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Jesse James 1939

Tyrone POwer and Henry Fonda in 1939 as the James Brothers on SeacoastNH.comTHE DINGUS PROJECT
Jesse James in Film #05

Stars Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power make great outlaws in this key film in the Jesse James canon. It is the imaginary story of two real brothers who, according to southern legend, were driven to bad things by bad times. Actor Power is much older than a 16-year old Jesse, but with facts thrown to wind, all things are possible in this American myth.




Jesse James (1939)
103 minutes, color
Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott

Jesse James 1939 file with Tyrone Power  in the Dingus ProejctDarryl Zanuck’s classic Technicolor film – the first Western shot in color -- further popularized the "Robin Hood" myth about the James boys created by fictionalized accounts in the 19th century. Among the most popular and least accurate of the James movies, this superstar drama was the 20th century equivalent of "dime novels." In this version, even the enslaved James’ servant "Pinky" is sympathetic with their battle against the evil railroads.

There is nothing historically accurate about this film. Mrs. James, for example, is killed in an opening scene by railroad men as a crowd watches. In reality, she was wounded in a secret night raid by Pinkerton agents and outlived Jesse. It’s downhill from there. A James family descendant once noted that the only things authentic about this film was there really was a man named Jesse James and he did wear a hat.

Except for the facts, Henry Fonda makes a believably bookish Frank James, a role he reprised in a later film. Everyone except Jesse – the lawyers, the politicians, the railroad – are corrupt in this version. To make things even less believeable, Jesse is pursued by an imaginary sheriff played by Randolph Scott who is also sweet on Jesse’s future wife Zee. Veteran actor John Carradine, interestingly, plays assassin Bob Ford. Carradine’s three sons later played the three Younger brothers in the 1990 version "Long Riders". The Youngers are mysteriously absent from this pre-WWII version. When Zee separates from Jesse with her son – another fiction -- Jesse finally goes crazy and Frank calls him a "skunk."

Dingus INdex

As James’ films go, this one is still highly entertaining. The problem is that its popularity and inaccuracy inspired a host of copycat films. The picture offers an interesting commentary on why Americans often support and glorify the underdog, even when that person is a thief and a murderer. Partially, James is excused for his actions due to his mistreatment as a youth at war, but actor Henry Hunt sums it up. As Major Rufus Cobb, he plays a drunken pro-Confederate newspaper editor fashioned after John Newman Edwards, the amn who created the mythical Jesse James, still so popular today.

He offers the ultimate apology in this monologue:

"I don’t think even America is ashamed of Jesse James. Maybe it’s because he was bold and lawless like we all of us like to be sometimes. Maybe it’s because we understand a little that he wasn’t all together to blame for what his times made him blame all of us.. Maybe’it’s because for 10 years he licked the tar out of five states. Or maybe it’s because he was so good at what he was doing. I don’t know. All I do know is he was one of the dog-gondest-gall-dingdest dad-blamdest buckaroos that ever rode across these United States of America."

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.



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