Jesse James on the screen 3: Frank’s back
Fox’s first ‘adult’ Western for years, Jesse James in 1939 (which we reviewed the other day – click the link for that) was such a big critical and box-office hit that a sequel was inevitable. And The Return of Frank James was a true sequel, in some ways remarkably similar to its predecessor. Even Tyrone Power as Jesse makes a brief appearance at the beginning, just to be shot, and most of the other actors reappear. Henry Fonda as Frank, who had in some ways even outclassed Power in the quality of his performance in ‘39, reprises his role, with real authority.
Other old friends re-appear too. Frank’s servant – not slave, perish the thought – Pinky (Ernest Whitman) is back. Pinky is to be hanged as an accomplice and Frank proposes to give up chasing the Fords for vengeance to go back and save him. Frank’s sidekick asks, “After all our work, are we gonna give up on account of a darkie?” Such lines shock us now, and 1940 was only yesterday, really. Frank slaps the lad for saying that but the stout defense of the black man by Frank is a bit rich coming from the elder scion of a slave-holding family who had fought on the Confederate side in the war. Clay County counted more slaveholders, who owned more slaves, than any other part of Missouri. Jesse James was racially enlightened enough to make a vow after the Civil War to shoot any black in Missouri not fulfilling the role of a slave. But this is the cinematic Frank James, a goody.
And naturally the villainous Bob Ford is John Carradine, excellent again.
J Edward Bromberg as the railroad detective and Donald not-too Meek as the nasty railway company boss also ride again.
Henry Hull, the cantankerous newspaper editor (who becomes Frank’s defense attorney) and his long-suffering clerk Roy (George Chandler) are of course a must. Hull’s part had been, er, colorful in Jesse James (code for chewing the scenery) but undeniably humorous and a highlight of the movie. The New York Times said, rightly, “Henry Hull, as the peppery editor who befriends Frank, overacts outrageously and amusingly.”
His part, by the way, as “Major Rufus Cobb” is presumably – but very loosely – based on the real-life Major John Newman Edwards CSA (1839 – 1889), General Joseph O Shelby’s adjutant in the Civil War, founder of The Kansas City Times and champion of Jesse James, after whom Jesse named his son. He left some (highly partial) memoirs and writer Nunnally Johnson used those as a basis for his screenplay of the 1939 film.
Sadly, however, Randolph Scott does not make it back. In 1940 he was too busy stealing Bob Dalton’s girl for Universal to have time to take away Frank James’s for Fox. So if you want Randy you’ll have to watch When the Daltons Rode – actually an entertaining Western. Outlaws were now quite the thing, and historically wildly inaccurate goody badmen rode across the screen all through the decade.
More fortunately, Zee (Nancy Kelly) and her tiresome little boy do not make it back either.
Instead, as love interest, we have a pretty and also more spirited heroine in the elegant shape of Gene Tierney, newspaper reporter extraordinaire, in her debut. I think she’s quite good, actually, though she herself cringed when she saw the film at the première, saying, “I could not believe how high and strident my voice came across. I sounded like an angry Minnie Mouse. My God, I thought, if that’s really how I sound, I’ll never make it.” Harvard Lampoon agreed with her, honoring her with The Worst Female Discovery of 1940 award. She would later win a Best Actress Oscar.
We also have other additions: Jackie Cooper, the cute kind in The Champ in 1931, now 17, is ‘Clem’, apparently the son of one the robbers killed at Northfield (no surname is given), a callow youth who hero-worships Frank and gets to act heroically at the end. Cooper is actually rather good, I think. In the first reel, he sets the tone for the movie when, on the farm (Frank is now a decent hard-working American farmer) they hear that the Fords have been pardoned for their cowardly murder and Clem lashes out, “There ain’t no law for the poor folk except the end of a gun.” That’s Westerns for you.
There’s a good bit when a baccy-chewing Frank goes to watch the Ford boys perform their play about how they killed Jesse James and Bob sees him in the balcony, panics, and throws a lantern onto the balcony (good aim) and starts a fire.
Another addition is Russell Hicks as the prosecutor in the excellent trial scene, in some ways the highlight of the movie – it’s as much a courtroom drama as a Western. This is right and proper because the actual trial of Frank James was a media sensation, the OJ trial of its day. There were so many spectators it had to be moved to an opera house. Bob Ford repays the compliment of a visit by Frank to his melodrama by attending the trial, to gloat. But he sure takes off in a hurry when Frank is acquitted. He doesn’t get far. I shall not tell you his fate, for of spoilers shall there be none, but I can reveal that he is not killed by Edward O’Kelley in Creede in 1892.
We have similar and excellent bright color photography, by George Barnes again, what looks like beautiful Colorado but is said to be Sonora, and the theme tune and titling are the same. So it really is very much a sequel.
Actually, though, sequels can occasionally be better films than their predecessors.
Fonda’s career was under full sail. Jesse James really gave him a boost. By the time of The Return of Frank James Hank had been the Young Mr Lincoln for John Ford, returned for Ford in the proto-Western frontier tale Drums Along the Mohawk, and been magisterial, yet again for Ford, as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, for which he had been Oscar-nominated as Best Actor in a Leading Role.
However, The Return was directed not by Henry King but by the stellar Fritz Lang, monocled Austrian expressionist director of Metropolis and M, famous for having thrown Peter Lorre down some stairs to make him look rumpled, who had come to the US in 1936. He would do three Westerns, this one, Western Union the following year, which was fun, and Rancho Notorious in 1951, not so much fun.
As a result, this film has moods and subtleties and shows great attention to detail, lighting and sound. Whatever else Lang was, he was an artist. He was of course also a noted tyrant, and Fonda, who had had the misfortune to work with him before (but never would again), was very wary. At one point he sprang to Tierney’s defense when Lang went for her (calling her “you little bitch”) and she developed a crush on her protector, who was such a professional. One-Take Fonda, they called him. Of course Frank Sinatra also famously would do only one take. But in Fonda’s case the first take wasn’t crap. Fonda is magnificent in this movie. But then he almost always was.
At the end of the shoot, in June 1940, in Bishop, California, the residents presented Fonda with (what was said to be) Frank James’s revolver, which had been given to the town marshal in 1903, with the initials FJ on the handle.
Sam Hellman, who provided the stories for Earp-myths Frontier Marshal and My Darling Clementine, so was well-used to whitewashing Western characters, replaced Nunnally Johnson to do the screenplay. It is, of course, a travesty of history of equal proportions to Jesse James. In reality, Frank James did not try to revenge himself on the Fords. After the killing of his brother in 1882, James met the Governor in the state capitol and surrendered on the understanding that he would not be extradited to Northfield. He was tried for only two of the robberies/murders the James gang had committed, both in 1881, the attack on the Rock Island Line train in which the engineer and a passenger were killed, and the robbery of an Army payroll in Alabama. He was acquitted of both. He went to Oklahoma to live with his formidable mother. In later years Frank James worked a variety of jobs, including as a shoe salesman and then as a burlesque theater ticket clerk in St. Louis. In 1903 he was in a short-lived and unsuccessful Wild West show with Cole Younger. In his final years, he returned to the James farm, giving 25¢ tours. He died there in 1915, aged 72. So that’s a bit different from the story in the film.
But hey, who wants history? This is another enjoyable, well-made and well-acted Western. It was re-released in 1951 together with Jesse James, and the two pictures managed to fix the James boys as heroes in the minds of a whole generation.
Not everyone liked it. At the time, Variety commented, quite amusingly, “Film suffers from too much rationalization of the necessity for Frank’s wiping-out job and not enough of the old one-two with the six shooter. Makin’ bad men good is okay, pardner, but keep the hosses movin’ and guns a’blazin’.” Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “As spectacle, The Return of Frank James, presently at the Roxy, is a handsome and spacious affair set against Technicolored mountains and night skies; many of its small-town scenes carry the flavor of the post-Civil War years. But in drama it is lacking. Perhaps the rub lies in the fact that the producers have attempted to show Frank as both dangerous and respectable.” Crowther added, “Fritz Lang has failed to make a successful compromise between a film that attempts to show the pressures that drove Frank James to robbery and murder or one that is honestly boots-and-guns horse opera. It has neither the actuality nor motivation for the former or [sic] the blood-and-thunder violence of the latter.” The critic was even quite modest in his praise of the star: “Henry Fonda plays the role with his accustomed honesty and understatement, though we thought him a little phlegmatic for one of the West’s most noted killers.”
Later, Brian Garfield in his Western Films wrote, “It’s not a bad picture but it doesn’t have the spirited flavor of Jesse James.” Jon Tuska wrote that “while [Jesse James] was symphonic and lyrical in its progression, [The Return of Frank James] was at times crude and dull.” I can’t say I agree with that. I go along more with The Encyclopedia of Westerns, which called it “a rare sequel which was up to – or even better than – the original.”
But anyway Frank and Jesse would be back on the silver screen many times, for better or for worse, as we shall see and as you may read about, should you care to click back on the mighty blog Jeff Arnold’s West in the coming days. I hope you do.