Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power, Randolph Scott, and Nancy Kelly in Jesse James (1939)


(director: Henry King; screenwriters: Nunnally Johnson/based on historical data assembled by Rosalind Shaffer and Jo Frances James; cinematographer: George Barnes/W.H. Greene; editor: Barbara McLean; music: Louis Silvers; cast: Tyrone Power (Jesse Woodson James), Henry Fonda (Frank James), Nancy Kelly (Zerelda ‘Zee’ Cobb, later Zerelda ‘Zee’ James), Randolph Scott (Marshall Will Wright), Henry Hull (Major Rufus Cobb), Brian Donlevy (Barshee), Slim Summerville (Jailer), John Carradine (Bob Ford), Donald Meek (Mc Coy), J. Edward Bromberg (Mr. Runyan), John Russell (Jesse James Jr.), Jane Darwell (Jesse’s Mom), Ernest Whitman (Pinkie); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; Fox Home Video; 1939)

“Sluggishly directed by Henry King.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The first film on the notorious outlaw James brothers that attempted historical authenticity based on historical data assembled by Rosalind Shaffer and, the granddaughter of Jesse, Jo Frances James. The granddaughter commented that the screen version, nevertheless, did not get an accurate portrayal of Jesse. It never touches on how ruthless he became, instead choosing to keep him likable. The film, a smash hit at the box office, served as the beginning of a cycle of films that glorified the ruthless train and bank robbers, Jesse (Tyrone Power) and the tobacco-chewing countrified Frank (Henry Fonda), of the late 19th century, and made them into Robin Hood figures. It’s slickly written by Nunnally Johnson (making Jesse’s outlaw career entirely the fault of the railroad) and sluggishly directed by Henry King (“A Yank in the RAF”/”The Black Swan”/”The Sun Also Rises”), not doing much with the action scenes. The film’s best virtue is its splendid use of Technicolor.

It starts back in their peaceful Missouri farming days, when the James’ run up against crooked agents for the railroad trying to swindle their family farm. The corrupt giant “St. Louis Midland Railroad” used strongarm men, led by the vicious Barshee (Brian Donlevy), to try and steal the James’ farm for almost nothing and they caused the death of his fragile aged mother (Jane Darwell) when they burn down the farm house after they refuse to sell for peanuts. When Jesse winged Barshee earlier in self-defense, a warrant was sworn out for the brothers and they became fugitives in the hills. This leads to Jesse robbing trains and graduating to robbing banks while on the lam and becoming a local hero to the farmers.

Jesse’s girl Zerelda (Nancy Kelly), nicknamed “Zee,” falls for the town marshal (Randolph Scott) because Jesse is never around. The romantic stuff never amounts to much, as it’s only half-hearted in its presentation. The film has a rousing shootout with the gang in the infamous Northfield Minnesota Bank robbery, where the town was tipped off and the gang took heavy causalities.

Jesse is shot in the back by his trusted friend, the cowardly Bob Ford (John Carradine), and Frank vows revenge. This led to a sequel, Fritz Lang’s “The Return Of Frank James” (1940).

The fine supporting cast are led by Henry Hull, the colorful small-town Ozark newspaper editor who backed the James boys in print, and Donald Meek as the slimy railroad president.

The film earned an unfortunate place in film history due to a spectacular stunt late in the picture that went wrong. A horse was ridden off a 70-foot cliff into a river below and died. This caused a public outcry that led directly to the formation of the American Humane Association’s Film and Television Unit. Since 1940, the unit has monitored the treatment of animals in motion pictures, and since 1989 the term “No animals were harmed during the making of this picture” (a registered trademark) has been applied to films granted that seal of approval.