Jesse James (1939)

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.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Biopics
  • Brian Donlevy Films
  • Henry Fonda Films
  • Henry King Films
  • Historical Drama
  • John Carradine Films
  • Outlaws
  • Randolph Scott Films
  • Tyrone Power Films
  • Westerns

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.


One thought on “Jesse James (1939)

  1. Agreed; not must-see but it’s not a bad film, for its (inaccurate) type.

    As I always say, I’m not a historian – though it’s generally known that this film plays wildly with the facts (even though the opening titles credit two people for “historical data assembled”). Those more interested may want to see Andrew Dominik’s impressive 2007 film, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ (although that, in turn, is based on a novel, so… I can’t say). There’s a line in John Ford’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” So maybe even historians have a very rough time of… so many things.

    As its own film, however, at least ‘Jesse James’ plays believably. I can understand (according to this film), why Jesse’s initial impulse would turn into a life of crime (something both Fonda and Kelly warn him about). ‘Union Pacific’ – which I just watched – gives us a window into the amount of resentment there was re: the progression of railroads. I can understand – in Jesse’s case – how his personal resentment could continue to grow along with the continued expansion of railroads.

    Spealing of Kelly… I’d forgotten this is the same Nancy Kelly who, years later, would star in ‘The Bad Seed’. (If you sometimes look closely at her here, you can see expressions that would echo in ‘The Bad Seed’.) I was slow to pick up on that because she was not known for higher-profile films and she mostly went on to work for stage / radio / tv. But she’s rather effective here. (Small point, though… when she’s in bed with her newborn infant and then says something disparaging about both Jesse *and* the baby… would she then, to make amends to the baby, say “Mommy didn’t mean it!” in such a LOUD VOICE?! I mean, the baby is *right under* her mouth! 😉 )

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