Jesse James in the Pictures

I’m with Burt Mustin in that Brady Bunch episode; why the movies ever romanticized a bloody scoundrel like Jesse James (1847-1882) is beyond me.

Well, no, it’s not beyond me, I understand why and how it happened, but you’d be doing a masterful job of storytelling wizardry to get me to side with anyone but lawmen in any plot involving him. Dime novels, newspapers, and folk singers had celebrated his exploits as early as the days when he was still alive, painting him as a latter day freedom fighter and Robin Hood. The initial context for his activities: James was born and raised in Confederate-leaning Missouri (a slave state that hadn’t seceded). The region was known as “Little Dixie” for it had been settled by people from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. Relatives of my ancestors were among those settlers, and my dad (who was from Tennessee) relished this lore, for he had close cultural connections to it, and grew up watching the kind of B movies we describe below.

At any rate, as a teenager James had joined his older brother Frank in the war effort by joining bands of bushwhackers, informal volunteer guerilla units led by the likes of William C. Quantrille, Fletch Taylor and Bloody Bill Anderson. These groups would go on raiding expeditions in their own state and neighboring Kansas, where intense fighting over the issue of slavery had actually preceded the Civil War by a half dozen years. The targets of their attacks ranged from legitimate military ones to harmless civilians. Their “Cause” allowed them (in their own minds) to rationalize whatever they did, leading to what would be objectively considered atrocities. After the South surrendered, the Jameses were among those who didn’t stop fighting, initially justifying the activity as a continuation of the war, but the reality was that by now they had violence in their blood, and they enjoyed robbing banks, trains, and stagecoaches, and didn’t mind killing people over the course of doing business. At the age of 34, having been a criminal for over half of his life, Jesse James was shot to death by one of his own gang, Robert Ford, for the bounty.

Not really an inspiring tale when expressed as starkly as I just did, but a potentially exciting one from a storytelling point of view, it must be admitted. And as a genre of film, the doings of such outlaws had been a cinema staple every since Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery in 1903. When Hollywood told the story of the James gang, they naturally presented the hero as a dashing, romantic figure, good hearted and misunderstood, and in the end, fatally trusting. The characters feature in scores of movies ranging from the almost entirely fictional (most of them) to something approaching accuracy (very few of them). Our little survey below omits ones that are fictionalized to the extent of changing the names of the characters, for there are doubtless hundreds more of those.

Incredible, but true, the saga of Jesse James in the movies begins with the man’s son Jesse James, Jr (1875-1951). Someone should do a movie about THIS guy, because almost every detail of his life is just as fascinating as his father’s. He was not only the son of the outlaw, but his mother Zerelda Mimms was Jesse’s first cousin. Jesse, Jr. seven years old at the time of his father’s murder, was adopted and raised by the family of the Governor who had put the bounty on his own father’s head.

Despite having had the advantage of a stable family, in 1898, at the age of 23, Jesse James Jr was arrested for committing a bank robbery! Fortunately, a smart talking lawyer got him off, and Jesse Jr subsequently went straight, helped along by the publication of his 1899 book Jesse James, My Father. Not only that, he studied law, passed the bar, and became a practicing attorney! Oh, but we’re still not done. Because then he went to Hollywood and played his own father in two silent movies in 1921: Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James James as the Outlaw. He also served as a technical adviser on this movie:

Jesse James (1927)

Western star Fred Thomson was the first Hollywood actor, properly speaking, to undertake the role of the famous bandit in this Paramount picture. In the modern parlance, however, it was “too soon”. Those Jesse James Jr movies had been more like obscure curiosities. The idea of telling the tale as a cheeky Hollywood entertainment read as bad taste when many of James’s victims and their families were still alive, and this movie didn’t do so well. But as time went on those folks died off, and as the real James and his deeds receded farther and farther into the past, it became easier for the studios to do whatever they wanted with the story.

Jesse James (1939)

John Ford fans know that Fox was a great studio for westerns, and Henry King’s Jesse James is one I’d place alongside Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) as one of Hollywood’s great mythologizing classics. Penned by the great Nunnally Johnson, it’s so chock full of stars, and so memorably told, that to this day, I’m tempted to call it the best all-around screen entertainment based on James’s story. Some modern ones may be truer as to facts, and period details, and less buttoned-up as to dialogue, but this was, and remains, a classic. The year it was released it was third in box office returns, trailing only Gone with the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Now THERE’s a trio of films that say a lot about America! The movie was so popular it stayed in constant release for 15 years, until 1954. One major reason has got to be the cast. It’s like a convention: Tyrone Power as Jesse, Henry Fonda as Frank, Nancy Kelly as Zerelda, John Carradine as Bob Ford, plus Randolph Scott, Henry Hull, Slim Summerville, Brian Donlevy, Donald Meek, Jane Darwell, Charles Middleton, George Chandler, Ernest Whitman, and Lon Chaney Jr (in a bit role as a member of the gang). So successful was the movie with audiences that they made a sequel starring Fonda the following year The Return of Frank James. Directed by Fritz Lang, in the estimation of many it exceeds the original in quality.

B Movies (1939-69)

As we said, the Tyrone Power Jesse James was in circulation at theatres through the mid ’50s, and was so well regarded that no one even dreamt of trying to make another major motion picture on the topic. But there WERE lots and lots of B movies over the years, many of them featuring well known stars in the title role. Red Barry played him in Days of Jesse James (1939) and Jesse James’ Women (1954). Roy Rogers, usually a hero, played him in Jesse James at Bay (1941). George Reeves (a.k.a. Superman) played him in The Kansan (1943); Clayton Moore (a.k.a. The Lone Ranger) did the same in Jesse James Rides Again. Then there was Audie Murphy in Kansas Raiders (1950) and A Time for Dying (1969, his last film). In 1951 MacDonald Carey played him in The Great Missouri Raid. Lesser known actors who played him in various movies during these years included Alan Baxter, Rod Cameron, Reed Hadley, Dale Robertson, Tom Neal, and Willard Parker. Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949) is remembered as one of the better pictures about the outlaw to come out during this period.

By the late ’50s the narrative had been done to death as far as the old studio system was concerned and the only place left to go was silliness. Thus we get the Bob Hope comedy Alias Jesse James (1959) with Wendell Corey giving a memorable turn as the robber, as well as William Castle’s 3-D western Jesse James vs. the Daltons, and William Beaudine’s  Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) which came out the same year as the better remembered Billy the Kid Versus Dracula.

But the landscape would rapidly alter. One year later, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, revolutionized how such stories could be told. And then came New Hollywood westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Little Big Man (1970). Subsequent retellings of the James tale would reflect their influence. But first there was:

The True Story of Jesse James (1957)

Two years after his Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray directed the first major re-imagining of the James tale in many years, with Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter as Frank and Jesse James — much more LITERAL Rebels without a Cause. It’s fairly well acted but for a “true” story it sure does look cheesy, with its tv sets and phony costumes. A killer cast, though (ha! I said “killer”) Agnes Moorehead, Hope Lange, John Carradine, Alan Hale Jr, Frank Gorshin, and Marian Seldes! It starts near the end of James’ journey…just before the Northfield, Minnesota job. The rest is told in flashbacks. True? No just another hagiography that justifies this monster’s behavior and makes him seen noble and “misunderstood”. Marauder, vandal, murderer, who (as depicted) got that way because Northern sympathizers were cruel to him. It’s nonsense, but worth watching.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

A somewhat unsatisfying exercise though I cant put my finger on why. It’s directed by the great Philip Kaufman, who had many a masterpiece ahead of him, and was produced by Cliff Robertson, who plays fellow outlaw Cole Younger (you may have come across the phrase “James-Younger Gang”, from time to time). No less than Robert Duvall plays Jesse in this iteration. As in many of the films of those times it paints the outlaws as sort of counterculture heroes, the only people living free, honest lives. All the “establishment” people are mean and petty and/or slaves to corporate interests, to a degree that is almost ridiculous. The film has a humorous tone. One scene is staged in an outhouse. Duvall delivers an amazing Pentecostal style revelation which sends them north. There is tension within the gang. Duvall’s James is a true-believer, a zealot and an unreconstructed Confederate. He does what he does for political, idealistic reasons. Robertson’s Younger is more of a businessman. He’s well read and up on current affairs. When it looks like the gang will be offered amnesty, he’s the one who wants to break out of the robbery business. In the end, its Younger’s half of the gang that’s captured; the James Bros are headed back home to Missouri to form a new gang, including the treacherous Bob Ford.

The Long Riders (1980)

A sort of magical picture that deserves to be better known on account of its casting. It features about ten beloved stars, all in their youth, with several groupings of real-life brothers all playing brothers: the 3 Carradine brothers (David, Robert, Keith) as the Youngers; Stacy and James Keach as the James Brothers; the Quaid brothers (Dennis and Randy) as the Miller Brothers; and Christopher Guest and his brother Nicholas as the Ford Bros. (These were originally to have been played by Beau and Jeff Bridges but they had a schedule conflict. Man, that would have been great!).  The project seems to be Stacy Keach’s baby: he’s one of the producers and he co-wrote the screenplay. His brother James, the worst actor of the bunch, gets the best role as Jesse. Walter Hill directs with an ENORMOUS amount of Peckinpah influence. Several bloody slow-mo shootouts with an infinite number of bullets and people getting shot into human sieves. Very stylish and well done, however, not merely derivative. What drives the movie seems to be the tension between being in a gang of robbers, and the need for women, nesting and domesticity. David Carradine as Cole Younger has a major thing going with Pamela Reed as Belle Star. Dennis Quaid and Keith Carradine butt heads over a woman, etc etc. Also a major theme is loyalty, familial and otherwise. Brothers stick together (except the Millers, and that’s because one of them has behaved in a way that is repugnant to the gang). And groups of brothers stick together. (The Youngers don’t betray the Jameses to the Pinkertons who have been dogging them through the picture). The Fords, who want desperately to belong to the gang, are given the cold shoulder. In response, they orchestrate a Judas-like betrayal, culminating in the famous-shooting-in-the-back-as-Jesse-adjusts-a-picture scene. Ford stock company member Harry Carey Jr has a role in the pic as well.

The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (1986)

This one is better than the usual made-for-tv country-western outlaw pictures. The art direction is pretty good and the locations are really convincing. The settings are some of the best I’ve seen for this story. The script is less impressive and ambles around without much forward momentum. It depicts the period when Frank (Johnny Cash) is trying to settle down and raise his family. Jesse (Kris Kristofferson) pretends to do the same but it’s really just a cover. As with many Hollywood Frank Jameses, the script accentuates his supposed bookishness and fondness for erudition, a quality one doesn’t believe from Cash for even an instant. He sings the old “Ballad of Jesse James” for the theme song, which is nice, but the film has probably too many segments where Frank sings. The singularly weird June Carter Cash plays the James boys’ mama. Willie Nelson has a bit part as General Shelby who testifies at the trial of Frank James. This version has Jesse naively going to the slaughter, perhaps not taking the Ford boys seriously. In the end, the movie is pretty ho-hum though, as I say, occasionally nice to look at.

Frank and Jesse (1994)

Rob Lowe is not as bad as Jesse James as you might expect. His performance is not entirely off base. He just happens to be a pretty boy, unfortunately, though the scruffy beard helps a little. Bill Paxton is Frank, and Randy Travis is Cole Younger. Surprisingly, though he is primarily a country singer, his performance seems better than the other two guys’, who are ostensibly full time “actors”. This one pretty much follows the usual template. It’s four years after the war, and carpetbaggers, and predatory bankers who are in the pocket of the railroad are taking the houses and farms of honest, hard-working people. They burn the James farm, shoot their father, and kill their brother who is only a child. The Jameses kill the culprits of the last crime and thus become outlaws. From there it is a short jump to becoming Robin Hoods, stealing from banks and rich people on trains. They are pursued by Allen Pinkerton who is depicted as a lackey of the corporate interests. In the end, he springs Charlie Ford from jail and offers him and his brother Bob $10,000 to kill Jesse, which is not quite how it happened, nor is much of the rest of it, but what else is new? It looks like Jesse is about to foil the villains in the act—but when he learns that they will let Frank go free, he, Christ-like, offers himself sacrificially to the slaughter, letting them shoot him in the back.

American Outlaws (2001)

I found this movie unbearable. Smarmy, cutesy. Colin Farrell as a vain, preening Jesse James who never gets dirty, whose hair is never messed up, and doesn’t look remotely mean. None of his gang looks like they rode with Quantrille or would be happy to slit anyone’s throats. A cast full of newbies, including Scott Caan who plays a Cole Younger who butts heads with Jesse for control of the gang. The movie cheerfully and disrespectfully rewrites history, full of stupid set pieces that never happened—it’s much more egregious than countless earlier versions that were already egregious. Kathy Bates is the boys’ mother, one of the few real performances in the film. They kill her off in an explosion—in real life I don’t think she died that way. The character is underused as a springboard to the action—if I were doing this story I’d make her central. Timothy Dalton gives another actual performance as Allan Pinkerton, who tracks them down but with a grudging admiration. Harris Yullin gives the third actual performance as the railroad baron villain. Ronny Cox earns his paycheck, little more, as the town doctor. Everyone else is acting in a soda pop commercial. The worst is the actress playing Jesse’s sweetheart Zee (Ali Larter). Every line with a quote around it. One wants to throw a bucket of water on her. The film ends with the James going to start a new life in Tennessee—a happy ending with no note of doom attached it, further miseducating the rabble. If every copy of this film were destroyed by a fire, the world would suffer the opposite of a tragic loss

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

A terrific movie. Casey Affleck is Robert Ford, a young man with no character, who so worships fame that he evolves from hero worship of Jesse (Brad Pitt) and membership in his gang…to becoming a Judas…whereupon his brief fame quickly gives way to infamy. The whole thing has the feeling of a folk ballad. There is a feeling that James is a martyr even though he is a criminal. Somehow Robert Ford, though he rid the world of a fairly monstrous individual, is worse, for having shot James in the back. People start to boo him and taunt him, and finally, as with some of the Lincoln conspirators, or with Lee Harvey Oswald, he is shot dead by yet another assassin. Pitt is really terrific as the nearly psychotic James. Sam Shepard, who is old enough to be Pitt’s father, plays his brother Frank. Sam Rockwell plays Charlie Ford. And James Carville is actually in it, as a lawman. Absolutely gorgeous photography…especially a recurring effect that resembles early photos….where the fringes of the picture are blurry.

Seems like we’re about due for a new Jesse James picture. Who’s ready for Jesse James in outer space?

For some related posts, here is a similar one on Hollywood’s treatment on Billy the Kid, and here are ones on Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and over 250 more about westerns.