The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Return of Frank James

Late last June, I reviewed 1939's Jesse James, a generally inaccurate, sometimes dull western detailing the life of the infamous outlaw. It played fast and loose with the facts, turning James into a hero more than he probably really was. A bright spot though was Henry Fonda in a small, underused part as Jesse's brother, Frank. Just a year later, Fonda returned with his own movie, 1940's The Return of Frank James.

After the botched Northfield, Minnesota raid, outlaw Frank James (Fonda) leaves the remnant of his brother's gang behind, setting up an alias as a poor farmer. With some help from a youngster, Clem (Jackie Cooper), and a freed slave, Pinky (Ernest Whitman), Frank has managed to hide his identity, leaving his outlaw past behind him. One day though on the farm, he hears that his brother, Jesse, has been murdered, and that his killers, Bob (John Carradine) and Charlie (Charles Tannen) Ford (former members of the James gang), have been found guilty but released from any sentence. Balancing out his desire to leave his violent past behind while still looking to avenge his brother's murder, Frank straps his gunbelt back on and hits the trail in search of the Ford brothers.

There just wasn't much going for the 1939 western that set this sequel up. Tyrone Powers was acceptable as Jesse, but the movie itself lacked any sort of excitement or punch. The sequel is slightly more entertaining for one simple reason, and that's Henry Fonda. He played Frank in the 1939 western, but it is such a small, almost insignificant part that it was a wasted effort. If for nothing else, this sequel is worthwhile to see Fonda -- always the pro -- get an expanded, meatier part. He would later go on to star in westerns like Fort Apache, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine, but this was his first major role in a western. In a movie slightly better than its predecessor, Fonda is the best thing here by far.

In his mid 30s when he made 'Return,' Fonda reflects a lot of what a western hero (in this case anti-hero) should be. Yes, Frank James was an outlaw who's made to look like an immaculate saint here, but he has an ease on-screen that few actors do. He does it so well it doesn't even look like he's trying too hard, but it's there. Like the gentlemanly, serious Wyatt Earp in 'Clementine,' there is a quiet confidence about Fonda's Frank James. He seeks revenge, but he isn't obsessed by it. He has some morals, some ethics, and it is those things that help make it a more interesting character. I especially liked his relationship with young Clem (Cooper does a fine job), almost a big brother-little brother dynamic as they head out on the trail for those murdering Ford boys. It is a 1940 western so it's not real dark, but we at least get to see some of the turmoil brewing in Frank during his hunt.

Beyond Mr. Fonda, there is little star power here. Gene Tierney makes her screen debut as Eleanor Stone, a young woman trying to make it as a newspaper reporter who meets Frank under some odd circumstances....and gets a story in the process (sort of). Henry Hull returns from the original as bombastic, loud, and obnoxious newspaper man Major Rufus Cobb, defender of the downtrodden....and outlaws. Other than that? Not much. Some unintentionally hilarious bad guys, some angelic good guys, and that's it. Carradine is wasted as Jesse James' murderer, Bob Ford, appearing a couple times but mostly spending his screentime on the run.

Clocking in at just 92 minutes, 'Return' isn't around long enough to overstay its welcome. It's inoffensive and doesn't really add anything new to the western genre, but for the first 60 minutes, I was liking it a lot. The look of the movie in odd tinted color is oddly appropriate, and the scale is pretty impressive considering its quickish run-time. It's good, old-fashioned western storytelling at its best. Then, in the final 32 minutes, the story bogs down in Frank's trial as he tries to clear his name. Odd bits of humor, far too much talking, and a complete halt to the story in this disappointing finale for director Fritz Lang's film. The showdown between Frank and Carradine's Bob is a decent last fight, but like the rest of the movie, it's missing that special something. Historical accuracy aside, it's not a bad western, but it's not anything more than good either.

The Return of Frank James (1940): ** 1/2 /****

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