Jesse James (1939)

“I hate the railroads — and when I hate, I’ve got to do something about it.”

When a thuggish railroad goon (Brian Donlevy) accidentally causes the death of their mother (Jane Darwell), brothers Jesse (Tyrone Power) and Frank (Henry Fonda) James become outlaws, robbing trains. With the help of a newly appointed lawman (Randolph Scott), Jesse’s girlfriend (Nancy Kelly) tries to convince him to reform — but when a conniving railroad owner (Donald Meek) betrays the brothers’ trust once again, Kelly’s hopes are dashed.


Notorious gangster and train robber Jesse James is duly whitewashed in this beautifully shot if historically dubious western (scripted by Nunnally Johnson, and directed by Henry King) which portrays his life of crime as the direct result of homesteaders being unfairly forced to give up their land. The Technicolor cinematography is truly stunning (a standout sequence features a silhouette of Jesse running along the tops of train cars with unaware passengers lit below), and the location shooting in Missouri adds to the film’s overall feel of authenticity. However, while the female romantic lead (Kelly, giving a strong performance) helps us sympathize with Jesse, we don’t really get enough of a sense of who Jesse or his brother were, or why they persist in a life of crime long beyond seeking vengeance on Meek (played as a caricature of a sniveling baddie); meanwhile, Scott’s supporting character is badly underdeveloped. This film was followed immediately by a sequel — The Return of Frank James (1940) — starring many of the same actors (including John Carradine as the “coward” who shot Jesse in the back), but directed by Fritz Lang. See also I Shot Jesse James (1949), directed by Sam Fuller.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine Technicolor cinematography

  • Nancy Kelly as Zee

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended as a well-shot western. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


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