Thursday, September 19, 2013

Jesse James (1939)



Director: Henry King

The legend of America’s most notorious outlaws in the Wild West comes to life on the silver screen in the story of Jesse James, a Technicolor feature by Henry King starring Tyrone Power in the title role. The American frontier after the Civil War was full of lawlessness and men that would become legends. Here Fox portrays the outlaw in a manner of an American Robin Hood of sorts, producing a colorful western that takes great liberties with the tales of infamous bandit, capitalizing on the open imaginations of audiences and their romance of the Wild West.

Jesse James is western loosely based on the life of Jesse James who, along with his brother Frank, became a pair of the greatest outlaws in the West. When the crooked, strong-handed ways of the ever expanding American railroads took their land and killed their mother, brothers Frank (Henry Fonda) and Jesse James (Tyrone Power) stand up to the bullies of the rail system, leading the two to become outlaws. A kind hearted man, Jesse is willing to take a plea bargain of limited jail time in order to wipe his slate clean and live happily with his new wife Zee (Nancy Kelly). Discovering this bargain was only a trick to arrest and eventually hang him now that he was behind bars, Frank busts his brother out of jail and the two continue to live as outlaws. Zee leaves Jesse as he continues his life of crime, taking their newborn son with her under the protection of her good friend and light love interest Marshall Will Wright (Randolph Scott). Years later a wounded Jesse returns to his wife promising to make a new start without his criminal ways, and turning down one last robbery with his old ends with Jesses being shot in the back by a fellow member of the gang, Bob Ford (John Carradine), in betrayal. This leaves Jesse’s name to grow as legend in the western towns for which he helped in a time when others tried to take advantage of them.

The feature is beautifully shot in wonderful Technicolor by director Henry King, a veteran filmmaker of many period pictures, including films with Tyrone Power such as In Old Chicago and Alexander’s Ragtime Band. It was done so by shooting on location in areas of the country nearly untouched since the time when Jesse James actually roamed the West, towns and territories within Missouri and Oklahoma.

The story of the picture would have been one that audiences enjoyed in later years of the Great Depression as the movie dealt with the government and large, powerful companies taking advantage of weak working hard for a living and a hero standing up for them. The plot does parallel a Robin Hood- like tale as Jesse, along with Frank, become of outlaw heroes that take from the Railroads, who bully the people of towns, in hope that it will destroy the railroad owners and protect the people. The overall plot of the movie was almost completely fabricated for the sake of making this feature, capitalizing on the legendary name of Jesse James, turning this real life outlaw into a hero. Perhaps the only moment of the film that is true to real story of James is being shot in the back by a member of his gang, Robert Ford. The picture creates this episode in James’ life as a moment of redemption as he promises his wife of turning over a new leaf for the sake of her and their family, when in actuality James was never gave up being a bandit to his death, and Ford shot James for the reward post for shooting James. At this time in Hollywood censors did not allow criminals to be looked at as heroes for the sake of morality, and perhaps this is why Jesse James is made into more of a redemptive character, especially at the very end before he is killed.

Star Tyrone Power had worked a great deal with director Henry King in the past lending it to be rather easy task for the two to work together again in yet another picture. Power was a major star in Hollywood and an easy choice for the studio to headline a film that can be seen as a prestige picture, as seen in the still new and lavish three strip Technicolor process. Used in many romantic roles, Power spans that gap between the adventurous character that was James to the romantic man he is portrayed here with his wife Zee, played by 18 year old Nancy Kelly. At first one might not see Power as bit of a soft male lead, but he does a fine job making you believe he can be a man that becomes an outlaw.

Henry Fonda, who plays Jesse’s brother Frank, on the other hand easily makes you believe that he turns from small town farmer into ruthless outlaw because of the bullying of the railroad and death of his mother. Fonda’s presence on the screen in limited, especially compared to Power’s, but he is very powerful in the role, leaving you wanting a bit more of Frank James’ story, but we must remember this is a movie about Jesse.

The tall, strapping figure that is Randolph Scott appears as Will Wright a Marshall who has his run ins with Jesse James, and also manifests a liking to Zee when he is introduced. This veteran of small B-movie westerns who had been making headway in larger films of late fits right back in the role as a western lawman. The character of Will Wright starts off very strong as a nemeses of James, but eventually comes to side with the bandit for the injustice seen surrounding him.

The supporting cast would be full of notable actors, each may have been smaller performers, but major players in the history of cinema. In the coward’s role of Bob Ford, the man that kills Jesse James, is John Carradine. This character actor would be seen throughout Hollywood for many years, and here he plays a character struggling with temptation, which you are draw to in the later stages of the movie as a complex man that ultimately leads to the sad conclusion. Henry Hull plays the memorable character of Maj. Cobb, an elderly, opinionated newspaper editor who serves at times as comic relief with his many editorials about things that bother him at those moments. Hull could be best known at this point for his title role in Werewolf of London, the very first feature length werewolf film before the later, and more remembered, Universal classic. Then there is the work of actor Ernest Whitman, the African American actor who played the role of Pinky. Whitman was a well respected black actor of stage and screen, and here he plays a character of a black man shortly after the Civil War, but there is no mention of slavery in the film. Pinky is a helpful, and well spoken black character. Overall his role is not very important, but you cannot help notice the actor while on screen as he plays the part as a well-spoken black man, not as a bumbling idiot as blacks are seen many instances in other films.

The picture is well conceived and produced, with good acting and a plot you can hold on to, despite it being completely fraudulent when it comes to history. With the strict competition of major motion pictures during the year of 1939 with films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, Jesse James would not be nominated for any Academy Awards. The picture would not even be the best western of the year with the release of John Ford’s Stagecoach shortly after the release of this picture. This was when westerns were not in vogue for major A-pictures with the large studios in Hollywood. With all that Jesse James is left in the dust in wake of other films of the time.

Jesse James’ lasting impact on the movies however would be for negative reasons. In a climactic scene in the later part of the feature there is a moment were Jesse and Frank jump their horses for a high cliff into a river to escape lawmen. No special effects or fabricated dummies were used, as the shot consists of a real horse (shot from two cameras in one stunt) with a real man making the jump, both flailing in the air as they hit the water. It is said that in order to get the shot the horses were blindfolded to force him to jump off the cliff, a moment that could be fact or fiction. The result are climactic shots, but resulted in the death of the horse. Animal activists of the time would be appalled, and with the aid of citing this picture and this scene was used in part of evidence for the American Humane Association who would stand up to abuse against animals in the movies. This led to the association monitoring future films for their treatment of animals resulting in contemporary films containing mentions of “no animals were harmed in the making of this picture,” a mainstay of films containing animal performances.

Jesse James is a beautifully shot picture that can be enjoyed as long as you are not a historian or animal activist. Westerns would begin to make a comeback in Hollywood, showing that by putting money into such features would result in high quality productions that audiences would turn out to see. The big hit would be Stagecoach shortly after, but Jesse James is a worthy note in the history of the genre as it would usher resurgence as a major player in motion picture production in coming years.

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