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The Return of Frank James

The real Frank James portrayed by Henry Fonda in 1940 film on The Dingus Project / SeacoastNH.comTHE DINGUS PROJECT
Jesse James in Film #18

Finally, poor Frank James gets his due with this 1940 sequel to the 1939 film starring Tyrone Power. This is a largely imagined and falsely dramatic version of the facts. Henry Fonda reprises his role as the bookish, reluctant outlaw brother of Jesse James. Director Fritz Lang is best known today for his silent science fiction classic Metropolis (1927).



The Return of Frank James (1940)
Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper, John Carradine, Ernest Whitman
92 minutes

This film recycles the ending of the original and picks up exactly where the 1939 film concluded with the assassination of Jesse James in his Missouri home by the Ford brothers. Brother Frank (Henry Fonda, alias Ben Woodson) is out farming with his formerly enslaved servant "Pinky" (Ernest Whitman) when he gets the news. With rumors that he too is dead, Frank decides to lay low and let the law hang the Ford brothers. When the governor, instead, pardons the Fords, Frank goes hunting for them, something he did not do in real life.

Retunr of Frank James #18 on the Dingus Proejct / SeacoastNH.comMajor Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull) reappears as the fictionalized version of John Edward Newman Edwards, the crusading newspaperman who largely created the myth of the heroic James boys. He sets Frank on the trail of the Fords who head West after being pardoned. To get some money to pursue the Fords, Frank robs another train station solo without firing a shot, at least until his fictional "adopted son" Clem (Jackoe Cooper) shows up unannounced. In the fracas, the station officer is accidentally killed.

Frank and Clem head to Denver incognito where, to flush out the Fords, they spin a story about the death of Frank James. Their lies attract a hopeful newspaper woman named Eleanor (Gene Tierney) who published the story of Frank’s death in her father’s newspaper. Frank’s happy marriage in real life is conveniently left out as he becomes romantically interested in the reporter.

Then follows one of the most fantastical Hollywood fictions in any of the semi-historical James films. Learning that the Fords are appearing in a stage dramatization of the assassination, Frank attends a performance of the play. During the show, in which the Fords are depicted as heroes, Frank stands up. The Fords recognize him and toss a lit oil lamp into the theater box, setting the theater on fire. Frank leaps from the box seat in an exact copy of John Wilkes Booth during his escape from Ford’s Theater after assassinating President Lincoln. Frank pursues the Fords into the desert hills on an amazingly fake-looking chase scene. One of the brothers accidentally falls to his death. "That’s one, Jesse," Frank says aloud.

The goal, in this fictional tale, is to present Frank as a true innocent, who never killed a man. When a railroad detective tracks him to Denver, Frank simply ties him up. The real Frank James, confronted with the same situation, murdered his pursuers. Frank hooks up with Eleanor who learns that, back home, Pinky is about to be hanged as an accomplice in a robbery that Frank committed. Frank decides, initially, that catching Bob Ford is more important than saving Pinkie. Eleanor is horrified and heads to Liberty, Missouri to save Pinkie herself. But Frank has changed his mind, not to "save a darkie" as Clem notes, but for love of Eleanor. It is a strange 1940s moral conundrum, and the script writers want to cover all their bases.

Frank and Clem race to Clay County, even stealing aboard a mail train. Neither Eleanor nor the cranky newspaper editor can stall Pinky’s hanging. Then Frank, the reluctant hero, shows up and allows himself to be arrested in order to prove Pinky is innocent.

Dingus INdex

The trial becomes a podium for a reprise of the popular Southern theory that Frank was never an outlaw, but merely defending the South against Unionist forces and the wealthy railroad owners. "Major" Jackson the newspaper editor defends Frank who turns himself in voluntarily. Frank is depicted as a hero for outing himself and risking the death penalty in order to save the life of "a poor innocent old darkie". It is a clever literary device although totally untrue, during an era when race relations were an increasing topic of discussion. The film "Gone With The Wind" (released between the two Jesse James films with Henry Fonda) was already espousing a Hollywood version of race relations in the South. Soon after WW2, a number of "race" films began to question the "separate but equal" law of the land in a way that softened the truth for white audiences. One of those films was actually called "Pinky" (1949). In this film, Frank is seen as kindly because he shows compassion for an African American servant, even though he is not required to by Southern customs. In fact, the James family were slave owners and even trafficked in the sale of black children before the Civil War.

The all-white, all-male pro-Confederate jury finds Frank James innocent of killing the express office watchman in the robbery. Without even leaving the jury box, they find Frank James "not guilty of anything". In reality, Frank was put on trial for a number of crimes over a number of years, and found innocent in every case. Then, in a quirky and cheesy attempt to tie up the loose ends of the film, Bob Ford mysteriously appears in the courtroom at Frank’s trial. When Frank is declared innocent, Ford runs from the courtroom. Clem tries to shoot him, but Ford shoots Clem and escapes into a barn.

With the whole town watching, and once again with righteous anger, Frank goes after Bob Ford, now assassin of his brother and his fictional adopted son. Frank wins. "That’s the other one, Jesse," he says.

Frank gets a full pardon. As the film ends, Frank is running for public office, a goal he actually harbored in real life. Eleanor looks longingly at Frank, but returns to Denver alone. Frank does not get the girl or attain public office, but he has cleared his name – in the eyes of Hollywood, at least. The real Frank James. As a free man, the real Frank James worked in a shoe store, a dry good store, on a farm and as the doorman in a theater. He did some stage acting and gave tours of the James family farm – for a fee – to tourists. He died in 1915.

Copyright © J. Dennis Robinson and All rights reserved.


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