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Having reviewed a substantial portion of Greta Garbo's filmography, I'm off on my next detour through Hollywood history -- reviewing Jesse James movies! Since there have been many films depicting Jesse James (and his brother Frank), I thought it would be interesting to see how these movies compare in terms of their treatment of this infamous outlaw/folk hero.

For background on the real Jesse James, read this:


The first film in my cue is Jesse James, the 1939 Technicolor Twentieth Century Fox production starring Tyrone Power as Jesse, Henry Fonda as Frank, Nancy Kelly (as Zee, Jesse's love interest), Randolph Scott (as the local marshall), John Carradine (as that "dirty little coward" Bob Ford) and Jane Darwell (as Jesse and Frank's mother.)

As a work of history, Fox's Jesse James is complete twaddle. The movie reinvents history so badly that it often lapses into fan fiction. That major issue aside, however, the film is a reasonably enjoyable western/psychological profile/message picture. The film moves along at a decent clip and there are many exciting chases, shoot-outs, train robberies, etc. Adding to the general Wild West atmosphere are the locations. Fox filmed a portion of the movie in Missouri and the local scenery becomes a character in its own right.

The biggest problem I had with the script as filmed is in its depiction of Jesse or, more accurately, what it doesn't depict of Jesse. The Jesse in this movie turns to crime as a way of striking back against the railroad management which has cheated local farmers out of their farms. Much time is spent among the supporting characters discussing how Jesse, if he doesn't stop, will inevitably drift into lawlessness for its own sake. Unfortunately, except for one scene, we never actually see this occur in the film. The supporting players intone ominously about how Jesse has changed but the audience never gets a glimpse of this. From beginning to end, the movie shows Jesse as basically well-meaning and good-hearted (with occasional lapses into villainy.)

Tyrone Power is, as you would expect, eye-searingly handsome as Jesse. (He hadn't even turned 25 at the time the picture was released but he seems older.) His performance is more nuanced than I would have expected given his age and relative inexperience. He does good work in the scene where Jesse comes unglued in front of the rest of the gang and he uses his body beautifully in a scene toward the end of the movie where we see what Jesse's crime spree has done to him.

Henry Fonda's performance as Frank is much admired but it left me cold. I've always found Fonda to be a calculating actor and the same is true here. He comes across as mannered and forced. Jane Darwell's performance as Jesse and Frank's mother is almost a warm-up for her performance the next year (again with Fonda) in The Grapes of Wrath. (Interestingly, Jesse James, while nominally a western, would probably work better on a double-bill with a message picture like The Grapes of Wrath than it would with, say, a John Wayne film.)

In the other supporting roles, Nancy Kelly does what she can with the thankless role of Zee while Randolph Scott is outstanding as the local marshall who tries to find a sane solution to this entire mess. John Carradine is appropriately treacherous as Bob Ford.

Jesse James was Fox's biggest box office hit of 1939 and was one of the top five box office hits of that year.

The transfer to DVD is OK but I found the color to be splotchy at times. There is no commentary track.

Grade as James bio: D

Grade as Hollywood entertainment: B+

Tyrone Power grade: B

Randolph Scott grade: A

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The only movie that I know of that treats the border state bushwhackers with appropriate attention to historical detail is the very good (fictional) Ride with the Devil. (I've never been able to sit through the Brad Pitt picture on James with the long name.) This movie has little to do with the historical James, true, but it's an entertaining movie in its own right, unlike the dullish follow up, Return of Frank James, even if Fritz Lang was directing, and as you note there are a lot of nifty action scenes. But docking it points for historical accuracy is a little like getting annoyed with the weather - there was no way the historical James was going to get on film in the Hollywood of this era. Have fun.

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Waiting patiently to hear more....

You'll rue those words once you've read this next entry! wink1.gif

For those of you who are mystified by such genre mash-ups as 2011's Cowboys & Aliens:


or the forthcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter:


remember that such genre mash-ups are not new phenomena. A perfect example of such is the next entry in my survey of Jesse James films: Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966). As the lurid title conveys, the titular topic of this thread meets Frankenstein's "daughter" (she's actually his granddaughter in the movie) in the Old West. All manner of hijinks ensues in one of the weirdest combinations of distinct genres I have ever seen.

Since this movie was clearly designed to be a low-budget "B"-movie (I'm being charitable with designation) played at drive-ins during the 1960s, I would be engaging in post-modern rationalization of the worst sort to review this as if it were anything but exploitation. It would be as bad as when New York Times reviewers go to the latest Friday the 13th movie and bring the auteur theory to bear to it. Suffice it to say, this movie is schlock of the first order. BUT, if you can picture Frankenstein's granddaughter moving next door to the Barkleys on The Big Valley, it would be like this -- crazy and entertaining in equal measure.

Headlining the no-name cast is none other than Jim "Jock Ewing" Davis as the marshall pursuing Jesse James. Clearly, he was putting food on the table by taking this role and biding his time for a big comeback, which would come in spectacular fashion in 1978 when he took the part of the Ewing family patriarch on Dallas. The only other noteworthy performer in the movie is Narda Onyx (!), who plays Dr. Maria Frankenstein. From the get-go, she plays her scenes in a state of semi-hysteria which is where much of the fun in this picture comes from.

Interestingly, the depiction of Jesse James in this movie isn't so far removed from that in the Tyrone Power version. Jesse is an outlaw in both versions but he is also shown as an honorable guy in both.

Grade as a James bio: D-

Grade as Hollywood entertainment: D

Grade as 1960s-style camp: B

Jim Davis grade: B (for hanging in there until he hit the A-list at the end of his life.)

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Next up in my survey of Jesse James movie is The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, a 1972 oddity from Universal:


In the post-spaghetti Western/post-counterculture/post-Easy Rider era, this exceedingly odd blend of lowbrow humor, violence and too-modern-by-half performances must have seemed like a good idea. In actuality, though, the movie arrives DOA. The dueling campfest performances by Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger and Robert Duvall as Jesse James are -- by far -- the biggest problem. They appear to be having a contest as to who can give the broadest, most unbelievable performance possible. It's like a duel between old-school studio system ham and new-school Method ham. If you've seen Robertson's parodic performance as Shame in TV's Batman series, then you've seen his performance in this movie. Duvall, so good in the same year's The Godfather, is just terrible here.

Compounding the mess are tone-deaf performances by character actor stalwarts like R.G. Armstrong and Dana Elcar, weird discursions (a baseball game?) and the lowest of lowbrow humor. The only saving grace is when the concluding bank robbery of the title goes awry, and resulting shoot-out causes the movie to become somewhat serious in tone. The post-shootout scenes spoil even this respite as what should be affecting -- the townspeople carrying out vigilante justice on anyone they encounter -- is instead played for laughs. If you can imagine Night Of the Living Dead as a comedy, then you have some idea of what these scenes are like.

The shame of it is all is that there's actually a decent idea buried beneath the dreck. The Cole Younger character realizes that the country is changing and that technology will make the James-Younger gang obsolete. In contrast, Jesse James continues to believe that he can carry on as before and that the gang is still "at war" with "the Yankees".

The picture quality is decent but the actual movie looks more like a made-for-TV movie than a feature film. There is no commentary track.

Grade as a James bio: F+

Grade as Hollywood entertainment: D-

Cliff Robertson grade: D-

Robert Duvall grade: F

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