Believe it or not
‘The Younger brothers in fact and fiction’. In the case of the Youngers, as with Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid and many other famous figures of the Old West, outlaws or lawmen, the fiction certainly outweighs the fact. So many lurid blood-and-thunder dime novels, stage melodramas and then Western movies were produced about their exploits, and so (relatively) few sober biographies and factual accounts, that it isn’t always easy to see the wood for the trees.
Sadly, in Cole Younger’s case, his own memoir, Cole Younger, by Himself (1903) must be weighed in the fiction side of the balance. It is no more credible than the sensational and exaggerated book, stage and celluloid versions of his life which were as mendacious as they were (usually) fun, for the autobiography makes him out to be pretty well a saint, who was guilty of no crime at all apart from the assault on the bank in Northfield, MN and who never undertook any criminal enterprise with the James brothers whatsoever (including Northfield; Frank and Jesse were not there).
Even presumed ‘factual’ accounts of the life of Cole and his siblings are often highly dubious historically. Some, such as John Newman Edwards’s Noted Guerrillas (1877) purported to be historical but were little more than highly partisan apologias. Newspaper articles were notoriously sensational and often unresearched and unverified. Diaries and letters of contemporaries in such a highly-charged time tended to reflect the prejudices and beliefs of the writers rather than give plain information. So the hard facts are not easy to come by.
There are some manuscripts available, such as Cole’s application for Confederate veteran’s pension, data on his Civil War service, correspondence between Missouri and the US adjutant’s general about him and prison records from Stillwater. There are letters from Missouri officials and a petition signed by members of the 39th General Assembly to the Minnesota Board of Pardons asking for the release of the Youngers. That kind of thing.
And there are some pretty reliable books, such as an entry in the Dictionary of Missouri Biography (University of Missouri Press, 1999); Homer Croy’s Last of the Great Outlaws: The Story of Cole Younger (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1956); John Koblas’s The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West Show (North Star Press of St. Cloud, MN, 2002); and Marley Brant’s The Outlaw Youngers: A Confederate Brotherhood (Madison Books, 1995).
Prosperous farm and livery-stable owner, and also mail contractor Henry Washington Younger, from Greenwood, Missouri, and his wife Bersheba Leighton Fristoe, daughter of a Jackson County judge, had eight daughters and six sons. The boys who survived infancy were Thomas Coleman Younger, known as Cole, born 1844; James Hardin Younger, known as Jim, born 1848; John Harrison Younger, born 1851; and Robert Ewing Younger, known as Bob, born 1853. This much we know!
The boys seem to have had a decent education, within the limits of the time and place. One doesn’t know how much input from an editor and/or ghost-writer there was or was not in Cole’s autobiography but it is certainly literate and well-phrased. The only thing Cole tells us about his schooling is that contrary to common accusations, he was not a bully and he was kind to dumb animals.
Cole rides with Quantrill
Cole was the only brother old enough to engage in fighting when the war started, and even he was only 17. At the start of hostilities Cole got into a fight (literally – he knocked the man down) with a certain Captain Walley, an abolitionist from Kansas, and “It was ‘hide and run for it’ after that.” He says that “that winter” [actually it was November of 1861] he and his brother-in-law John Jarrette joined Quantrell’s company. William Clarke Quantrill (often spelled Quantrell), led a band of ‘bushwhackers’, as they were called, irregular guerrillas, which included William Anderson, known as Bloody Bill, and Frank James, among others.
Cole’s father Henry Younger was a Union man but was nevertheless murdered in 1862, Cole claimed for his money, by the same Captain Walley with whom Cole had brawled in late 1861. It may have been true. Later, Henry’s widow, the boys’ mother, was cruelly treated by Kansas ‘border ruffians’, her house burned and she driven out into the snow, the effects of which, Cole believed, caused her early death (in June 1870). The family were slave owners and the boys’ sympathy was most certainly with the South.
Cole rode with Quantrill on the Lawrence, Kansas raid in August 1863, when the town was sacked and burned, and up to 200 (estimates vary) were killed.
Cole claimed to have left the bushwhackers after that and enlisted in the regular Confederate army, reaching the rank of captain by the end of the war. He says he was sent out West on a secret mission to Victoria, British Columbia where he and some fellow soldiers, “disguised as Mexicans”, were to take charge of two Alabama-type vessels which were delivered there from Britain, but though the men got to Victoria, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox prevented the hand-over of the ships. However, in his Noted Guerrillas, JN Edwards wrote, “Lee’s surrender at Appomattox found Cole Younger at Los Angeles, trying the best he could to earn a livelihood and live at peace with the world.” One of these two tales might be true. Or not.
Jim fights too
Jim Younger joined Quantrill’s band May 1864, aged 16, but it is not known if he took part in the Centralia massacre, as Archie Clements and Jesse James almost certainly did, in September of that year. On May 10, 1865 (i.e. after Appomattox) Jim was captured by Union troops, in the same ambush that resulted in Quantrill’s death, and was imprisoned for a time.
After the war
Cole returned to Missouri, aged 21, in the fall of 1865. But there was a warrant for murder out on him (he asserts that he was entirely innocent of it) and he left again, for Louisiana, where he says he remained until 1867.
On February 13, 1866 a group of gunmen carried out the first daylight, peacetime, armed bank robbery in US history when they held up the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, MO, stealing more than $58,000 in cash and bonds. During the escape through the streets of Liberty, one of the gang shot dead an innocent bystander named George Wymore. The bank was owned and operated by former Union militia officers, who recently had conducted the first Republican Party rally in Clay County’s history. The state authorities suspected Archie Clement of leading the raid and offered a reward for his capture.
Clement (or Clements) was one of the leading guerrillas, known as “Bill Anderson’s scalper and head devil”, and had assumed command after Anderson was killed in an ambush in October 1864. It is not known precisely who Clement’s accomplices in the Liberty robbery were, though many believed that both James brothers and Cole Younger were there. Cole emphatically denied this in his memoir. “I never, in all my life, had anything whatever to do with robbing any bank in the state of Missouri.”
A string of robberies followed, many linked to Clement’s gang, though supporters claimed that the ex-bushwhackers were blamed for crimes they did not commit. The hold-up most clearly linked to them was of Alexander Mitchell & Company in Lexington, MO, on October 30, 1866.
Clement was killed in a fierce gunfight in Lexington on December 13, 1866 but the gang continued its depredations without him. It is extremely likely that some or all of the Younger brothers participated in these actions, though proof is hard to come by. Authorities identified Cole Younger as a member of a gang which robbed Nimrod Long & Co., a bank in Russellville, Kentucky, in 1868, and witnesses repeatedly gave identifications that matched Youngers in robberies carried out over the next few years, as the outlaws robbed banks and stagecoaches in Missouri and Kentucky, but Cole himself denied this.
John is killed
In July 1873 the outlaws, now often identified in the press as the James-Younger Gang, turned to train robbery, derailing a locomotive and looting the express car on the Rock Island Railroad in Adair, Iowa. After another train robbery, on the Iron Mountain Railroad at Gad’s Hill, Missouri in 1874, the Pinkertons became involved in hunting down the gang. On March 17, 1874, two Pinkerton agents, Louis J Lull, also known by several other names, and John Boyle, engaged John and Jim Younger in a gunfight on a Missouri road. Both Lull and John Younger were killed.
Jim buried his brother by the roadside and escaped. Simultaneously, another Pinkerton agent, WJ Whicher, was abducted and later found dead alongside a rural road in Jackson County, Missouri. This crime was never solved.
Some popular accounts and Hollywood movies have made much of a romance between Cole Younger and Belle Starr. Cole himself pooh-poohed this. He called such stories “fairy tales”.
He said he helped set up Belle and her husband Jim Reed (who had fought with Cole) on a farm in Texas but Cole writes “Aunt Suse, our family servant, warned me. ‘Belle’s sure in love with you, Cap’n Cole,’ she explained. ‘You better be careful.’ With that hint, I thereafter evaded the wife of my former comrade in arms.”
Reed was later killed “after the robbery of the stage near San Antonio” and Belle married again, “this time Tom or Sam Starr” and had a daughter they named Pearl. Later Belle came to Missouri “and boasted of an intimate acquaintance with me … and … declared that she was my wife, and that the girl Pearl was our child.” Cole adds, closing the subject, “Her story was a fabrication.”
The trouble is, you can’t really believe Cole any more than you can the sensational and lurid writers. So who knows?
The one crime that Cole Younger did not deny (it would have been very difficult for him to do so!) was the attempted bank robbery at Northfield, MN in September 1876. It is often said that Cole Younger was reluctant to travel so far north to rob a bank but that he allowed himself to be persuaded by Bob, but in his autobiography Cole does not mention this at all. He does say that Bob was a wild one, and recounts various escapades and shooting scrapes that the youngster (still only 23 at the time of Northfield) got into. It is more likely in fact that Jim Younger was the reluctant one.
At any rate, the party made its way into Minnesota. Cole, Jim and Bob Younger were part of it as well as Frank and Jesse James, though Cole rather absurdly claims the Jameses were not there – just two men named Woods and Howard (the aliases of Frank and Jesse). As we all know, it went disastrously wrong. Two gang members, Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell, were killed, Bob had a shattered elbow, Jim had a shoulder wound and Cole too was hit in the thigh. Two townspeople were killed in the exchange of fire.
The survivors made their way out of town and the story is that Jesse, especially, was irritated at being slowed down by the wounded (he and Frank had escaped unscathed) and so the James brothers departed. Cole says only that “Woods and Howard” rode west. Cole’s group, consisting of the three brothers, all wounded, and Charlie Pitts, neared the town of Madelia, about eighty miles south-west of Northfield, where another gun battle took place. Pitts was shot through the heart, Bob was shot in the right lung, and Jim was shot five times, one bullet shattering his jaw and another embedding itself “underneath his spine”. Cole says, “Including those received in and on the way from Northfield I had eleven wounds.” Basically, they were shot to hell.
The three brothers were arrested and taken into Madelia, where they feared a lynch mob, “But the only mob that came was the mob of sightseers, reporters and detectives.” In Minnesota, at that time, a guilty plea on a murder charge meant there would be no capital punishment, and the Youngers therefore did not contest the charges and were sentenced “to imprisonment for the remainder of our lives” in the state penitentiary at Stillwater. “With Bob, it was a life sentence, for he died there of consumption Sept. 16, 1889. He was never strong physically after the shot pierced his lung in the last fight near Madelia.”
By Cole’s own account, he and Jim were model prisoners, and they were paroled in 1901 after serving 25 years. They got jobs at a granite company. Jim had to give that up because of the bullet in his back and went to work for a cigar company. Cole says his brother was subject to
depression, and in his free time “he would go to his room and revel in socialistic literature.” On October 19 his dead body was found in a hotel room in St Paul. “There was every indication that he had carefully planned his death by his own hand.”
Cole, now the lone surviving Younger brother, moved to work for “the Interstate institute for the cure of the liquor and morphine habits” in St Paul. In 1903 he was granted a conditional pardon; he must return to his home state and never come back to Minnesota.
The last years of Cole, before his death from natural causes in March 1916 (a year after Frank James died) were taken up by his writing, wishing to ‘set the record straight’ (though his book did not do much to achieve that, being so little credible) and lecturing. He appends the lecture
he wrote, What my life has taught me, at the end of his book. It is insufferably sanctimonious, folksy and sentimental. In 1903 he also took part in a show (despite a condition of his release specifically forbidding this) with an elderly Frank James, The Cole Younger and Frank James Wild West Company. In August 1912 Cole declared that he had become a Christian and repented of his criminal past.
Such were the facts, as far as I can ascertain them, of the life of the Younger brothers. I apologize to their shades if I have got anything wrong.
The Younger brothers in fiction
The dime novels
In the preface to his book Cole Younger wrote:
more nor less than a lot of sensational recitals, with which the Younger brothers never had the least association. One publishing house alone is selling sixty varieties of these books, and I venture to say that in the whole lot there could not be found six pages of truth.
Stage performances were also flocked to. Cole said, “The stage, too, has its lurid dramas in which we are painted in devilish blackness.” For example, there was a successful play, The James Boys in Missouri by George Klimpt and Frank AP Gazzolo, in which Klimpt played Frank. It was staged in Kansas City in 1902 and Frank tried legal measures to get it stopped, but the show went on.
The early movies
The motion picture that many regard as the first Western movie (it wasn’t actually, but many consider it so) was Edison’s The Great Train Robbery which came out in 1903, the same year as Cole and Frank’s Wild West show, and the subject matter of the film would have struck a chord. It didn’t take movies long to refer to the Jameses and the Youngers specifically. In 1908 Essanay, the company co-founded by GM ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson, issued The James Boys in Missouri, an 18-minute production featuring Harry McCabe – though we don’t know which character he played. One would imagine that Broncho Billy himself would have played Jesse, but it isn’t certain. He seems to have directed it. The Moving Picture News reported that many audiences were outraged at the lawlessness portrayed, and the film was banned in several US cities, such as Chicago. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit, and Essanay immediately followed up with The Younger Brothers, directed by E Lawrence Lee, with an unknown cast, released in June 1908. It also ran it problems with censors. Tragically, both films are now lost.
There were very probably other early motion pictures portraying the Youngers and the Jameses. In his interesting 2011 book Jesse James and the Movies, Johnny D Boggs makes the point that early silent movies, of which Westerns represented a considerable proportion, were disposable entertainment products. Records in those early days were pretty well non-existent, and titles varied from one theater to another. There was little interest in safeguarding ‘used’ films.
Colored promo stills from Jesse James Under the Black Flag
The only surviving silent movie (that we currently know of) showing the gang is a 1930 re-issue of two 1921 pictures cobbled together produced by and starring Jesse E James, the outlaw’s son. It goes under the title Jesse James Under the Black Flag. As a Western movie it’s an awful piece of tripe (it bombed then and it’s almost unwatchable now) but it’s a fascinating historical document. Cole Younger appears in it as a gang member, played by a certain Harry Hoffman.
Even Paramount’s big picture with their famous star Fred Thomson, Jesse James (1927) has been lost, though we do know quite a lot about it.
Just as Frank James had been quick to take issue with stage plays, so the James family jealously protected their rights to the outlaw story. Mrs Samuel, Frank and Jesse’s mother, didn’t die till 1911 and she was a very shrewd businesswoman, anxious to maximize the profitability of her offspring’s careers, and her heirs did likewise. In the late 1930s they seem to have done a deal with the 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, founded in 1935. And in 1939 Fox came out with the first A-picture about the James boys, Jesse James, with their big star Tyrone Power as Jesse and the up-and-coming Henry Fonda as Frank. It was a big-budget affair with a runtime of 106 minutes and in dazzling Technicolor. It was a smash hit, with moviegoers standing in lines round the block to get into theaters. For whatever reason, though, it didn’t feature the Youngers at all. Maybe the studio hadn’t bought the rights to their story, or maybe they didn’t want to put Jesse in the shade in any way. Like all the silent movies, though, it was a complete whitewash (Technicolor or not) and showed the James brothers as noble, good-hearted heroes fighting for the common man against the wicked railroads. It was balderdash, but the public loved it, and it set the tone for all future cinematic Jameses (and Youngers).
Republic soon got in on the act, casting Don ‘Red’ Barry as Jesse James in the Roy Rogers epic Days of Jesse James, released in December 1939. In that one Glenn Strange the Great played Cole Younger, and smaller parts went to Forrest Dillon as Bob and Carl Sepulveda as Jim (there was no John). So Glenn (my hero) had the honor of being the first talkie Cole, and Forrest and Carl got to be the first of the Bobs and Jims.
In 1941 there was another Roy Rogers/Jesse James picture, Jesse James at Bay, this time with Roy himself as Jesse, and this time Chuck Morrison played Cole (in a bit part).
Back at Fox, meanwhile, Jesse James had sold so well that the studio put out a sequel in 1940, The Return of Frank James, directed by Fritz Lang, no less, but once again there were no Youngers. The boys had to wait till 1941 before they appeared again, in Warner Brothers’ Bad Men of Missouri, directed by Ray Enright, and this time it wasn’t only Cole. Wayne Morris was Bob, Arthur Kennedy was Jim and Russell Simpson played the father Henry Younger, called Hank. Dennis Morgan played Cole – because Humphrey Bogart said no. In fact he said, “Are you kidding?” Now that would have been something – Bogie as Cole! There was no John again. It is crooked banker Victor Jory (one of my favorite Western villains) who kills Younger père, then frames Cole on the murder rap. The brothers escape and then meet up with the James boys (who, oddly, are strangers) and begin a series of bank and train robberies, primarily stealing from Jory and turning the loot over to the farmers. It was preposterous twaddle but no more so than many another ‘historical’ Hollywood drama.
In 1946 RKO crammed dozens of outlaws, including the James boys and Belle Starr, into their Badman’s Territory, but unaccountably excluded the Youngers. In 1949 Warners remedied that when Wayne Morris was promoted from Jim to Cole Younger, taking the lead in The Younger Brothers. It is set after the brothers’ release from prison (which is odd because all four brothers are there) and the lads, goodies again, want to go straight and become farmers. They are nearly thwarted by an unscrupulous ex-Pinkerton (Fred Clark) who thirsts for revenge, blaming the boys for his ruined career. Of course in the end it all goes well and Cole clears the family name (and gets the gal). More tosh, but a lot of fun. Bruce Bennett was Jim, Robert Hutton was John and James Brown was Bob.
There were no Youngers in Republic’s Jesse James Rides Again in 1947 or its sequel Adventures of Frank and Jesse James in 1948, nor in the studio’s The James Brothers of Missouri in 1949, so it seemed the Younger Brothers were getting written out of things, but in 1950 Universal put their new star Audie Murphy in Kansas Raiders, with Audie as Jesse
James (a goodie Jesse, obviously). It was also directed by Ray Enright, so this was his second go at the Youngers. Unusually, it concentrated on the war years rather than the outlawin’. It had Brian Donlevy, portly and pushing 50, as an unlikely Quantrill, Scott Brady as Bloody Bill Anderson (billed without the Bloody so as not to scare the moms away) and Richard Long as Frank James. They needed a couple of Youngers (Cole and Jim are both members of the band, and both raid Lawrence) and they got Dewey Martin to play Jim and James Best to be Cole. Best was born in 1926 and Martin in 1923, so they weren’t teenagers but at least they were still in their twenties.
The same year we got Lippert’s The Return of Jesse James. This one is odd because there are Youngers, but only Hank Younger (presumably the father Henry), played by that old ham Henry Hull, Hugh O’Brian (later Wyatt Earp) as a certain ‘Lem Younger’ and Ann Dvorak, no less, as ‘Sue Ellen Younger’, whoever she may have been. Lem is mortally wounded in a bank raid in ‘Westfield’. Now we’re getting well away from the fact and deep into the fiction.
In 1951 we got a Nat Holt production released by Paramount, The Great Missouri Raid, with Wendell Corey as Frank James and Macdonald Carey as Jesse. But as well as Corey and Carey we saw Bruce Bennett as Cole Younger (the same Bruce Bennett who had been Jim Younger in The Younger Brothers), Bill Williams as Jim and Paul Lees as Bob. Bob is seriously wounded in a train robbery and Frank and Jesse leave the Youngers – they say to lead the pursuing posse away. It doesn’t work: the Youngers are surrounded and shot to pieces. The pressbook to the movie announced that “After painstaking research involving little known records [I bet they were little known] producer Holt has placed before his camera the authentic history of America’s most sought-after outlaws.” This might be termed an exaggeration. Or a lie.
The same year, RKO decided to cash in on their Badman’s Territory of 1946 by putting out Best of the Badmen, and this time they found room for the Youngers. In fact we got all four – Bruce Cabot as Cole, Robert J Wilke as Jim (he’d be promoted to Cole on TV later), John Cliff as John and Jack Buetel as Bob. “You’re about the only Yank I’d trust,” Cole tells star Robert Ryan. “Maybe I’m about the only Yank that’d trust you”, Ryan replies. Carpetbagger Robert Preston stirs up the mob and Bob Younger is wounded. Ryan is offended and organizes the Youngers to rob banks, trains, stages and such. Cole wants to use dynamite to rob a train full of gold. “What about the passengers?” Ryan asks. “Who cares?” Cole answers. Bob gets into a fight with Ringo over a girl and Ringo informs on the outlaws. And so on and so forth. You may choose to believe it. Actually, though piffle, it’s a lot of fun.
Jim Davis was another tough-guy Cole in the entertaining if oddball Woman They Almost Lynched in 1953 (in which Donlevy reprised his role as Quantrill). Decent Jesse steps in to stop loutish Cole’s unwelcome advances to the fair Sally (Joan Leslie). But Cole and Jim (Rocky Shahan) then try to abduct Sally in the saloon, the cads.
Don ‘Red’ Barry was back as Jesse in 1954 in the dreadful Jesse James’ Women, a movie of great direness. Sam Keller was Cole Younger. He is little more than a lackey of Jesse. “We invented train robbery,” he claims at one point. No, you didn’t, Cole. That was the Reno Brothers.
In 1957 Fox decided to remake their hit movie Jesse James, and they released The True Story of Jesse James (which wasn’t). Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter were Frank and Jesse. This time Fox decided to feature the Youngers. After all, Warners had. They cast Alan Hale Jr as Cole, Biff Elliot as Jim, and, in smaller parts, Michael Ross as “Mr. Younger”, Jeane Wood as “Mrs Younger” and the son of the film’s director Nicholas Ray, Anthony, then 19, as Bob Younger. Hale, billed fifth, gets quite a big part. But of course it’s no more historically accurate than any other picture.
The same year Republic released Hell’s Crossroads, with Henry Brandon as Jesse James, Douglas Kennedy as Frank and dependable heavy Myron Healey as Cole Younger. Johnny Boggs says that this movie makes Jesse James look like a documentary. It was directed by ex-Mascot hand Franklin Adreon, known for such artistic triumphs as Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Raiders and Panther Girl of the Kongo. Cole Younger is still a member of the gang after Northfield – not quite sure how he managed that – but is shot dead after Jesse is killed in April 1882.
The following year, 1958, Allied Artists got in on the act with a big color widescreen picture, Cole Younger, Gunfighter, directed by RG Springsteen (one of his best pictures). This Cole (there are no brothers) is one of those generic Hollywood gunslingers who roam the West, lightning-fast on the draw, and he spins us some yarn about how, when he was, er, younger, he was forced to draw on a carpetbagger he was playing cards with, in self-defense, and killed him, and has been on the run ever since. It all has nothing whatever to do with the real Cole Younger, even less than usual, but it was a well-made picture qua Western and Frank Lovejoy was very good as the gunfighter of the title.
In 1960 Willard Parker was second-billed (to Ray Stricklyn’s Jesse James) as Cole Younger in Fox’s Young Jesse James. Fox was evidently milking the Jesse saga for all it was worth. This picture aimed to exploit the teen-rebel vibe that had been so popular in the 50s, and the slogan on the poster was TEENAGE TERROR OF THE OLD WEST, though this was a bit of a stretch because Ray Stricklyn as Jesse was 32. Parker’s Cole is the good guy, an older cousin of Jesse (it was often suggested that the Youngers and Jameses were cousins; they weren’t) who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow, a doomed effort. Actually, Cole Younger was only three years older than Jesse James and hardly a mentor. In the movie, though, there was a big age difference: Parker was pushing fifty and looked it. Cole, disgusted by Quantrill’s unpatriotic villainy, rides off to join Shelby’s regulars. At one point Cole gets lovey-dovey with Belle Starr (Merry Anders).
Bruce Sedley had a bit-part as Cole Younger in the 1965 Three Stooges comedy The Outlaws IS Coming.
The Intruders, a TV movie screened by NBC in 1970, was a post-Northfield tale and centers on the final gunfight near Madelia. It had red-bearded Gene Evans as Cole and Zalman King as Bob (there’s no sign of Jim).
It’s not very well written or directed, and the outlaws are characterless gunmen; only Cole stands out as a person. It’s really the story of the (fictional) marshal of the town, Sam Garrison, played by Don Murray, who has lost his nerve but eventually gets it back by defeating the Younger gang. It’s OK. I’ve seen worse. Gene was always good.
Cole as hero
Two years later, though, Cole took center stage. The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (you feel it needed a comma) was a Cliff Robertson project (he produced the movie and starred in it as Cole) and it was written and directed by Philip Kaufman, who also wrote The Outlaw Josey Wales and was slated to direct that picture, but Clint Eastwood took over on that one. For once, in Northfield Jesse James is a secondary (and none too pleasant) character – he is played by Robert Duvall, with a colorless John Pearce as Frank. Luke Askew was Jim Younger and Matt Clark was Bob, but they fade into the background. Cole is the leader and mastermind of the robbery and Jesse is relegated to the position of follower and imitator, sadistic and unintelligent.
Cole is rather a nice man, fascinated by mechanics and of a poetic bent. “Ain’t that a wonderment!” he often says. The picture has considerable weaknesses (the Butch Cassidy/M.A.S.H. baseball scene is too long and slapstick, as are the scenes in the bath house and brothel, and people shout too much) but it did have the merit of putting the Youngers in the foreground. The movie goes for the common lie: “Here’s where the true story of the Northfield raid began,” says the narration. It isn’t anything of the kind, of course. And the absurd notion of the evil railroads justifying all the gang’s murder and thievery is trotted out yet again. “The railroads came swarming in to steal the land. Everywhere, men from the railroads were driving poor, defenseless families from their homes.” So it was alright to lynch, shoot and rob people, then? Brian Garfield says the film is “superficial, phony, empty, characterless, slick, gimmicky, arty, glib, hollow and pretentious.” I don’t think he liked it. Myself, I think it’s just slightly second-rate.
The best version?
Walter Hill’s The Long Riders in 1980 went for the clever gimmick of having the James boys and the Youngers played by actual brothers (the Fords and the Millers too). The Carradines took the Youngers’ parts, with David of that ilk as Cole, Keith as Jim and Bob as Bob. A non-brother, Kevin Brophy, was John (they seem to have run out of Carradines).
This one highlights the supposed romance between Cole and Belle Starr (Pamela Reed). Cole has a fearsome knife fight with half-breed Sam Starr (James Remar) over Belle in a Texas saloon. The real (defunct) Cole was probably rolling in his grave at 10,000 rpm.
In my view, The Long Riders is the best ever James-Younger movie. Its version of the story is closer to the historical truth than previous ones (though I agree that’s not saying much) and at last we start to see some respect for reality, although the events of many years are telescoped into a short time frame. Furthermore, much of the look of it is also authentic – the costumes and props are generally good (though you can tell it was filmed in the late 70s from the principals’ pants and haircuts). The music is delightful, the best aspect of the film. The wedding dance is probably the highlight of the movie. There are proper trains to rob and much galloping. The action is all there.
Some pretty weak ones
In 1994 a straight-to-video picture came out from Trimark Pictures, Frank and Jesse. Rob Lowe and Bill Paxton played the James boys but the Youngers figured too. There was third-billed Randy Travis as Cole, Todd Field as Bob and Micah Dyer as John, though rather oddly there was no Jim. Feeling oppressed by Chicago railroad investors, the James and Younger brothers, Bob and Charlie Ford, Clell Miller and Arch Clements take to robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches, with Pinkerton sworn to bringing them to justice. Luke Askew, Jim Younger in the Cliff Robertson picture, is here a crazed assassin who burns down the James home, killing Jesse and Frank’s little bother and the paterfamilias. Jesse guns him down. More baloney, and boringly acted too. Oh well.
American Outlaws in 2001 wasn’t much better. It trots out the
tired old wicked-railroads plot, which ever since Jesse James in 1939 had morphed into accepted ‘fact’. It headlined Colin Farrell as Jesse James and Scott Caan as Cole Younger. Gregory Smith was Jim and Mill McCormack was Bob. It’s really bad. Roger Ebert said, “For years there have been reports of the death of the Western. Now comes American Outlaws, proof that even the B-Western is dead.” Basically, the outlaws are pop teen brats.
So celluloid versions of the Youngers have rather gone downhill in recent years. The fine picture The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Jesse James in 2007 is a post-Northfield Jesse story, so there are no Youngers (they were languishing in Stillwater).
A nice little cameo Cole
There has been one good more recent movie Cole, though only a cameo. In the last chapter of Charles Portis’s splendid 1968 novel True Grit, an elderly Mattie seeks out Rooster at the Cole and Frank’s Wild West show. She says that this was now all Cole and Frank were fit for, “to show themselves to the public like strange wild beasts of the jungle”. Mattie is rather taken with Cole. “I thanked the courteous old outlaw”, though she said to James, witheringly, “Keep your seat, trash!” She adds, “They think it was Frank James who shot that bank officer in Northfield. As far as I know that scoundrel never spent a night in jail, and there was Cole Younger locked away twenty-five years in the Minnesota pen.” This episode was not included in Paramount’s 1969 movie True Grit but the Coen brothers did put it in their 2010 film True Grit, with Don Pirl as Cole.
And talking of well-written novels, the Youngers, especially Cole, play an important part in James Carlos Blake’s novel Wildwood Boys, which is principally about Bloody Bill Anderson. I bought this book and read it when it came out in 2000, before I started this blog, but as I have the long term memory of an amnesiac flea I cannot remember enough about it to review it now. I am re-reading it, though, so I shall probably inflict an article on that on you before too long. That’s OK, you don’t have to read it.
The small screen
Lastly, just a word about TV. Apart from the TV movie mentioned above, Youngers, mainly Cole, popped up in episodes of several different Western series.
In S6 E12 of Cheyenne, Philip Carey plays Cole, who in the story line is being transported by railway to the penitentiary in Denver, CO. No idea why. Cheyenne Bodie is assigned to guard Younger, but twice Cole escapes. Eventually, though, Cole decides to follow Bodie’s stern advice to accept prison with the hope of a later pardon.
In S13 E23 of Bonanza, titled The Younger Brothers’ Younger Brother, Cole is played by the great Strother Martin. The boys are released from prison and again take up a life of crime. This has them cross paths with Hoss Cartwright, who is then mistaken for one of the brothers. Chuck McCann plays “Lonnie Younger”, Ted Gehring plays “Bart Younger” and William Challee plays “Pa Younger”, apparently come back to life in 1901 after being murdered in 1862. Believe it at your peril.
In S1 E1 of Overland Trail, NBC’s series with William Bendix and Doug McClure, the even greater Robert J Wilke plays Cole. Flip is given a special mission to drive captured outlaw
Cole Younger to trial. There’s also gold aboard the stage. At a way station, a supposedly dying woman is allowed to board, to rush her to a doctor, but she turns out to be Belle Starr, who helps overpower the crew and leads the coach to an ambush. Believe this if you dare.
In S9 E14 of Little House on the Prairie, titled The Younger Brothers, played as a comedy, the fictional brothers “Bart” and “Lonnie” are back, played by Robert Donner and Timothy Scott, with the entertaining Geoffrey Lewis as Cole. They bungle robberies and kidnappings after fourteen years in prison, then realize they are no longer up to it.
In S3 E21 of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, a teenage Belle Starr (so it must be 1867 or earlier) robs the saloon with the Younger brothers and is shot. Dr. Mike takes her home to recover, in an effort to show her a real family life, attempting to turn her from her life of crime. Ian Bohen is Cole and Donnie Jebcoat is Jim. No sign of John or Bob. This one is entirely credible (not).
S4 E17 of Tales of Wells Fargo has the equally great Royal Dano as Cole, in the episode Cole
Younger. While on vacation in Minnesota Jim Hardie becomes involved with the gang as a hostage with a spunky young girl after the Northfield hold-up. His primary goal is the protection of the girl but one of Youngers’ men has other ideas. Dean Smith is Jim and Gene Marlowe is Bob. You believe this, don’t you?
So when you consider the list of actors who have played Cole, it’s pretty impressive, I reckon. That’s something.
There are probably other Youngers on the big screen or small that I’ve overlooked. If so, sorry.
So there you have it. We’ve probably done enough on the Youngers on this blog to last us for a fair while. On to other matters of equally serious Western import, e-pards, for the West is wide as well as wild, and teeming with fascinating characters to be written about. That’s my mission.