Jesse and Frank ride again
It is perhaps difficult for us at this remove to appreciate just how popular movie serials were in the 1940s. My late father was an avid fan and often enthused about the weekly ‘chapters’ as they were called in all different genres – they featured spies and jungle or science fiction heroes but especially cowboys, and those were the ones he preferred, quite understandably. The damsel-in-distress and cliffhanger formula worked really well in those pre-TV days, especially with younger audiences, who flocked to these shows. As The New York Times said, “Quality films may be fine for the big cities, but it’s the serials … that keep the small town operators in business.”
In 1947 Republic, which specialized in the format, decided to build on the success of earlier Western serials such as The Lone Ranger and Red Ryder by using as hero Jesse James. We have been looking at portrayals of Jesse James on the screen for the last few posts on this blog and today it’s the turn of Jesse in the ‘chapter play’ format. Obviously, the Jesse James suitable as hero of a serial was going to be a goody. All the so-called crimes he is guilty of are committed by others.
And so in Jesse James Rides Again (budget $150,000) Jesse has reformed and wishes to settle down but all sorts of crimes are unjustly laid at his door. They even in Chapter 1 accuse him of leading the raid on the bank in Northfield. Ridiculous. He determines to hit the trail (“They won’t let a man be honest”) to unmask the real raiders and show he was not the guilty party. The trailer says that Jesse’s aim is “to prove his innocence and bring the raiders to justice…”
Jesse and his pal ‘Steve Long’ (John Compton, colorless) wander the West where they defend homesteaders from cloaked and masked raiders, KKK-like but in black.
It must be said that this Jesse is very Lone Rangeresque, ridin’ the range and rightin’ the wrongs. Jesse was played by Clayton Moore, and he would soon get all the ridin’ the range and rightin’ the wrongs he could handle, as the Lone Ranger on TV. Moore was very particular about some things. “It always bothered me to see someone fire seven or eight shots from a six-shooter, so I kept strict count. Every time I fired my sixth bullet I would reload.” He was also quite open (if not brazen) about his Jesse James: “Obviously, the real Jesse James was a vicious outlaw, a bank robber and killer, but audiences didn’t seem to mind that we turned him into a sympathetic, law-abiding character. After all, it was only a serial.” The goodiness of this Jesse didn’t stop the serial being banned in Memphis.
Linda Stirling, ‘Queen of the Serials’, was the love interest (for Steve) but she got pregnant and was written out round about episode 7. But I don’t think the young boys who went avidly along to see the serial on Saturday mornings probably minded much.
The chief bad guys are played by reliable Republic villains, the splendidly-named Tristram Coffin and good old Roy Barcroft. They want the whole valley, you know how villains do, and are determined to drive all the decent farmers out, because there’s oil under that thar land (rather a modern plot line for the 1870s but never mind). Coffin or Barcroft discuss this heinous plot with the henchmen every week in case any kids haven’t seen previous chapters.
There are the usual heavies and slick criminals. And there are lots of fights and chases – stuntman Tom Steele and team being kept pretty busy. Republic had a reputation for the best stuntmen in the business. Directors Fred C Brannon and Thomas Carr did a good job, with action aplenty in each episode – I mean chapter – and there are lots of pyrotechnics. There’s a Tennessee/riverboat thread to the plot too. Naturally there’s a cliff-hanger ending each week. All good, clean fun.
It climaxes in a race to the oil refinery in wagons. By an absolutely amazing coincidence, this was the plot of Republic’s John Wayne/Gabby Hayes picture In Old Oklahoma (1943) so they were able to use footage from that for the wagon chase scene.
Then soon after, in 1948, Clayton was back. Adventures of Frank and Jesse James is another Republic serial. This time the stunts were even better because Yakima Canutt was director with Fred Brannon.
Adventures has Frank in it, a buckskin-clad Steve Darrell. He had to wear buckskins because Republic wanted to re-use footage from Adventures of Red Ryder and that was what Hal Taliaferro wore. Clayton’s hat looked a lot like Don ‘Red’ Barry’s, too.
Of course Frank is very much the junior partner, even if his name does come before Jesse’s in the title. By this time on the screen Frank James had become little more than Jesse’s sidekick and factotum. Again it’s 13 fifteen- or twenty-minute chapters for boys (and maybe a few girls) to thrill to. It has the same plot: badmen are committing crimes and blackening the James boys’ spotless reputation. Frank and Jesse have to catch them and stop this naughtiness. It’s fascinating how guerrilla fighters, robbers and killers like the Jameses became such American heroes. You’d never convince a small boy in the late 40s that Jesse James was a baddy.
The trailer tells us that “the most fearless adventurers in the West join the forces of law and order to prevent desperadoes from committing crimes in their name”. And it assures us that “the screen explodes with exciting danger!” Indeed, there are collapsing mines, exploding bombs, and runaway coaches. Bet you can’t wait.
There are the usual cliff-hangers and the heroine Judy (Noel Neill, a future Lois Lane) gets into a great deal of trouble so that she may be rescued by the bold adventurers, Jesse mostly.
Instead of the race with oil wagons in the first go-round, this one has an ambush of wagons hauling mining equipment but you know, plus ça change and all that.
The formula clearly worked because in 1949 Republic made yet another Jesse James serial, The James Brothers of Missouri. It again had Fred Brannon at the helm, and Yak, but this time it starred Keith Richards (no, not that one) as Jesse. This was because Moore had gone off to ride Silver on TV, the first episode of The Lone Ranger airing in September ’49. Robert Bice was Frank.
John Howard (Jesse, of course) once more wants to “attempt to live within the law”. But a ruthless freighter (Barcroft again) is trying to force a rival company out of business. His henchmen attack the stage Jesse is on. Mistake. There’s always a mastermind behind the heavy in these serials and this time, in a twist, it’s a woman, Belle Calhoun (Patricia Knox), mistress of the Frontier Belle, and her identity is revealed early (usually viewers had to wait to find out who the sinister mastermind was, though if you didn’t guess by half way through you were pretty dumb).
This one was trimmed from 13 chapters to 12, to save money and make it rattle along a bit faster.
But TV was beginning to bury movie-theater serials, and what’s more, lobby groups were rearing their ugly heads again, protesting the glorification of outlaws. Poverty Row outfit PRC were even constrained to change Billy the Kid’s name to ‘Billy Carson’ in their series. Jesse James would ride no more in weekly thrillers.
Still, Republic (and Universal) serials left a legacy. Historian Jack Mathis wrote, “Considered the best sound serials ever made, the Republic cliffhanger exhibited that intangible asset of production values which combined with a genius for organization to produce polished products which belied their [very modest] cost.”
The 1940s still had one more screen Jesse to offer us, and it was, despite the low-budget apparently B-movie look to it, perhaps the best Jesse film of the decade. But that we shall be discussing next time, blogpards, so please do come back soon.