Return of Frank James, The (1940)

Return of Frank James, The (1940)

“Jesse’s gone, that’s true, and maybe Frank’s gone too — and then again, maybe he ain’t. The boy’s always had a mighty peculiar way of turning up just when you least expect him.”

When his brother Jesse is shot in the back by former accomplice Bob Ford (John Carradine), Frank James (Henry Fonda) and his spirited young ward (Jackie Cooper) set out to seek revenge.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Courtroom Drama
  • Falsely Accused
  • Fritz Lang Films
  • Gene Tierney Films
  • Henry Fonda Films
  • John Carradine Films
  • Outlaws
  • Revenge
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Fritz Lang’s first western was this “satisfying sequel” to Jesse James (1939), with several actors — including Henry Fonda, John Carradine, Slim Summerville, Henry Hull, Donald Meek, and J. Edward Bromberg — reprising their original roles. While it’s difficult to see much evidence of Lang’s signature style in this film, Peary points out that the story represents Lang’s interest in depicting “individuals… at the mercy of groups of people”. Henry Fonda gives a typically subdued performance as James, erupting into action at just the right moments, while Gene Tierney (in her screen debut) is fine but somewhat annoying as a plucky female reporter who falls for James. The story (probably not based on historical fact!) rarely flags, and the outcome — will James successfully avenge his brother, and if so, at what cost? — remains a suspenseful mystery until the very end.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Henry Fonda as Frank James
  • The exciting rocky shootout between Frank and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen)
  • Clem (Jackie Cooper) telling a tale tale to Tierney about how Frank died nobly in Mexico
  • Frank watching a melodrama in which the Fords play nobler versions of themselves (as Peary notes, this is “a great scene”)
  • J. Edward Bromberg as George Runyan
  • Sam Hellman’s smart, often witty script

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.


One thought on “Return of Frank James, The (1940)

  1. Agreed; not a must, but recommended – mostly as a respectable example of sturdy, Fox Studio entertainment. It appears to have been made only because ‘Jesse James’ was a smash for Fox. Director Lang gave it his usual strong visual and color sense. It’s not dull, but it’s not wildly memorable afterwards either.

    As for the stars: Fonda is at his best when really called on to inhabit a character; here he simply turns in one of his journeyman performances. In her debut, Tierney is charming but not on firm ground as an actress.

    I think the better performances are given by Hull, Cooper, and Ernest Whitman as ‘Pinky’.

    See imdb for interesting comments re: how Lang was apparently rather like Otto Preminger when directing; how Fonda couldn’t stand him; how inaccurate this film really may be, etc.

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