Jesse James (1939)

Directed by Henry King
Written by Nunnally Johnson

When I began researching titles for this marathon, and getting exciting for what was to come, what I had in mind were movies like Jesse James. What I mean by that is outlaws. When I think of Westerns, for whatever reason and right or wrong, I think of gunslinger outlaws like the James Gang. As I’ve explored titles thus far, I have discovered a greater purview within the genre with films about a variety of topics that revolve around the West, it’s settlement and advancement. But with that in mind, coming back to a film like Jesse James is both fun and now refreshing. There have been other films along these lines, but when a film comes along and sports the star power of Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power and Randolph Scott, Jesse James becomes one of the titles that certainly pops off the screen.

The film takes a rather celebratory take on the Jesse James (Tyrone Power), as the film opens with railroad barons forcing his mother to sell her land on the cheap, or be forced off of it by the government, allegedly. Jesse, along with brother Frank (Henry Fonda), take matters into the own hands and begin robbing the railroad for revenge. Soon, the James Gang devolves into the lifestyle of bandits and outlaws, leaving Jesse’s girl, Zee (Nancy Kelly) to take to lawman Will Wright (Randolph Scott) when she believes she has lost Jesse to the life of an outlaw forever. Now fighting for his former life and his current freedom, Jesse goes to great lengths to do the right thing, but keeps being pulled back into his outlaw ways, even as the bounty on his head, dead or alive, continues to grow and grow.

Before he was Abraham Lincoln in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Henry Fonda was Frank James in Jesse James, the first time the legend has appeared in this Westerns marathon, and what a welcome addition to the marathon Fonda is. Jesse James, in fact, may be the best cast in the marathon thus far, with John Carradine also making an appearance. It would be in competition with Law and Order with Walter Huston and his posse. Fonda leads the proceedings, but Tyrone Power is the lead player here as Jesse. It feels a little weird to have the bigger star, and better performance, be the sidekick brother rather than star of the show, but Power is good here as well. In fact, the whole cast is good all around.

In addition to being the first Henry Fonda film in the marathon, this is also the first color film. Black and white will still dominate the upcoming films, but seeing the landscape of the West in color makes a big difference and I can’t wait to explore some of the other stellar color Westerns. I believe it enhances the stunning locations and thrilling sequences often found within the genre. The color here is rather drab, though it is the beginning of the technology in 1939 so shouldn’t be blamed too much, but I do feel it enhanced the experience. Jesse James‘ greatest strength is not its cinematography, however, but rather its ability to create good characters with stakes and solid action and thrilling scenarios. There are some good bits and scenes here, in particular when Frank breaks Jesse out of jail.

While Fonda is the star power, and will return in The Return of Frank James where he will reprise his role, Jesse James stands on its own as one of the better, more solidly entertaining films thus far in the marathon. It doesn’t have the epic scale or sense of importance as something like The Iron Horse or The Covered Wagon, but it feels much more like a fun, pulpy Western that the genre is most well known for, which makes it both endearing and a very enjoyable experience. It’s not the greatest, it’s not the type of film which I’ll remember necessarily at the end of the marathon, but for fans of Fonda or the Western genre, it is well worth your while. This doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, but I promise it is, but you could do much worse.

*** – Good

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