Jesse James, a Confederate guerrilla turned bank robber. He gets the whitewashed hero treatment in 1939's Jesse James.
Helping run the family farm with his mother (Jane Darwell), young Jesse James (Tyrone Power) works with his brother, Frank (Henry Fonda), to create a pleasant life for the family. Their country life is shattered as the railroad moves west, railroad agents ramrodding families off their land. An accident causes the death of the James' boys mother, forcing Jesse and Frank to seek revenge. With rewards posted for their arrest or death, Jesse and Frank are forced into a life of crime, robbing trains and banks as they're on the run. Jesse wants more revenge though, his name growing ever more well known.
Depending on the source, Jesse James is looked at as a heroic rebel, an intelligent bandit, a disturbed thief, and any number of options that fall somewhere in between. From director Henry King, this 1939 western goes an odd route. It makes Jesse a pretty straight hero, not even an anti-hero. We're not talking Butch and Sundance treatment -- it's too blase for that -- but it's approaching that territory. The history is condensed, tweaked and twisted from the start. Yes, it is based in the truth (or at least part of it), but then starts going off route quickly. Powers' Jesse isn't infallible, he's no immaculate hero. Still, it doesn't ring true. Railroad? Uber bad. Bandit? Bad....but he's fighting for his deceased mother.
A star of the 1930s and 1940s, Powers was quite the actor over a career that was cut short by his death in 1957 at the age of 44. I've never seen many of his movies, but he was always a likable enough actor. I came away less than impressed with this effort as the infamous, iconic western bandit, Jesse James. Only part of the blame can be chalked up to him. Even as Jesse's fame rises, we're still seeing him as pretty squeaky clean. Some characters flaws couldn't have hurt. Good or bad though, it just isn't that interesting of a part, and that's saying something. It's Jesse James! How could that not be interesting? It doesn't help the cause that much of the already condensed story is spent on Jesse's developing/loving relationship with Zee (Nancy Kelly), a young woman he's known since they were kids. Yeah! Love story about an outlaw!
Unfortunately for the rest of the cast, what's worth mentioning is that the cast is misused and underused. In a criminally underused part, Fonda is a huge bright spot as Jesse's older brother, Frank. This lanky, laconic, confident young man is a scene-stealer, especially his intro. Still a rising star, Randolph Scott is wasted too as Marshal Will Wright, a peace officer divided between his respect for Jesse and his call to duty. Thankfully, a love triangle isn't a focus of the story among Will, Jesse and Zee. Henry Hull hams it up like a crazy man as drunken newspaperman Rufus Cobb, Zee's uncle. Brian Donlevy has a great part as a sneering, vicious railroad agent who meets Jesse's wrath while John Carradine has a smallish part as Bob Ford, a possibly treacherous member of the James gang. Some interesting characters, just could have used more of them on-screen.
The movie is good and bad -- ridiculous history aside. It's a fondly remembered movie from one of the all-time great years in Hollywood history, 1939, so it does something right. There's some impressive scale, some great tracking shots full of hundreds of extras, one especially of Jesse (a stunt double at least) running across the top of a speeding train. It's a beautiful movie, and some scenes truly stand out, like the botched Northfield robbery and a subsequent chase. At just 106 minutes though, some 16 years of history is condensed into a rushed story. Maybe a rewatch would help, but for now, my first impression was pretty lukewarm. Some parts definitely work, but not on the whole.
Jesse James <---Youtube clip (1939): **/****