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The ruthless slaying of their mother by Barshee, an agent of the Midland Railroad who has been sent to swindle the farmers out of their land, forces the James boys to renounce their legacy of farming and become renegades. Fighting to stop the encroachment of the railroad, Frank and Jesse organize a band of outlaws to rob the line. After a series of successful raids, Jesse's sweetheart Zerelda, known as Zee, the niece of town newspaper editor Major Rufus Cobb, pleads with Jesse to give himself up and take the reduced sentence offered by McCoy, the head of the railroad. After he and Zee are married, however, Jesse learns that McCoy is planning to double-cross him and, with the help of Frank and the gang, escapes. Continually hunted, Zee grows tired of running and hiding, and after she must face the birth of her son alone, she begs Rufus to take her home to Liberty, Missouri. Accompanied by their friend, Marshal Will Wright, Rufus and Zee head back to Missouri, and when Jesse learns of his wife's departure, he chooses not to follow, realizing that she will be happier without him. Five years pass and while Jesse leads the life of a renegade, his son grows to boyhood, unaware of his father's reputation. One day George Runyan, the Midland detective, rides into Liberty and announces complete amnesty and a $25,000 reward in return for the death of Jesse James. Meanwhile, Jesse is planning a risky raid on the bank at Northfield, Minnesota. Learning of the reward, gangmember Bob Ford notifies Runyan of the raid, and when Jesse and Frank enter the bank, they find the law awaiting them. The brothers escape, but Jesse is badly wounded and taken by a friendly farmer to his cabin in the woods. He arrives to find Zee and his son, and the reunited family plans to begin life anew in California. Before he can set out on his new life, however, Jesse is shot in the back by Bob Ford.
J. Edward Bromberg
Claire Du Brey
Ed Le Saint
Lon Chaney Jr.
A. C. Bumpus
A. J. "duke" Callahan
G. L. Cooper
Edwin H. Curtis
W. H. Greene
L. Paul Haines
R. M. Harmon
Jo Francis James
W. Harry Jones
Arthur Von Kirbach
V. L. Mcfadden
William F. Mittlestedt
R. C. Moore
Hugh C. Peck
C. E. Richardson
W. R. Snyder
Darryl F. Zanuck
Jesse James (1939)
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
Jesse James (1939)
Jesse James - Tyrone Power & Henry Fonda in JESSE JAMES on DVD
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
Jesse James - Tyrone Power & Henry Fonda in JESSE JAMES on DVD
He was one of the doggonedest, gawl-dingedest, dad-blamedest buckaroos that ever rode across these here United States of America!- Major Rufus Cobb
A scene in which a horse falls to its death from a cliff, and the subsequent public outcry, led to the American Humane Association (AHA) overseeing filmmaking through its new Film and TV Unit. Eventually they introduced the now-familiar AHA certification, "No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture."
Irving Cummings filled in as director from 14 October 1938 to 24 October 1938, when 'King, Henry' was bed-ridden from a swelling in his ear.
The film shows both Jesse and Frank going off the cliff on horseback. In reality the stunt was performed once and shot with two cameras.
According to a pre-production news item in Hollywood Reporter, Arleen Whalen was to play the female lead in this film. A October 14, 1938 news item in Hollywood Reporter notes that director Henry King was confined to bed because of a swelling of his inner ear. Irving Cummings replaced King until he returned to the set on 24 Oct. According to materials contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection at the UCLA Theater Arts Library, Darryl Zanuck suggested that the desire for revenge for the railroad's murder of his mother should motivate "Jesse" to become a renegade. The real Jesse James was not the handsome romantic figure portrayed by Tyrone Power, but a cold, ruthless killer. Jesse was born in Missouri in 1847, and at age fifteen, joined a group of vicious, pro-Confederate guerrillas led by William C. Quantrill. After the Civil War, Jesse, his brother Frank and several other men formed an outlaw gang and began robbing banks, stagecoaches and trains. As depicted in the film, in 1876, the gang was almost wiped out during a bank holdup in Northfield, MN. Jesse and Frank escaped and formed a new gang. On April 3, 1882, Jesse was shot and killed by fellow gang member Bob Ford for a reward. Six months after Jesse's death, Frank surrended and was tried and acquitted twice.
An article in Life notes that the film was shot on location at Pineville, MO, and cost $1,600,000 to produce. Materials contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Library add that during the execution of a stunt, a horse, ridden by stuntman Cliff Lyons, drowned after jumping off a cliff into Lake of the Ozarks at Bagnall Dam, MO. The crew attested that the horse did not suffer any injuries in the fall, but became excited when he hit the water and drowned before the crew could get a rope around his neck. Because of the incident, the regulation of motion picture production by the American Humane Association became part of the MPPDA code. Modern sources note that Jo Francis James, who is credited with assemblage of historical data, was Jesse's granddaughter. In 1940, Fox released The Return of Frank James, a sequel to this film (see below) in which Henry Fonda reprised his role as Frank James. Among other films based on the life of Jesse James was the Paramount 1950 film The Great Missouri Raid, directed by Gordon Douglas and starring Wendell Corey and Macdonald Carey; the 1972 Universal film The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall and the 1980 film The Long Riders directed by Walter Hill and starring Stacy and James Keach as the James brothers.
Released in United States 1939
Released in United States March 1976
Released in USA on video.
Released in United States 1939
Released in United States March 1976 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The 48-Hour Cowboy Movie Marathon) March 18-31, 1976.)