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Jesse James

Jesse James(1939)

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Home Video Reviews

Jesse James (1939) is a heavily romanticized and exciting western which unfortunately has been issued on a sub-par DVD. Fox Home Entertainment usually does a first-class job of releasing its jewels in top condition, but this, like the recent The Gang's All Here, is a disappointment in the looks department. There's no getting around the fact that the stunning Technicolor photography as presented here is uneven at best (some portions do look pretty good) and murky at worst. There is noticeable warping at the top of the frame during some reels, and off-and-on discoloration, print damage and speckling throughout.

Nonetheless, the DVD is watchable and the movie still casts a spell thanks to a finely paced script and wonderful cast. Things get off to a zippy start as Brian Donlevy, working on behalf of the railroad company, rides from farm to farm with his henchmen, forcing farmers to sign away their land for a dollar or two an acre. When he gets to the James home, however, he finds some unwilling customers. Jesse and Frank James' mother, played by the intrepid Jane Darwell, refuses to sign the document and won't hear anymore about it. Jesse and Frank (Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda) rough Donlevy up, and he later burns down the James' house, killing Darwell. Jesse comes after Donlevy for revenge, and the next thing we know, he's on the lam and holding up trains - and becoming a hero to the community of farmers who were bamboozled by the train company.

Jesse's girl Zerelda, nicknamed "Zee," meanwhile, gets caught up in a love triangle between her never-present boyfriend and the town marshall (Randolph Scott), though the film doesn't spend too much time with this conflict. Scott, while convincing as ever in a western role, doesn't have much to do in this picture, and Nancy Kelly as Zee is perhaps the cast's weakest link. She brings little to her part and, more crucially, there just isn't much heat between her and Power. Years later, Kelly would receive an Oscar nomination for The Bad Seed (1957), but here her acting is unremarkable. Elsewhere in the supporting cast are Henry Hull, wonderful as Rufus Cobb the newspaper editor, John Carradine as the famous James assassin Robert Ford, and Donald Meek as the railroad president, suitably slimy and, well, meek.

There's a reel or two in Jesse James which shows Jesse turning unlikably "bad," becoming more of a mean outlaw than a crusading Robin Hood-type, and undoubtedly he was more like this in reality. But director Henry King, working from a screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, doesn't care too much about historical accuracy in telling this story; even though Jesse graduates from robbing the railroad company to robbing banks, the film loves him and so do we. There's a lot to be said for just enjoying real movie stars in a satisfying story told with action and nice humor throughout. King's crisp staging of the climactic shootout in Northfield, Minn., is also worth a special mention.

At this time, Tyrone Power was a megastar, a true matinee idol who had the world in his palm, and The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Blood and Sand (1941) were still over a year away. Jesse James is a good showcase for him, and under Power's handsome looks there is a fine performance to behold. Even so, it is Henry Fonda who leaves perhaps an even bigger impression. He doesn't have many scenes, but he plays them superbly well, which is probably a big reason Fox brought him back for a sequel, The Return of Frank James (1940).

As good as it is, Jesse James has also earned an unfortunate spot in film history. For a spectacular stunt late in the picture, a horse was ridden off a 70-foot cliff into a river below. The horse died, which caused such an outcry that it led directly to the formation of the American Humane Association's Film and Television Unit. Since 1940, the unit has monitored the treatment of animals in motion pictures, and since 1989 the phrase "No animals were harmed during the making of this picture" (a registered trademark) has been applied to deserving films. The horse stunt in Jesse James remains both spectacular and upsetting to watch, but at least some good came of it. (And for the record, even though the movie seems to show two horses and riders falling off the cliff, one after the other, the "second" is actually just a closer camera angle of the same stunt.)

Jesse James has been the basis for countless movies over the years, and Fox has also just released two more of them on DVD: the aforementioned sequel The Return of Frank James, in which Henry Fonda reprises his role as he hunts down Bob Ford (played again by John Carradine), and director Nicholas Ray's interesting remake The True Story of Jesse James (1957). That film even features John Carradine once again, playing a reverend (!), and Nunnally Johnson's 1939 screenplay is cited in the credits as the source material. Both of these titles look outstanding on DVD, with Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James a particular joy to behold; there's just nothing like early '40s Technicolor. Return looks so good, in fact, it just underscores the fact that Jesse James doesn't, and it makes one wish that Fox had ordered a proper restoration.

A new (though much-delayed) Jesse James movie is set to open in 2007: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt, Sam Shepard and Casey Affleck as Jesse, Frank and Bob Ford respectively. Here's hoping that someone soon releases onto DVD I Shot Jesse James (1949), Sam Fuller's first picture as director and a darn good one at that, with John Ireland as the infamous Bob Ford.

This DVD doesn't offer much in the extras department - just trailers for this and three other Fox westerns as well as two short newsreel clips, one of which shows Tyrone Power and Jeanette MacDonald accepting awards for being ranked as the #1 Male and Female Stars of 1939.

For more information about Jesse James, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Jesse James, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold