The Power of Jesse James
Alongside Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, Jesse James is one of those iconic characters who have had more than their fare share of movies made about them. And even before Henry King gave us "Jesse James" in 1939 there had already been 3 movies about the western legend. Now as such watching "Jesse James" now it's not so much a case that you watch to learn about the infamous outlaw but to see the differences between the various movies and one difference is that this is very much a romanticized version. By that I mean we have a portrait of Jesse James as a wronged man forced into being an outlaw but at the same time being a champion of the people and as such the darker side of his character, the nastiness which has been shown in more modern movies is barely present. But despite this "Jesse James" is entertaining in an enjoyable old fashioned western sort of way with a director who has confidence in his actors to allow them to deliver the story rather than filling the movie with too much padding.
With the railroads taking over the open range, farmers and land owners are being forced off of their land by unscrupulous agents who will resort to all manner of low tricks to obtain people's land. And they certainly sink to a low level when they try and force the James family to give up their land, killing Ma James in the process. Angered by the death of his mum Jesse James (Tyrone Power - The Black Swan) seeks revenge and it leads to him and his brother Frank (Henry Fonda - On Golden Pond) forced in to becoming outlaws when the Railway Company place a ransom on their heads. But whilst they may have the law after them the people still love the James brothers and their gang as they continually stick it to the rich. But with every robbery the ransom increases making Jesse's life one of constant moving and mistrust as even those close to him are tempted to betray him.
Now I have watched many of the movies about Jesse James and it is always interesting to see what ways the storyline differs and the most significant difference in "Jesse James" is the way Jesse is represented because here he is a good guy wronged. It does set about establishing this as we watch Ma James killed by the unscrupulous agents of the railways who are forcing people to sell up and so right away we have Jesse along with his brother Frank basically wronged and looking for revenge. This nicely establishes why Jesse and Frank became outlaws, forced to rob from the well off whilst keeping one step ahead of the law. But it also establishes that they had a grudge with the railway company suggesting to those they rob on trains they should sue the company.
This element of being a good guy wronged continues when following the quick marriage to Zee, Jesse turns himself in on the promise that he would be treated fairly yet Mc Coy of the train company goes back on his word. And so it goes on because through out the whole of "Jesse James" we get this picture reinforced time and again as well known elements such as the Northfield bank job are played out. It is all a bit one sided and romanticized as the nasty streak, that of a killer never shows itself, yes we see killings but only in retaliation and only someone who is a bad guy.
But whilst a very one sided version of the legend it is an entertaining one with a nice mix of storytelling and action as well as a touch of romance as we see how Jesse's life on the run affects his relationship to Zee. What makes this work is that whilst director Henry King crafts a nice looking movie he has the confidence in his stars to act it out. He doesn't shy away from delivering closes ups of the actor's faces, allowing their delivery to create the atmosphere rather than resorting to long shots and too much action.
To be fair Henry King had some great actors to work with and in lesser parts Randolph Scott, John Carradine and Nancy Kelly all deliver convincing performances as does Henry Fonda who plays Frank James. But understandably it is Tyrone Power as Jessie James who is the outright star of "Jesse James" and in many ways was the perfect choice for a romanticized version. His looks, that smile his delivery of action it all works to create this perfect portrait of a man forced into becoming an Outlaw and one who ended up revelling in his notoriety.
What this all boils down to is that "Jesse James" is despite its age still a very entertaining movie about Jessie James. It most certainly plays about with the facts and delivers what is a one sided romanticized look at the legendary outlaw. But because director Henry King not only crafts a good looking movie but also has faith in his stars to deliver the drama it works.