Reputed screenwriting scribe Nunnally Johnson starts off on clever footing by giving his mythic western hero an obvious antagonist. It was the railroad — that lawless iron horse — forcing Jesse James into the position of a criminal. Though he would evolve over time into the complicated human being projecting his legend, at least in the beginning, he was all but driven to take the mantle of an outlaw. At least in this telling.
In making his hero fully sympathetic, Johnson has cast James as a western Robin Hood righting the wrongs perpetrated against him and others based the bloodthirsty land grabbing of railroad companies. Brian Donlevy, still yet to be promoted from his heavy roles, makes his rounds swindling the general populous and using more persuasive tactics to swipe their holdings.
Content notwithstanding, Jesse James is just about the glossiest possible extravaganza, you could offer a cold-blooded outlaw. The early Technicolor is gorgeous to behold, and in these prime early years of their careers, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda aren’t in need of any favors.
Jesse James (Power) is nothing more than a gee-whiz country bumpkin when we first set eyes on him. His big brother Frank (Henry Fonda) sits in the house lazily chawing on tobacco. Despite living with their concerned mother (Jane Darwell), they aren’t squeamish about sticking up for their own. They also aren’t about to be squandered out of their land without a fight, and they’re ready to oblige any strong-armed tactics thrown their way. Dunlevy doesn’t stand a chance.
As they flee into the night with reward posters calling for them to be dragged in for a hefty reward, they on take the mantle of fugitives almost out of necessity. It’s not merely about absconding with payloads for their own pleasure. This is a form of just retribution to be enacted against the corrupt machine belching smoke and literally railroading every poor sap in its way.
A codgerly newspaperman (Henry Hull) is one of their primary champions, though each week spawns a new tirade, whether it be lawyers or dentists or any insufferable faction who are all destroying society as we know it. Rufus Cobb is one of the voices rallying the public on Jesse’s behalf because it is his daughter Zerelda (Nancy Kelly) that the man has an eye for, but he also genuinely likes the lad.
Even as the James’ boys notoriety grows, Jesse and Zee get hitched in an impromptu church wedding. They find out, even among this congregation, they have a great deal of friends.
For every conceited businessman represented by diminutive railroad baron Mr. McCoy (a comically demonstrative Donald Meek), there is another humble, salt-of-the-earth human being like local Marshall Will Wright (Randolph Scott). He knows the law, in all its strictness, calls for him to chase down James as a craven villain. In his own way, he’s cheering for him to live another day, even as he turns the other way on at least one occasion.
It’s this sense of good faith and the pleading of his wife leading Jesse to turn himself into the authorities for a fair trial. The judge has vowed for leniency as negotiated by the marshall. They’re all for a fresh slate. Mr. McCoy is not such an understanding fellow. All he thinks of are dollars and cents. He uses his resources to bring in his own judge and make a harsher sentence stick.
However, he’s hardly counting on Frank James. He happens to be a brazen fellow, and when he vows to come in and retrieve his brother from jail before the stroke of midnight, you better believe he’ll keep his word or else be taken for a fool. Even after their thrilling escape — one of the most gratifying successes of the picture — we fall into a bit of a rough patch.
Not only has Jesse gone off on his own to leave his family to live without the specter of his reputation, he begins to change with the constant pressures and paranoia weighing on him daily. He’s no longer the same good-natured kid who once went on the run in a righteous coup against extortion.
While not a film you look for poignancy in, Henry Fonda is present and he does deliver one monologue that speaks to something supremely candid. Jesse has become hard and crazed, systematically alienating all those around him. And if there’s anyone who can speak to him, it’s his brother Frank. Fonda handles the scene with his usual subtleness dumping all these obvious grievances in the lap of his own flesh and blood. He encourages him to draw if he needs to. Frank’s not squeamish about it, but it’s his last-ditch effort to speak some sense into his kid brother.
What will come of Jesse if he doesn’t trust those who have still stuck with him? Of course, among the faithful, there is often a Judas. In this case, Robert Ford (John Carradine), intent on getting a payoff for stabbing his old compatriot in the back.
We understand implicitly we are reaching the beginning of the end. First, they get corralled in a town after a bank job and a hail of bullets comes raining down from any number of windows. This is not what does him in. If you’re acquainted with the history, you’re aware he got knocked off by a double-crossing skunk. Then, again, this is not the Sunday school truth. If anything, Johnson relishes tinkering with the details and coloring in the tall tales to fit his ambitions.
The verdict? Jesse James feels a bit sluggish as it runs its course. There’s not enough action or bank robberies in the span of the film to make it really feel alive with the overarching aura of the James brothers. In its most watchable moments, it functions, fundamentally, like a family drama. Even if the movie is only a minor oater, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda are the main attractions, and they rarely disappoint.