Program Notes: Jesse James (1939)

You don’t watch the Tyrone Power/Henry Fonda version of Jesse James for an accurate history lesson.

If you want something approaching realism in a depiction of the infamous James Gang, try 2007’s excellent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with Brad Pitt as the psychotic outlaw and Casey Affleck as the repellent little creep who shot him in the back.

Back in 1939, though, audiences were all about a romantic Jesse James, and this Henry King-directed Western delivered.

It’s highly selective in the story it tells. For example, it makes no mention of the James brothers’ background as ruthless Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War. Rather, Jesse (Power) and Frank (Fonda) are presented as simple farm folk (albeit good with guns) who turn to violence when a brutish agent for the railroad attempts to seize their land – and kills their mother with a bomb.

Film Screening:
Jesse James (1939)
Saturday, Mar. 15 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

When the James boys begin robbing trains, it’s not so much for the money as for revenge.

“Don’t forget to sue the railroad for everything you gave to us,” they say as they collect the passengers’ valuables, “because they’re responsible.”

Not having seen the film since childhood, I was surprised to learn that – quite against my expectations – it doesn’t present a “Robin Hood” version of the James legend in which the boys rob the rich in order to give to the poor (although it fails to address what the James Gang members did do with all their ill-gotten cash).

I was equally surprised to see that late in the proceedings the movie presents Jesse as increasingly paranoid and megalomaniacal after a decade of lawlessness.

But here’s the thing – even as it shows all this, it glosses over the dark side. It’s still a Hollywood movie trying to make us fall in love with Jesse James. And it does a pretty good job of it.

Part of it may be that in this film the James brothers devote most of their energies to punishing the railroad, and after a decade of Depression American audiences were looking for someone to blame – and big business seemed like a handy target.

Certainly Tyrone Power’s matinee idol presence played a role. Introduced to feature films just a few years earlier, Power was an audience favorite.

But, truth be told, his performance here seems barely skin deep.

And that’s my main beef with Jesse James. With the exception of Fonda (who wears Frank’s character like a comfortable shirt), everybody in this movie seems superficial.

That’s especially true of bland Nancy Kelly, who portrays Jesse’s long-suffering wife Zee, and scenery-gnashing Henry Hull as her uncle, a bombastic newspaper editor.

On the plus side, Jesse James was filmed largely in southern Missouri (the outdoor footage, anyway), so that it depicts a landscape more decidedly Midwestern than the mesas and buttes that usually provided the background to Western dramas. And the Technicolor photography is a plus, too.

That the movie has all the psychological depth of a Roadrunner cartoon doesn’t seem to have hurt business at all. In fact, audiences liked the simplistic approach.

Jesse James was the fourth largest-grossing film of the year, right behind Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Westerns”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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