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The Great Jesse James Raid

Scene from The Great Jesse James Raid with Barbara Payton

THE DINGUS P{ROEJCT
Jesse James in Film #04

This 1950s western represents Jesse James films at their very worst. The outlaw is merely an excuse to crank out a plodding and uninspired melodrama. Only the Hollywood scandals of its stars Barbara Payton and Tom Neal make this dud interesting.

The Great Jesse James Raid (1953)
73 minutes
Willard Parker, Tom Neal, Barbara Payton

Great Jesse James Raid 1953 on the Dingus ProejctA bare-chested Jesse James (Willard Parker) wakes up from a bad dream and is comforted by his wife Zee (Barbara Woodell). Hiding out in St. Joseph, Missouri under the name Tom Howard, Jesse has grown sick of running and hiding. But just as he is about to hang up his guns forever, two members of the gang – one of them is Bob Ford -- show up with a scheme to rob a gold mining company in Colorado. Although it doesn’t translate today, this opening sets up Jesse as a sexy character with all the sleaze of a period detective magazine cover. The funniest line comes when Jesse calls up to his wife, "It’s all right honey. It’s Bob Ford." Ford, historians generally agree, killed the outlaw with a bullet in the back.

In one of the worst-acted, least-inspired of all the James’ films, the outlaw trio pick up three more gang members on the way to the scene of the crime. Jesse quickly falls in with a dance hall singer named Kate played by Barbara Payton. Payton’s lurid life story of heroin addiction, love affairs and prostitution is far more interesting that this film.

Although there is no historic connection, the theme of robbing a gold mine occurs in a number of Jesse James films, again supporting the theory that many script writers, rather than reading about James, simply watched earlier films. Here the gang plans to tunnel up beneath a $300,000 stash of gold using dynamite. For no clear reason Bob Ford shows up at the mine with Kate. Ford is planning to turn in Jesse for a $10,000 reward after his gang gets the gold.

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Again for no reason, one of Jesse’s gang, played by Tom Neal, attacks Kate. Actor Neal, a Harvard-lawyer and boxer, was involved with Payton in real life, and brutally beat another of her suitors. Neal was later sent to prison for murdering his wife. When a few unknown men then show up, apparently to capture Jesse James, there is the inevitable shoot-out. Only Jesse and Bob Ford survive the battle. As they go their separate ways at the end of the film, a male voice sings the ballad of Jesse James, reminding us that Ford will later shoot Jesse in the back – apparently in another movie.

The plot is flat and seems contrived on the spot. Only the opening scene in which Jesse and Zee are at home, the film is disconnected from historical fact. It functions like an episode in one of the serials" that ran in theaters a decade before. The dialogue is empty. The music sounds like it was recycled from another soundtrack. Even the VHS movie box is lackluster, with washed-out color. Actor Tom Neal looks more like a man with indigestion, than a menancing foe. The reprint of the film is fuzzy and filled with scratches, which only made a bad film worse. The behind-the-scenes drama is much more interesting.

Copyright © J. Dennis Robinson at SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

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