Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Sam Hellman
Jesse James, from 1939, was a bit of western “comfort food”, as my friend Chuck may say. It was the first film of the marathon to utilize color cinematography, and brings together all the traditional elements of a western to make a fun, good time to spend a few hours. Henry Fonda is spectacular as Jesse’s brother Frank, and ultimately steals the show from Tyrone Power who plays Jesse. Spoiler Alert (not really because it’s history), Jesse dies at the end, which opens the door for a film like The Return of Frank James to exist, which is such a joy. There will be a few sequels in this marathon, some more direct than others, but to witness a true sequel in 1940 was really a joy to behold, especially given the original film was quite good on its own.
After Bob (John Carradine) and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen) have gunned down famed outlaw Jesse James, Jesse’s brother Frank (Henry Fonda), who has been laying low on his farm with longtime friend Pinky and the son of one of his fallen gangmates, Clem (Jackie Cooper), takes it upon himself to seek out the Ford brothers and avenge his brother’s murder. Frank tracks the Ford’s to Denver, where he meets a young reporter named Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney). Frank confronts the Ford’s, but Bob escapes. Wishing to finish what he started, Frank is forced to return to Missouri, where he stands accused of robbery, before his friend Pinky is wrongfully hanged as his accomplice. Torn between killing a guilty man, or saving an innocent one from hanging, Frank relies on his longtime friend Major Cobb (Henry Hull) to help him out of his jam.
Ultimately, I think The Return of Frank James is a little better film than Jesse James was. Perhaps this is because of the direction of a legend like Fritz Lang, or my theory, perhaps having Henry Fonda completely lead the show allows the star to shine even brighter than when he had to somewhat share that spotlight with Tyrone Power. Henry Fonda has his own rather nonchalance demeanor which differs somewhat slightly from James Stewart or Gary Cooper. Each is rather easy going in their western performances, and it brings a level of comfort and dependability to their on screen persona. The whole cast here is great though, with John Carradine menacingly perfect as Bob Ford, a role he reprises. Gene Tierney, in her on screen debut, is also quite good as the green, though well-intentioned reporter from Denver. Even Jackie Cooper as Clem shows great promise, even if he overplays the eager young buck at times.
The continuity between Jesse James and The Return of Frank James is especially impressive. I was expecting some cast members to be different, some feel to be different, but really this film is everything you would expect from a sequel by today’s standards. It feels very much like a continuation of the previous story, while also being sufficiently self-contained. It is as exciting and fun an adventure as any other, right up until the point that it turns into a courtroom drama. It really loses steam in that sequence. While I understand its necessity within the framework of the story, it still brings to the film to somewhat of a screeching halt just in time to be exciting again near the very end. This unevenness degrades the film ever so slightly, but the fun that comes before it is well enough to make it a recommended western, and slightly above the original.
I know that when Henry Fonda was cast as the bad guy in Once Upon a Time in the West, it came as a casting shock, as he was often known for his hero, good guy roles. Playing against character can often result in an actor’s best work, but that sudden change was lost on me having not seen much of Fonda’s previous work when I first saw the film. Here is gets to play a little bit of both, a good guy and a bad guy. He is clearly the protagonist, and we are meant to root for his success, but at the same time he is the outlaw here. Fonda balances the performance quite well, and I look forward to seeing more of him in this landscape. He really is the star of this film, and a major reason for its successes.