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Twentieth Century Fox's top hit of 1939 was Jesse James, the first true western to be shot in three-color Technicolor. The star was Tyrone Power, who Variety said in its review had been the subject of much speculation around town over whether he could convincingly relate the darker, violent areas of the James character. The review concluded he could, and so did audiences. To this day the film remains a spectacular entertainment, full of energy, color, and fine action sequences.
Tyrone Power had just reached the peak of his popularity and box-office clout -- a place he'd remain for a few years to come. In fact, while this film was in production, he was voted the #1 male box-office draw in Hollywood by exhibitors. His new status was reflected on screen in subtle ways, as film historian Jeanine Basinger later noted: "Power for the first time was not paired with one of Fox's great beauties or box office queens. His romantic leading lady was a lesser light, Nancy Kelly.... In the romantic scenes, there's no question about who matters. When Nancy Kelly puts her head on Power's shoulder or goes to embrace him, it is his face that is seen in profile, not hers, and it is his face that takes the key light. With very few exceptions, in any scene in which he appears, the camera favors Tyrone Power."
Studio chief Darryl Zanuck was at first against doing Jesse James, believing it would only have box office appeal in the south. But director Henry King talked him into it, and Zanuck poured $2 million into the budget, a sizable sum that included expenses for shooting on location in southwestern Missouri.
When King learned that the courthouse in Liberty, Missouri -- the real home of the James brothers -- had been torn down, he flew over the Ozarks looking for a village where an old courthouse was still standing. He found a perfect one in Pineville. To make Pineville look like the proper period, King had false fronts built over the town's modern stores, covered its concrete streets with dirt, and hired dozens of its citizens as extras. The director later recalled, "The red brick courthouse in the middle of the town square, with a beautiful green lawn around it, was the most beautiful old red brick I've ever seen in my life. It had been there since the Civil War, this county courthouse, and it was just exactly what we wanted."
King and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson did much historical research, but drama took precedence over fact, so much so that this screen version of the famous outlaw was criticized right off the bat for being more fiction than reality. As Johnny D. Boggs has written, the film "helped propagate the myth that Jesse James was fighting evil railroads" when in truth he "started robbing banks in 1866 and didn't start robbing trains until 1873." Boggs lists more inaccuracies, such as: James' mother, Mrs. Samuel in real life, is called Mrs. Samuels in the film. Their stepfather is not seen, even though he was alive and well. Their sister, two stepsisters and two stepbrothers are also missing. The Northfield raid wasn't an ambush. The brothers never rode through plate-glass windows. Jesse was not on the verge of retiring from crime when he was killed by Robert Ford.
Do these things really matter? The movie never claims to be anything more than a vehicle for its young star using the general framework of the James story. Prominent film critics certainly didn't mind. Variety praised the "consummate showmanship... pictorial magnificence... skillful and seasoned direction, superlative performances by Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Nancy Kelly..." The New York Times called it "the best screen entertainment of the year" (though the paper noted it was only Jan.13!) and "an authentic American panorama, enriched by dialogue, characterization, and incidents imported directly from the Missouri hills."
For all his magnetism in his western films, Henry Fonda later revealed that he had a lifelong discomfort with horses and never enjoyed being on one. "I never felt secure," he later wrote. "I may have looked okay, but I wasn't any good." Fonda also described a dangerous moment he had one day on the Jesse James set: "They had a group of us who had just escaped from jail... The director wanted us to have guns in our hand, shoot in the air, rear the horses, and start off. He made us do it over and over. My arm got tired from putting the gun back in the holster, then raising it and shooting it in the air. This one time, I lowered my hand without uncocking the gun, the horse wiggled his rear end, and my gun went off. I'd shot myself! No bullet, but a full charge. I sure as hell had powder burns. They tore my trousers and burned my leg so badly I had to be taken to the emergency room." Fonda recovered, and turned in such an electric impression as Jesse's brother Frank that Fox immediately placed him in a sequel, The Return of Frank James (1940), which is even better than the original.
The character of Rufus Cobb (played unforgettably and comically by Henry Hull) appears to have been loosely based on newspaper editor John Newman Edwards, who author Johnny Boggs wrote "did help create an everlasting image of the James and Younger brothers, whom he constantly defended with his editorial rhetoric."
A horse died on the set of Jesse James when it was ridden off a cliff into a river -- a stunt that remains in the film. (Even though the movie shows two horses and riders falling off the cliff, one after the other, the "second" is actually just a closer camera angle of the first.) The death of the horse led to such outrage and protests by the American Humane Association that the organization opened a Hollywood office and in 1940 began officially monitoring the treatment of animals in films. For years it was aligned with the Hays Office, which established a code of animal welfare standards for the industry. When the Hays Office disbanded in 1966, the American Humane Association's Film & TV Unit lost its official right to access sets. Cruelty to animals returned in force, and it wasn't until 1980, when incidents on the production of Heaven's Gate brought renewed attention to this issue, that the Association again was granted official on-set jurisdiction to monitor the treatment of animals. To this day the Film & TV Unit keeps an eye on some 2000 filmed productions a year.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited)
Director: Henry King; Irving Cummings (uncredited)
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson (original screenplay); Gene Fowler, Curtis Kenyon (contributing writer, uncredited); Hal Long (story contributor, uncredited)
Cinematography: George Barnes, W.H. Greene
Art Direction: William Darling, George Dudley
Film Editing: Barbara McLean
Cast: Tyrone Power (Jesse James), Henry Fonda (Frank James), Nancy Kelly (Zerelda 'Zee' Cobb), Randolph Scott (Will Wright), Henry Hull (Major Rufus Cobb), Slim Summerville (Jailer), J. Edward Bromberg (Mr. Runyan), Brian Donlevy (Barshee), John Carradine (Bob Ford), Donald Meek (McCoy).
by Jeremy Arnold
Frank Thompson, editor, Henry King Director: From Silents to 'Scope, based on interviews with David Shepard and Ted Perry
Johnny D. Boggs, Jesse James and the Movies
Fred Lawrence Guiles, Tyrone Power: The Last Idol
Howard Teichmann, Fonda: My Life
Jeanine Basinger, The Star Machine