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It is a popular and often profitable Hollywood tradition to title movies after legendary outlaws. At the same time, the Production Code enforced from the early days of talkies until the 1960s would not allow a glorification of criminal behavior; neither was it expected that unsympathetic characters could carry a picture. One way to get around this was to center a story on famous outlaws but revise the history to put them in a more favorable - and morally acceptable - light. Writers and producers were aided in this by the mythologizing of American outlaws that very often began even when they were still alive and on the loose. As a result, romantic portrayals of the likes of Jesse and Frank James, Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde and others abounded in literature and film. Such is the case with The Younger Brothers (1949), in which the notorious siblings, recently paroled from prison, are seen as hard-luck but essentially decent men determined to stay on the right side of the law. But their efforts are frustrated by an embittered, vengeful Pinkerton agent and a wicked female gang leader who seduces them into a bank robbery plot.
Cases have been made for Cole, Jim, John, and Bob Younger, four of 13 children from a poor family, as victims of persecution who turned to crime for both revenge and survival; as pro-Confederate Missourians, they did find themselves with few rights under an oppressive and divisive state constitution adopted after the Civil War. Whatever their reasons, it is fairly certain that the real-life Youngers were quite ruthless once they adopted the outlaw life. They were responsible for many murders, not only of law enforcement officers, bank and railroad employees, but of a number of innocent bystanders. The older boys were once part of Quantrill's Raiders, a Confederate guerilla troop whose most infamous act was the looting and burning of Lawrence, Kansas, resulting in the slaughter of 200 people.
All four Youngers later joined up with the James Gang and were finally captured in an 1876 attempt to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Although the James Gang circled back to Missouri, Cole, Jim and Bob were badly wounded and sent to prison (John had been killed two years earlier). Bob died there in 1889. Cole and Jim were paroled in 1901, and Jim committed suicide a year later. Cole, however, converted to Christianity and repented of his past, formed a Wild West show with Frank James, wrote an autobiography (in which he claimed to have been a fighter of injustice and admitted to only one crime, the Northfield robbery), and died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 72.
In The Younger Brothers, the siblings are all alive and well and played by Wayne Morris (Cole), Bruce Bennett (Jim), Robert Hutton (John) and James Brown (Bob). Morris has often been called the last of the B Western stars, and he certainly made a string of them between the early 40s and his death at 45 in 1959. He also made guest appearances on a number of Western TV series. One of his earliest forays into the genre was Bad Men of Missouri (1941), in which he played Bob Younger to Dennis Morgan's Cole and Arthur Kennedy's Jim. An Olympic silver medalist and early movie Tarzan, Bruce Bennett plays Jim Younger in this film, and played Cole a short time later in The Great Missouri Raid (1951).
The Youngers have been featured in countless films, from the earliest days of the silents (when Cole was still alive) up to recent times (with Scott Caan playing young Cole in American Outlaws, 2001). Two of the most acclaimed depictions of the gang have been Philip Kaufman's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), with Cliff Robertson as Cole and Robert Duvall as Jesse James, and Walter Hill's The Long Riders (1980) with David, Keith, and Robert Carradine as the Youngers. The latter version is also considered to be the most historically accurate.
Wayne Morris may well have been the last of the B Western stars, but Warner Brothers gave The Younger Brothers the luxury of being shot in Technicolor by three-time Oscar®-nominated cinematographer William E. Snyder.
Director: Edward L. Marin
Producer: Saul Elkins
Screenplay: Edna Anhalt, based on a story by Morton Grant
Cinematography: William Snyder
Editing: Frederick Richards
Art Direction: Charles H. Clarke
Original Music: William Lava
Cast: Wayne Morris (Cole Younger), Bruce Bennett (Jim Younger), Janis Paige (Kate Shepherd), Geraldine Brooks (Mary Hathaway), Robert Hutton (Johnny Younger), Alan Hale (Sheriff Knudson).
by Rob Nixon