Saturday, November 10, 2007


Colorful, romanticized versions of the lives of the notorious outlaw Jesse James and his brother Frank, filmed by different directors, but both made by 20th Century Fox. The opening crawl of the first film tells us that the conquest of the American West was symbolized by the expansion of the railroads, though here the railroad barons are the bad guys. Brian Donlevy, a representative of the Midland Railroad, is traveling through Missouri, cheating salt-of-the-earth folks by strong-arming them to sell their land cheaply to the railroad. When he tries threatening crusty Jane Darwell, her sons (Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda as Jesse and Frank James) send him and his goons running, but they return later and set the James farmhouse on fire. Darwell dies in the fire, Power kills Donlevy, and the brothers and their gang of friends set off on a spree of robberies aimed solely at the Midland Railroad. Sheriff Randolph Scott brokers a plan that will allow Power to turn himself in and serve five years, but Midland boss Donald Meek rigs things to get Power threatened with hanging, so Fonda, helped by a sympathetic Scott, breaks Power out. He and his wife (Nancy Kelly) live on the run, but after she has a child, she goes back to Liberty and is taken care of by Scott (I couldn't tell if their relationship went any deeper). Power decides to pull one last job and retire with Kelly, but when an amnesty is announced for any gang member who gets rid of Power, the film ends with Robert Ford's (John Carradine) infamous shot-in-the-back which kills Power. While certainly not historically accurate in making the James Gang into frontier Robin Hoods, this is lively and filled with a strong supporting cast, most notably Henry Hull as a hell-raising editor who is constantly burnishing Jesse's legend, in between writing editorials against whomever he's pissed off with at the time (lawyers, the railroad, dentists) which always include the phrase "Shoot 'em like dogs!" Power is fine, and beautifully, darkly handsome to boot; the camera just loves him here. Kelly has little chemistry with him, and Scott doesn't have much to do (it feels like his role shrunk in the editing). Fonda is OK, though spitting tobacco doesn't come naturally to him. Nicely directed in Technicolor by Fox warhorse Henry King.

Fonda takes center stage in the sequel, which is less involving and far less exciting, despite being directed by Fritz Lang. After Jesse's death, Fonda has been living under an assumed name with a loyal farmhand (Ernest Whitman) and the teenage son of a former gang member (Jackie Cooper). When Fonda hears that Carradine and his brother were pardoned for killing Power, he decides to exact his own revenge, beginning with robbing a railroad express office, but when Cooper trails after to help, things get botched up, a man dies, and the two go on the run. Fonda tells a would-be reporter from Denver (Gene Tierney) that he saw Frank James killed in a shootout, hoping that the news will bring the Ford brothers out in the open, and indeed Fonda finds them touring in a traveling show in which they stage the death of Jesse James. There's a chase and a shootout but Carradine gets away. When Fonda finds out that Whitman is about to be hung for the express office death, he gives himself up and goes on trial. Carradine makes the mistake of showing up for the verdict; Fonda is found innocent, but before he can make a move, Cooper shoots Carradine, who shoots him back, and they both wind up dead. Hull and Meek reprise their parts from the first film, and with Fonda not quite able to carry the movie, sometimes it feels like it's Hull's character (the editor) who is at the center of the film. Tierney, like Fonda, wasn't quite ready for a starring role, though she got much better by the time of LAURA, four years later; Cooper is fine but he doesn't get a lot of screen time. Carradine, as usual, is good at being slimy. This, like JESSE JAMES, is in color, but with a lack of action scenes and no one at the center with Power's charisma, it can't live up to the original. [FMC]

1 comment:

Mrs. R said...

Excellent assessment of the films. One of Tyrone Power's daughters said she thought he was his handsomest in Jesse James. I don't know - so many choices of his films, so little time these days to drool.