(director: Fritz Lang; screenwriter: Sam Hellman; cinematographer: George Barnes; editor: Walter Thompson; music: David Buttolph; cast: Henry Fonda (Frank James, aka Ben Woodson), Gene Tierney (Eleanor Stone), Jackie Cooper (Clem, aka Tom Grayson), Henry Hull (Maj. Rufus Cobb), John Carradine (Bob Ford), J. Edward Bromberg (George Runyan), Donald Meek (McCoy), Ernest Whitman (Pinky), Charles Tannen (Charlie Ford); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; CBS/Fox; 1940)

“The film is short on action but long on courtroom melodrama, not a good balance for a routine Western.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Fritz Lang (“Western Union”/”Siegfried”/”Fury”) directs his first Western and color film that turns out to be a conventional and slow in the saddle one that is not without some interest (filmed on location in the deserts of California). It’s a fictional take on reformed outlaw Frank James; a sequel to Henry King’s romanticized box office hit Jesse James (1939), with Henry Fonda, Henry Hull and John Carradine repeating their roles from the earlier film. Sam Hellman turns in the efficient script, using a revenge story premise and whooping it up as a sentimental celebration of the good ole frontier days. Gene Tierney makes her film debut in the role of an Eastern reporter who falls for Fonda’s Frank James after she wants to tell Frank’s true story to the world. The lady urges the outlaw gone straight to give up his need to avenge his brother Jesse’s cowardly murder in the back by Carradine’s Bob Ford and Charlie Ford, who after they were convicted in court were pardoned by the governor and given the reward money.

Frank James, aka Ben Woodson, feigned his death to be a farmer in the Ozarks, living in Liberty with his loyal ex-slave “Pinky” (Ernest Whitman) and Clem (Jackie Cooper), the teenage boy he adopted. When Frank learns in his southern friend Major Rufus Cobb’s (Henry Hull) newspaper that the Fords escaped the hang man he robs the express office of McCoy (Donald Meek), who put up the reward for Jesse. Clem ran away from Pinky to help, against Frank’s wishes, and accidentally fires his gun during the robbery. This alerts the town’s people who shoot wildly into the office and accidentally kill the watchman. Railroad detective Runyan (J. Edward Bromberg) is hired by McCoy to get Frank.

Tracking the Fords to Denver, Frank and Clem concoct a phony story to tell the pretty Eleanor Stone about Frank’s death. She gets the story printed in her father’s paper, but learns from Runyan it’s a hoax. The Fords are putting on a reenactment of killing Jesse James in the Denver hotel, but flee when they spot Frank in the audience. While fleeing Charlie falls off a cliff and is killed.

When Frank learns through Eleanor that the law is about to hang the innocent Pinky for the express office murder, Frank says he’ll surrender in Liberty after he gets Ford. But Runyon arrests Frank and Pinky is freed, as Frank is brought to trial. But his peers refuse to convict him. Outside the courtroom, Bob Ford kills Clem. Frank follows him into a barn and takes care of Bob Ford. Populist hero Frank then is pardoned for this shooting and bids proper lady Eleanor goodbye.

The film is short on action but long on courtroom melodrama, not a good balance for a routine Western.

The Return of Frank James Poster