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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A scene in which a horse falls to its death from a cliff, and the subsequent public outcry, led to the American Humane Association (AHA) overseeing filmmaking through its new Film and TV Unit. Eventually they introduced the now-familiar AHA certification, "No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture." See more »
Frank comes to rescue Jesse from the jail at midnight. When they get outside, it's broad daylight. See more »
With Ty Power and Hank Fonda in the saddle, there was no way this version of the James Brothers legend was going to paint them as bad guys.
Less so since the courtly southerner Nunnally Johnson wrote and produced the yarn. In reality the James boys took to knocking off banks and trains after being at a loose end following Missouri's joining the losing side in the War Between the States. This was too painful a scab to pick in the Thirties, so Johnson gives the Jameses a more palatable enemy than Abe Lincoln: big bad railroad barons upsetting their ma. And he paints his outlaws with a populist tint, to please New Deal Democrats as well as Dixiecrats who knew the real backstory.
However, the broad outlines of their rise and fall are intact. We see a gradual slide into semi-chivalrous villainy (they didn't rob train passengers, only mails), a 'Liberty Valance'-like exploitation of their coups by political orators and editors, Jesse's becoming consumed by his own legend, and the final botched bank job at Northfield, Minnesota. That leads to a panicky flight and an attempt to live semi-respectably under pseudonyms, followed by Bob Ford's betrayal as Jesse turns art curator.
The film is pleasingly quiet between action set pieces, free of the obtrusive music that was often the curse of Hollywood soundtracks and laced with good lines from Johnson's florid pen. And above all, surrounded by good character actors, we have two rising Zanuck stars tussling enjoyably for mastery, both in the plot and career-wise.
Henry King had become Power's preferred handler ('In Old Chicago' the previous year had been a wow) and both men evidently relish the challenge of tweaking his 'nice bank teller' image a little. Swarthy and bearded betimes, barking out orders to older subordinates, Power does fine. Fonda's grand remonstrance, when he tells Junior that he's turning into a suicidal psycho, is ably played and paced. The soft early tripack Technicolor looks sweet both outdoors-- Ford was getting similar results in 'Drums Along the Mohawk'-- and in candle-lit interiors.
Also noteworthy is Jesse's respectful, confiding relationship with his black ex-slave Pinky (Ernest Whitman) when he decides not to pursue Frank. Black maids could sass their mistresses in crazy comedies, but this quality of understanding between men of different colours was unusual in early-talkie Hollywood.
'Jesse James' was released in Hollywood's peak year, 1939. It's understandable that it was overlooked. But when we've done finger-wagging at the cruelty to horses which led the American Humane Association to demand supervisory privileges over stampedes-- and the cruelty to female Central Casting members which allowed Power to father a child on one-- we can still appreciate a good, workmanlike travesty of outlaw history. As a distortion of the James-Younger saga it has not been surpassed.
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