannen ...
Claire Du Brey ...
Mrs. Bob Ford
Willard Robertson ...


The railroads are squeezing farmers off their land. When a railroad agent kills their mother, Frank and Jesse James take up robbing banks and trains. The public regard them as heroes. When Jesse retires his erstwhile friend Robert Ford shoots him in the back to get the reward. Written by Ed Stephan <>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

railroad | train | bank | farmer | reward | See All (92) »


The Epic Story of the most Colourful Outlaw who ever lived See more »


Approved | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

27 January 1939 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Darryl F. Zanuck's Production of Jesse James  »

Filming Locations:


Box Office


$1,600,000 (estimated)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

(Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording)



Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


The film shows both Jesse and Frank going off the cliff on horseback. In reality the stunt was performed once and shot with two cameras. See more »


The movie shows a bomb killing Frank and Jesse's mother. In reality, the "bomb" thrown through the window by the Pinkertons killed their little brother and seriously wounded their mother. She survived, however, although she lost an arm in the attack. See more »


Major Rufus Cobb: [standing over Mrs. Samuel's body] There's no use. She's dead. This is bad! Mighty bad! I'm sure sorry!
Barshee: Well, I'm sorry too!
Major Rufus Cobb: Oh, I wasn't talking about her. She's gone. It's you I'm sorry fer.
See more »

Crazy Credits

Opening credits prologue: After the tragic war between the states, America turned to the winning of the West. The symbol of this era was the building of the trans-continental railroads.

The advance of the railroads was, in some cases, predatory and unscrupulous. Whole communities found themselves victimized by an ever-growing ogre - the Iron Horse.

It was this uncertain and lawless age that gave to the world, for good or ill, its most famous outlaws, the brothers Frank and Jesse James. See more »


Oh Susanna
(1846) (uncredited)
Written by Stephen Foster
Played on harmonica offscreen by prisoner Jesse James in jail
Sung a cappella by Nancy Kelly and Tyrone Power with modified lyrics
See more »

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User Reviews

The Outlaws
29 November 2014 | by (Kissimmee, Florida) – See all my reviews

JESSE JAMES (20th Century-Fox, 1939), directed by Henry King, stars Tyrone Power in the title role as the legendary outlaw of Missouri, Jesse Woodson James (1847-1882). Aside from Jesse James, there's his brother, Frank James (1843-1915) also taking the spotlight, perfectly played by Henry Fonda as part of "The Legend of Frank and Jesse James."

Released at the time when westerns were becoming full scale productions, with actors who've never appeared in westerns before now taking part of that genre, this one offered Power a chance to broaden his range from light romantic comedies, occasional costume dramas, or occasional musical to western setting where his guns do the talking. Rather than an accurate account on Jesse James, the writers mix fact and fiction instead. Taken from an original screenplay by Sam Hellman and Nunnally Johnson, with historical data assembled by Rosalind Shaffer and Jo Frances James, the "Forward" passage fills the viewer to what's to be shown: "After the tragic war between the states, America turned to the winning of the West. The symbol of that era was the building of the Trans-Continental railroads. The advance of the railroad was, in some cases, predatory and unscrupulous. Whole communities found themselves victimized by the ever-growing orge - the Iron Horse. It was this uncertain and lawless age that gave to the world, for good or ill, its most famous outlaws, the brothers of Frank and Jesse James."

As the opening (and later closing) titles begin to roll using the same underscoring borrowed from Tyrone Power's earlier success, IN OLD CHICAGO (1937), the story, set in Liberty, Missouri, fades in with Barshee (Brian Donlevy), a representative from the St. Louis Midland Railroad, and his three assistants, going from farm to farm informing its landowners of a railroad coming through their property with the government to confiscate it and owners getting nothing. In "good faith," Barshee offers them a dollar an acre. Anyone refusing to believe his scare tactics and sign over their property to him, Barshee's men use their methods of "persuasion." This is not the case as the men approach the farmland of widow woman, Mrs. Samuels (Jane Darwell). Her son, Frank (Henry Fonda), comes to her aide when he finds she's being peer pressured to sign and not to bother seeing a lawyer. A fight ensues between Frank and Barshee, with Jesse (Tyrone Power), the other son, standing guard holding his rifle on the other men until the Frank is finished with Barshee. After the intruders get forced off their land, the James brothers form a meeting with neighboring farmers to fight for their rights and acquire enough money for a lawyer. In the meantime, Barshee gets a warrant from the sheriff to have the James boys arrested for assault with attempt to kill. Major Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull), editor and publisher of the Liberty Weekly Gazette, whose daughter, Zerelda (Nancy Kelly), loves Jesse, runs over to the farm to warn the boys to advise them to hide in the mountains, which they do. After Barshee comes to arrest the brothers, an accident on his part takes place, causing the death of their sickly mother. This incident soon starts Frank and Jesse James' vengeance against the railroad, followed by train and bank robberies that lead to their rise as wanted outlaws. Will Wright (Randolph Scott), United States Marshal, is hired by railroad president Mr. McCoy (Donald Meek), to have the James gang, consisting of Bob (John Carradine) and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen), arrested and put in jail. Easier said than done.

Others members of the cast include J. Edward Bromberg (George Runyan); Slim Summerville (The Jailer); Ernest Whitman ("Pinky" Washington, Frank and Jesse's loyal farmhand); and little John Russell (Jesse James Jr.). Keep a sharp eye for the bearded Lon Chaney Jr. playing one of Jesse's gang members; and Gene Lockhart in a cameo as a bearded citizen commenting on Jesse James' Wanted-Dead or Alive sign with $1,000 reward.

Of the many movies dealing with the legend of Jesse James, including the long forgotten 1927 silent edition starring Fred Thomson for Paramount, this edition is obviously one of the best. Whether the film toys with the facts or not really doesn't matter. There's plenty of action-packed excitement ranging from robberies, chases and humor to keep this 106 minute product from being anything but a disappointment. Power may seem all wrong at in his title role, but as the film progresses, he convincingly changes from boyish farmer to mustached hard-hitting outlaw. Fonda on the other hand, is excellent as his brother Frank. Sporting a heavy mustache himself, he nearly draws more attention from Power with his interpretation of a soft-spoken, self-confident spitting tobacco chewer who, in one memorable scene, has a brother-to-brother talk to Jesse about his mad ways and treatment towards one of his friends, even at the risk of getting shot himself. Nancy Kelly, still new to the movies in leading lady capacity, makes a fine "Zee," the woman who loves and marries Jesse, becoming his long-suffering wife, while Henry Hull hams it up with his constant catch phrase of "Shoot them down like dogs." Another bonus besides Randolph Scott in fine support is its rich full Technicolor along with its reported actual location filming in and around Missouri.

One of the most televised of the Power and/or Fonda movies, JESSE JAMES, distributed to home video and later DVD, was also broadcast on numerous cable TV networks, including American Movie Classics (1999-2003); Fox Movie Channel, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: August 25, 2012). Highly recommended viewing along with its sequel: THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES (1940) once again with Henry Fonda. (****)

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