Jesse James (Henry King, 1939)

by Douglas Buck April 4, 2020 6 minutes (1315 words) HD Streaming

Bank-robbing bandit Jesse James has certainly had his share of impressive filmmakers tackling (and mythologizing) his exploits; that includes indie maverick legends Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller in the 40’s (with their entries coming out two years apart from each other), man-loving filmmaker Walter Hill in 1980, and a modern director I have a fondness for, Andrew Dominick, in the aughts (with Brad Pitt himself essaying the part in a beautiful and elegiac film) – and then there’s this early James gang take, in which a heavyweight of early Hollywood, Henry King, directed just the kind of first-rate, larger-than-life entertainment that tinsel town — and its controlling studio heads (they might have been megalomaniacs and terrible human beings, but they certainly understood moviemaking!), in this case Daryl Zanuck — seemed able to churn out with a confident ease (proving that, as much as I hate to admit it, as socialist as I lean, I guess having everyone, from directors to actors, under lock and key contracts at the beck and call of the studio, certainly had its advantages).

While I’m sure these cinematic tales told of James are mostly all pretty tall (and yet they almost all seem to conclude, like this one, with a finally content Jesse balancing on that chair, straightening that crooked ‘Happy Home’ picture, as that dastardly Bob Ford points a shaky gun at his once leader’s back, ready to shoot him dead for the reward), it dawned on me while watching that it’s gotta be that old ingrained Americana sense of outlaw justice that keeps bringing Jesse around again and again; an anti-hero who may not be quite a Robin Hood per se, but with his gun-toting, free-wheelin’, law-breaking ways, robbing banks with the help of brother Frank and his whole James gang, outwitting the law that the manipulative corporate bigwigs control, at least allows a wild sense of vicarious thrills for all those working men who have historically been fucked over for the country’s entire history. Hey, if crazy sociopaths Bonnie and Clyde can be heroes for the new Left, the slighter tamer Jesse James is a populist cinch.

Deciding it was time to return for another entry in my slowly evolving (but never deserted!) all-out retrospective (from Germany to Hollywood, feel free to go back through my Offscreen reviews, they’re all there, in chronological order mind you) of the cinematic works of that infamously dictatorial, megalomaniacal – and thoroughly brilliant — Austrian-German filmmaker Fritz Lang, I noticed not only that next up was his fourth Hollywood effort, The Return of Frank James from 1940, but that it was a sequel to, you guessed it, Henry King’s film from the year before — a smash hit (hence the sequel), with a narrative around Frank’s much more famous brother Jesse. So, naturally, I had to start here… and, man, am I glad I did.

I’ll save my thoughts on the Lang sequel in my next write-up (other than to say, like many a sequel, it’s good, but nowhere near as good as this one), as King’s Hollywood-style (and in color, no less, at a time when very few films were) fairly big budgeted take on the ‘mostly’ myth allows for a healthy dollop of not only wholly engaging Hollywood storytelling, but some intelligent thematic underpinnings as well. It jumps impressively in, right from the start, with an admirably critical look at the social ills and economical hierarchical roots of America, showing us the rogue outlaw brothers as (literally) created not from some inherent failings within, but from the immoral and repressive actions from without — of big business, of railroad tycoons (the very ones usually celebrated in history as pioneering heroes of the ‘iron horse’, grazing over their deplorable treatment of their Chinese work force, as well as their ruthless treatment of anyone who stood in their way), who controlled the law and intimidated everyone in the path of their construction to give up their homes for nothing.

The James brothers’ mom (veteran actress of a many a cinematic hero’s momma, Jane Darwell) resists the threats to sell her home, leading ultimately to her tragic death, and a changed world for the two boys; they seek vengeance against the head instigator, and enforcer, played by veteran character actor (and eventual controversial choice as Hammer’s American Quatermass – though count me as one who actually liked him in the part!) Brian Donlevy, and nothing can be the same after that – it’s obvious not much has changed in America as far as economic distribution and the power of the wealthy elite (it’s gotten drastically worse, in fact), but at least there were filmmakers already back then willing to take it on (with audiences having responded with big box office at the time, naturally… the insidious corporate media hadn’t yet quite figured out to divide the public into endless identity politics in-fighting to keep their eyes off the prize yet).

Once on the run, the storytelling, from the melodramatic — yet thankfully not past the point of overkill — romance (which actually seems to have James’ love Zelda – played by Nancy Kelly – suffering some believable post-partum depression at one point), to the genuine poignancy and tragedy created around Jesse (unfolding as it all does from injustice), and on to its excitingly staged train- and bank-robbing scenes, is fast paced, yet manages, with its thematic underpinnings, to create something resonant, with gravitas; a sense of legend.

Bob Ford is played by one of the most legendary, odd-faced character actors of all time — a familiar, lean and tall figure in some of the greatest early Hollywood films, including his turn as the hobo ex-preacher in John Ford’s staggeringly majestic Grapes of Wrath from the following year (another one with Henry Fonda in it, delivering a performance that almost reaches holy status), before taking his final position as that shlock-horror presence where most of us horror vets first fell in love with him – that being, the irreplaceable, immortal John Carradine.

The scene of Carradine’s Ford’s first betrayal of Jesse and the gang during a bank heist has to be one of the most impressive action set pieces of that era; from the wildly chaotic shoot-out in the ol’ West town, to the James brothers’ escape on horse through shop windows, then literally over a huge cliff and into the drink shockingly far below – horses over with them — it’s as breathtaking as it gets (even if, alas, conflicting reports argue one of the horses was killed performing the stunt, along with another one or two during those infamous trip-wire effects used to trip up the horses used throughout that have been made illegal long ago because of the harm – and death – caused the poor horses).

Tyrone Power, as Jesse, is an actor with leading man looks, yet an admirably ego-less aura and the always regal and dignified Henry Fonda as brother Frank gives another mark on the many great films he marked Hollywood with. Veteran Western star (and supposedly long-term Cary Grant lover) Randolph Scott brings his easy-going presence to the part of the only honest lawman around, willing to help Jesse when he can, openly contemptuous at the corrupt and immoral politicians and powerbrokers willing to lie and cheat an any cost to bring Jesse in.

Lots of knowledgeable film folk have dubbed 1939 as the year Hollywood gave us its greatest cinematic output, and I dare say Jesse James fits in just fine. Maybe not on the level of chutzpah, grandiosity and popularity as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, but at least right there with the important Westerns of that year, such as Stagecoach (which is really, really good) and Destry Rides Again (which is simply brilliant).

I say Henry King’s Jesse James is a lavish, exciting and bonafide classic.

Jesse James (Henry King, 1939)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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