Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Tyrone Power and the Gang Ride to Glory in Jesse James

Providing a retelling of one of the Wild West’s most famous outlaws, 20th Century-Fox’s 1939’s Jesse James forgoes much of any resemblance to the real James’ history to offer a more heroic bandit better-suited to the Classic Hollywood era of the period. In Fox’s rendering, James’ life of crime stems from his seeking justifiable revenge from evil railroad men who wreak havoc on James’ homestead and family, making it clear to the large audiences who turned out for the film who is being wronged onscreen, and is most deserving of their empathy. Fox knew how to put these spruced-up historical sagas together in entertaining fashion with great production values, and reliable in-house director Henry King stays on track throughout, keeping things moving at a brisk clip, particularly during an exciting staging of the pivotal shootout that changed James and his colleagues’ fortunes considerably.

As the troubled title character, Tyrone Power does some of his best work. Frequently used as a lighter romantic lead in Fox’s major productions, in these roles I’ve often felt Power, although professional, was fairly conventional in his performance style and played up his boyish charm, sometimes even in more dramatic fare (but not, of course, in his now-revered work in one of the best Fox films ever, 1947’s Nightmare Alley). In James, Power comes on much stronger than usual and, although he has a naturally endearing screen presence and looks like a million bucks in Technicolor (and in 1939 dollars at that), Power does not play for any audience sympathy as Jesse either, even if the script protects Jesse from being too much of a villain. Some of the darkness that came to full fruition in his Alley work can be seen here; when Jesse flares up and starts getting paranoid, you believe Power and wonder exactly how far Jesse will go.  

                As Jesse’s loyal older brother Frank, Henry Fonda is onscreen a lot less than viewers might expect, but he shows a laconic mastery of his role from his first (great) introduction on a back porch to his key scene challenging Jesse when his brother starts to become overly demanding with the gang. Fonda already demonstrates his keen ability to indicate layers of depth beneath a character’s calm, stoic exterior, and is such an assured, solid presence, there’s no doubt Frank can handle any situation throw his way, and it’s interesting to watch how formidable an impact Fonda can make in a smaller role, which would come few-and-far between after this film (after the success of James, Fonda would return the next year in the aptly titled The Return of Frank James, as well as starring in Young Mr. Lincoln later in 1939, and a little drama called The Grapes of Wrath in 1940).

Despite great work from her costars, Nancy Kelly proved to be the most fascinating performer for at least one rapt viewer. Having been a movie buff for several decades, there are few actors I’ve only seen once onscreen. Although she had steady output through the late 1930’s- mid 1940’s in movies, Kelly fell into this category for me, based on her now-iconic (in camp circles, at any rate) Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated performance as Rhoda’s progressively unhinged mother Christine in the 1956 all-timer The Bad Seed. Kelly’s grand, nervy theatrics in that unforgettable piece of work (in every sense of the word) are intriguing to view in comparison to what she pulls off in James as Zee, Jesse’s faithful intended. Although only 17 during filming in 1938 (James was released early in 1939) Kelly, already a veteran performance since early childhood, is remarkably composed and focused in her scenes, suggesting a maturity far beyond her years and the dramatic prowess she would display full-throttle in Seed, yet she’s much softer in her acting style in James, and vocally and physically looks very different (I wouldn’t have placed Kelly without knowing beforehand she was in the film, and I wasn’t sure in her first scene if she was the Nancy Kelly). However, although her work is more subdued and less mannered, Kelly is as captivating to watch in James as she is being tormented by her pigtailed offspring years later, as in James she seems to be fully vested and “in the moment” in each scene, truly interacting with and responding to her costars, instead of acting at them. She’s wonderful with Power; you sense the deep connection Zee feels for James, and how difficult it is for her to be apart from the frequently absent outlaw. Based on her moving work in James and the adept talent she clearly possessed as a screen performer, it’s surprising Kelly would have to wait so long to have a similar success late in her career (although only 35 when Seed came out, it was Kelly’s last film credit, as she only made television appearances thereafter).

                Among the rest of the players, Randolph Scott, as lawman Will Wright, who is both at-odds with and sympathetic towards Jesse, shows a low-key ease in the Western genre that would carry him to greater success in the 1950’s after teaming up Budd Boetticher for both of their most seminal works. Henry Hull handles his meaty role as newspaper editor Major Rufus Cobb, Zee’s newspaper editor uncle who is constantly indignant over the mistreatment of James, in showy fashion, while a more sedate Brian Donlevy makes an equally strong impact in his villainous comfort zone as a slick railroad man out to con the James’ and any other citizen who gets in his vicinity. As Robert Ford, John Carradine also gets his chance to show his adeptness with limited screen time at making a strong impression as a cad, and Donald Meek, playing against his usual comic milquetoast roles with great verve, stands out as another nefarious railroad agent intent on destroying the James Gang, and in particular Jesse. You patiently wait for this worm to get his comeuppance, and one of the joys of watching a classic film is knowing it’s well-nigh inevitable a jerk will get what’s coming to him or her in a wholly satisfying manner.  Rounding out the cast, Jane Darwell gets a look-in and a warm-up for her iconic Ma Joad as James’ mother, and Lon Chaney Jr. is credited as one of the James Gang, although I can’t remember seeing him anywhere.

                Jesse James offers a fine example of the carefully-crafted entertainment major studios like Fox turned out regularly during Hollywood’s Golden Era, which many feel reached its peak in 1939 with an incredible run of enduring top releases. Impressively, among a slew of worthy competition for box-office receipts, James managed to out-pace most contenders and pull in some of the biggest grosses of the year, trailing only Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz according to Susan Sackett’s Box Office Hits. It’s easy to see how a public eager for escapism was draw into the plight of James as presented in a more attractive, accessible manner by Fox than reality warranted (but people weren’t going to movies for grim realities in 1939; they already had dealt with plenty of that at home during the decade), with smooth, proficient direction by King, memorable work by a slew of capable performers and the still-novel Technicolor allowing the film to gain precedence over many in a strong 1939 field, and to remain endearing cinema over eighty years onward.

Postscript: The aforementioned 1940 follow-up The Return of Frank James, directed by no less than Fritz Lang, offers a very satisfying continuation of this story, with Fonda as the title character on a quest to find the Fords and avenge Jesse’s death. Henry Hull gets a better opportunity to grab some big laughs in one of the more enjoyable courtroom scenes on film and, in her film debut, Gene Tierney, as the aspiring reporter who gains Frank’s confidence, looks unsurprisingly stunning in Technicolor and gives an eager, earnest performance that might show Tierney as still developing her craft on screen, but her work also reveals a touching vulnerability. Tierney is immensely likable, and she generates great chemistry with Fonda in their limited screen time together, to the extent one wishes to see a lot more of this interesting, offbeat pairing of an outlaw and the well-bred, independent young lady drawn to him and his plight.


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