Monday, January 7, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: JESSE JAMES (1939)

Even in their own lifetimes, Frank and Jesse James became the stuff of legend rather than historical fact, so it's no surprise that the 1939 film, Jesse James, is more romantic fiction than biographical account. This is the mythology of the outlaw recast for the big screen, full of handsome faces and daring deeds, and it makes for a mighty fine tale, too, thanks in part to Nunnally Johnson's screenplay and Henry King's rousing direction. The cast includes the rather irresistible duo of Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as his brother, Frank, along with a host of other favorite classic stars like Randolph Scott, John Carradine, and even Slim Summerville bringing grit and gumption to the inhabitants of the outlaws' world.

Power takes top billing as Jesse James, who turns to crime only because unscrupulous railroad men try to swindle and then bully his family out of their home and end up killing the boys' mother (Jane Darwell) in the process. Jesse's lifetime commitment to retribution begins with the man who killed his mother (Brian Donlevy), which puts him on the top of the railroad's most wanted list, but he's just getting warmed up. Along with Frank and a small gang, Jesse robs and raids the railroad at every opportunity, becoming a folk hero to the farmers who hate the big money and corrupt practices of the railroad bosses. His outlaw lifestyle proves a strain on his romance with Zee (Nancy Kelly), but even lawman Will Wright (Randolph Scott) has to admire his daring feats, especially when the real villains are spineless crooks like Mr. McCoy (Donald Meek), the railroad head determined to see Jesse hang.

Power turns in a very charismatic performance as Jesse, which makes his relationship with Zee more tender and credible than it might otherwise be, given that he misses major events like the birth of their child and drives Zee to distraction with his dangerous career. Fonda, sadly, is rather underused; Frank pops in and out of the story without much explanation, although when he does show up Fonda gives him plenty of presence and a taciturn, frontier sense of humor that makes us miss him even more when he vanishes again. Randolph Scott's huge physical presence and good-guy jaw make him a fascinating third in a love triangle with Jesse and Zee, but his lawman is too much the gentleman to do more than wait for Zee to come to her senses or for Jesse to reach the obvious end of the life he leads.

Other veteran character players contribute to the atmosphere; Brian Donlevy is truly reprehensible as the railroad bully, but Donald Meek delivers an even more despicable character as his superior, McCoy. In Westerns in a Changing America: 1955-2000, R. Philip Loy describes Meek as "badly miscast" in the role (198), but I think Meek's interpretation of the character as a duplicitous and essentially cowardly little weasel works very well, especially in contrast to Power's romantic outlaw. Jane Darwell's brief appearance as the James matriarch is worth mentioning, as well; she would have an even better turn as Henry Fonda's mother in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) the following year, and she went on to co-star with him in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and My Darling Clementine (1946). John Carradine turns up near the end as the infamous Robert Ford, while Henry Hull provides some comic relief as the blustering but kindly Major Rufus Cobb. Blink and you'll miss Lon Chaney Jr. in a very small role as a nameless member of the James gang.

The action in the picture is both exciting and disturbing, especially the infamous cliff jumping scene that ended in the death of a horse and eventually led to the American Humane Association's oversight of the treatment of animals in future films. Another scene has Frank and Jesse jump their horses through a store window and into the midst of a crowded shop; in 1957, The True Story of Jesse James reused both scenes for its own take on the James Gang story, even featuring them in its trailer.

I can't recommend watching Jesse James as an accurate piece of history, but as a Western it works very well, and fans of the genre's best character actors will find a lot to appreciate. It's interesting to note that the very first screen version of Jesse James was played by none other than Jesse James, Jr. in 1921. Other films about the James Gang include Days of Jesse James (1939) and Jesse James at Bay (1941), both starring Roy Rogers, as well as Jesse James Rides Again (1947), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), The Long Riders (1980), and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). For more of Tyrone Power, see The Mark of Zorro (1940), The Black Swan (1942), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957).