powered by AFI
The Return of Frank James, a 1940 release directed by Fritz Lang, was Gene Tierney's first Hollywood feature. That might make anyone anxious, but according to her 1955 memoir, Self-Portrait, the prospect of working with her longtime idol Henry Fonda made her more nervous than she would have been otherwise. Like him, Tierney came from the stage - producer Darryl F. Zanuck had discovered her in a Broadway production of The Male Animal in 1940 - and knowing that her costar was called One-Take Fonda because he came to the set so thoroughly prepared, she resolved to become One-Take Tierney as soon as shooting began.
She fell short of that goal, but Fonda appreciated how hard she was trying, and that put her at ease. Playing it safe, however, she spent all her evenings in a studio projection room, studying movie after movie in search of screen-acting tips. Her campaign paid off. She gives a smart and spirited performance in a somewhat underwritten role, making a solid impression in her own right while gracefully supporting Fonda's more full-bodied acting as the title character.
This was Fonda's second appearance as Jesse James's big brother. The first was in Zanuck's hit Jesse James a year earlier, where Tyrone Power's eponymous outlaw died as the real Jesse did, shot in the back in his own living room by his treacherous friend Robert Ford. The Return of Frank James does all it can to capitalize on the earlier film's success. In addition to Fonda, returning cast members include Henry Hull as Major Rufus Cobb, a newspaper editor; Donald Meek as McCoy, a railroad tycoon; J. Edward Bromberg as Runyan, who wants to collect the reward for tracking Frank down; Charles Tannen as Bob Ford's brother; and John Carradine as Bob Ford, the bounty hunter who shot Jesse down. All are first-rate character actors having fun with parts that seem tailor-made for them.
The Return of Frank James starts with a quick replay of Jesse's death. Then it shifts to the Missouri countryside, where Frank has been living under an alias ever since he and Jesse split up. Their last job was a Minnesota robbery in which several of their partners were killed or caught, and after that Frank understandably hung up his guns for good. He's now a peaceful farmer, tilling the land with help from Clem (Jackie Cooper), the adolescent son of a former gang member, and Pinky (Ernest Whitman), an African-American cook, jokester, and assistant.
When he learns that Jesse has been killed by the Ford brothers, Frank calmly tells Clem that he's content to let the law catch and punish the evildoers. But when word arrives that the Fords won't hang - they've been given a full pardon, and a reward to boot - he straps on his six-shooter and rides off to take revenge, trailed by Clem, who refuses to stay home. Frank robs a railroad office to finance his mission, but everything goes wrong and a watchman is inadvertently killed. The head of the railroad puts a price on Frank's head, so Frank and Clem spread a cover story that Frank himself is dead - and the story gets printed by Tierney's character, Eleanor Stone, a pretty reporter whose father owns a local newspaper. The climax is a suspenseful courtroom scene that highlights the antagonism between North and South that persisted twenty years after the Civil War, when this story takes place.
There's plenty of drama in The Return of Frank James, but not a lot of real-world history. It's true that Frank went straight and lived peaceably in Missouri after the bungled Minnesota job. But he turned himself in a few months after Jesse died, undergoing two trials and being acquitted each time. Both of the Ford brothers were deceased by then, and Frank had nothing to do with their deaths. As originally planned, the movie had a romantic angle involving Frank and Eleanor, but the studio scratched this because of worries that Frank James's real-life survivors might file a lawsuit. Having a railroad mercenary named Runyon dog Frank's trail throughout most of the story was Zanuck's idea, designed to inject the extra intensity that, in his view, lifts outstanding westerns like Jesse James and John Ford's then-recent Stagecoach (1939) above the rest of the herd.
Lang was an unlikely choice of director for this picture. For one thing, Fonda had hated working with him on You Only Live Once in 1937. For another, Lang was a German migr, and Hollywood wasn't sure he could handle a genre as all-American as the western (little did they know that spaghetti westerns were only a couple of decades away). Lang was confident in his abilities, and in a 1959 interview with Cahiers du cinma he explained why he felt so in tune with westerns: "They are based on a very simple and essential ethical code....Even with Shakespeare the moral is simple. The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world."
The Return of Frank James, which was Lang's first western as well as his first film in color, confirms that he was entirely up to the task. It excels on the level of action and also on the level of morality, especially when Frank makes a hard sacrifice to save Pinky from a false murder charge, thus underscoring the fundamental goodness beneath his outlaw ways. Another superb scene shows Frank's agony as he watches the Ford brothers reenact Jesse's death on a theater stage for paying customers, a particularly bitter episode in the James brothers' saga. Still and all, Lang drove Fonda crazy a second time, by reshooting chase scenes and fussing for hours over artificial cobwebs in a barn. His efforts pay off extremely well, however, and he went on to direct Western Union in 1941 and Rancho Notorious, with his compatriot Marlene Dietrich, in 1952.
New York Herald Tribune reviewer Robert W. Dana wrote that Lang's "methodical direction" makes the picture move more slowly than the average outdoor drama, but added that the "emphasis on small things like gestures and shadows and sounds of nature reveal the Western in a new and interesting light." The influential New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther, had decidedly mixed feelings, calling the picture a "handsome and spacious affair" and praising Fonda for his "accustomed honesty and understatement" while complaining that "in drama [the film] is lacking" and finding Tierney's acting "mannered and colorless." Regardless of such criticism, the picture successfully launched Tierney's screen career, and in her memoir she seems more amused than upset about another critique she received. "For my performance in The Return of Frank James," she recalled, "I was honored by the Harvard Lampoon as The Worst Female Discovery of 1940....I did not feel undeserving of the award...."
Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Sam Hellman
Cinematographer: George Barnes
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Art Direction: Richard Day, Wiard B. Ihnen
Music: David Buttolph
With: Henry Fonda (Frank James), Gene Tierney (Eleanor Stone), Jackie Cooper (Clem), Henry Hull (Major Rufus Cobb), John Carradine (Bob Ford), J. Edward Bromberg (George Runyan), Donald Meek (McCoy), Eddie Collins (Station Agent), George Barbier (Judge), Russell Hicks (Prosecutor), Ernest Whitman (Pinky), Charles Tannen (Charlie Ford), Lloyd Corrigan (Randolph Stone), Victor Kilian (Preacher), Edward McWade (Colonel Jackson), George Chandler (Roy), Irving Bacon (Bystander), Frank Shannon (Sheriff), Barbara Pepper (Nellie Blane), Louis Mason (Watchman), Stymie Beard (Mose), William Pawley (Actor), Frank Sully (Actor), Davidson Clark (Officer)
by David Sterritt