Jesse James (1939)

Jesse James (1939)


Brothers Jesse (Tyron Power, The Mark of Zorro) and Frank James (Henry Fonda, Jezebel) are poor Missourian farmers who become bank robbers after greedy carpetbaggers steal their land. The brothers quickly become much admired folk heroes in the Southern part of the country.

Reaction & Thoughts:

The real-life story of the legendary outlaw has been notably Hollywoodized. It’s short on accuracy, but high on picturesque images. The three-strip Technicolor gushes over the story like glaze over a muffin.

Jesse James, written by Nunnally Johnson (My Cousin Rachel), directed by Henry King (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing) and (uncredited) Irving Cummings (The Story of Alexander Graham Bell), was a huge box office hit back in the day, but today is hard to see what all the fuss was about. For a western, it is quite slow. Aside from the admittedly exciting sequence depicting Jesse’s infamous attempt to rob the Northfield, Minnesota Bank, the film doesn’t offer much excitement. Interestingly, the film doesn’t have a music score.

The lush color cinematography (by George Barnes, Rebecca, and W. Howard Greene, The Jungle Book) is the real star anyway. It’s a gorgeous looking production. The fantastic stuntwork is also worthy of praise.

Power is good if a bit bland as Jesse. Fonda is much better as Frank. The supporting cast is impressive. Jane Darwell (The Grapes of Wrath) has a few good moments as the brothers’ illiterate mother. Henry Hull (Werewolf of London) plays a cranky old geezer and Nancy Kelly (The Bad Seed) is Power’s love interest. Look closely for Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolman). With Randolph Scott (The Tall T), Brian Donlevy (Beau Geste), John Carradine (Stagecoach), Slim Summerville (All Quiet on the Western Front), and Donald Meek (Captain Blood).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Jesse James is mostly remembered today as the film that changed the treatment of animals in Hollywood films. Horses were killed merciless, which triggered changes in the industry. Remade by Nicholas Ray in 1957 as The True Story of Jesse James. The story was also retold (more successfully) in Northfield Minnesota (Cliff Robertson as Jesse), Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (James and Stacy Keach as the James Brothers) and more recently in The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford (Brad Pitt plays Jesse). Color, 101 minutes, Not Rated.

Followed by The Return of Frank James (1940)


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