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John M. Stahl
Frank James, the brother of Jesse James, has been laying low, living as a farmer and taking care of Clem, the son of one of the members of the James gang. He gets word that Jesse was killed by Bob and Charlie Ford, he hoped that the law would deal with them but when he learns that the railroad man whom he and Jesse terrorized contracted them to kill Jesse and helped them get off, he goes after them. Clem whom he told to remain on the farm goes with him and when it's impossible for him to do so, Frank has no choice to let him tag along. Now in order to cover their tracks they start telling people that Frank James is dead and that they saw it. Eleanor Stone, a female reporter, who wants to write about it interviews them and they are both taken with each other. But eventually she learns who Frank is from the Pinkerton detective who is tracking them but doesn't turn them in. But eventually Frank learns that his farm hand, Pinky has been arrested as his accomplice and is about to be hung. ... Written by
The studio bought the rights to the James Brothers but changed the facts for entertainment. Although Frank surrendered 6 months after Jesse James' murder, both Ford brothers were already dead and Frank had nothing to do with their deaths. See more »
The sequel to the previous year's "Jesse James" (1939), "The Return of Frank James" is a perfectly entertaining, fast-moving Western that is historically important for two reasons: It was director Fritz Lang's first picture to be shot in color, and it served as the setting for the debut of one of Hollywood's most beloved actresses, Gene Tierney. In her 1979 autobiography "Self-Portrait," Gene tells us that Fox Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck had seen her performing on Broadway in 1940 in "The Male Animal," and immediately offered her a contract. After a previous stalled career in Hollywood, however, Gene--and her family--managed to finagle an unusually liberal deal from the studio chief: $750 a week, with a raise every six months, and the freedom to return to Broadway for half the year (an option that Gene never took advantage of), AND the right to make no changes to her hair or (soon-to-be-famous) teeth. In her first film for Fox, 20-year-old Gene played the role of Eleanor Stone, a liberated woman and nascent reporter on the Denver Star newspaper of 1882. She is duped by Frank James (Henry Fonda) and his sidekick Clem (Jackie Cooper, who had grown up a LOT since playing the role of kids a mere 10 years before, in films such as 1931's "The Champ") into writing a false story of the outlaw's demise, so that he might more easily track down the Ford brothers (John Carradine and Charles Tanner), who had just shot Jesse in the back and gotten away with it. Gene is excellent in her ingenue role, fresh faced and dewy eyed, and hardly deserving of Harvard Lampoon's "The Worst Female Discovery of 1940" citation.
As for the rest of the film, it is nicely shot and filled with amusing characters and situations. Besides Fonda and Carradine, Donald Meek returns in this sequel (a bit tougher than usual, as the conniving railroad man McCoy), as does Henry Hull (almost stealing the show as Frank's buddy Major Rufus Cobb). The film contains surprisingly little action per se, although a horse chase through the Rockies and resultant gunfight, coming at the picture's midpoint, are very well executed. Fonda, who had worked with Lang before, in 1937's "You Only Live Once," is very fine here as Frank James: sympathetic, cool and tough; a reformed badman with a conscience, and perhaps only 1/100th as nasty as he would be 30 years or so later, playing another Frank, in Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West." Tierney, apparently, absolutely adored working with Fonda, especially after he defended her against the director. As Tierney reveals in her book, she had the unfortunate habit of keeping her mouth slightly parted when she wasn't speaking (an adorable habit, sez me!), and Lang chastised her severely for it, yelling "You little bitch! When you have no lines, keep your mouth shut!" Little could Lang know that that mouth and those teeth would soon make Gene one of THE preeminent screen goddesses of the 1940s! Anyway, although "The Return of Frank James" has been faulted elsewhere for its many historical inaccuracies, it remains a fun enough diversion. Capped off by one of the most amusing trial scenes since The Three Stooges' "Disorder in the Court," the film is perfect for all ages, and most especially, of course, for fans of Miss Gene Tierney....
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