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Stars Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper, John Carradine.
As difficult as this can be to parse, there was a brief period in the early 1940s where the director of M and Metropolis almost could have considered going “Two-Gun Fritz,” given the two Technicolor Westerns he filmed consecutively at 20th Century-Fox. There they are, right on Fritz Lang’s resumé: Western Union preceded by The Return of Frank James — both of them a little more than a decade before Lang’s 1952 direction of Rancho Notorious for RKO release, also a Western-of-sorts that is so damned weird that I’ve never been quite able to figure out what, exactly, it is.
By printed accounts I’ve read, Lang apparently enjoyed the experience of seeing a little sagebrush tumble across his resumé — though few would dispute that the standout picture of his Fox tenure was more in his wheelhouse: 1941’s Man Hunt, which preceded Frank James as a Twilight Time Blu-ray release. But looking at the latter’s new Blu-ray, many will opine that Lang easily picked up where Henry King left off with 1939’s also-Technicolor Jesse James — it a huge hit that wears some notoriety even to this day due to its alleged treatment of horses and subsequent American Humane Society policing (though the studio disputed the charge). Neither director brought to this saga what fellow Fox director John Ford might have, especially amid some courtroom burlesque that dominates FJ’s climax. Though Ford was enough of an American History buff to make you wonder you wonder if he could have swallowed either movie in terms of textbook accuracy.
Even so, this 1940 sequel — which picks up after Tyrone Power’s Jesse concludes the first film by getting shot in the back by Bob Ford — is attractively slicked-up escapism that has the added historical benefit of featuring Gene Tierney’s screen debut in a fairly sizable role following her belated initial appearance. This is even one of those occasional Fox productions where studio chief Darryl Zanuck took an on-screen producer’s credit he usually reserved for prestige projects, though I’ve always wondered if he also tried to get Tierney on his famed casting couch.
We open here with Henry Fonda’s Frank behind a plow and living with a former outlaw associate’s teen son (Jackie Cooper, who looks a little old for the role) and a black farmhand (Ernest Whitman). The latter goes by the name of Pinky but is mostly treated with dignity — though in one scene, he has to endure the green and fairly dopey Cooper referring to him as a “darkie” before a hacked-off Frank sets the kid straight about loyalty and respect. Frank is loyal as well to Jesse’s memory, so when he hears that brothers Bob and Charlie Ford were his own brother’s killers and are now even claiming that the fatal shooting was some kind of brave act, Frank takes off to plot revenge after hatching a scheme to make everyone (the law and railroad execs, of course, included) think he’s dead.
This sets up a major subplot involving a Denver newspaper publisher’s daughter (Tierney) who, in a somewhat unexpected twist for a 1940 Western, is insistently vocal about wanting to be a reporter in lieu of settling down with marriage and babies (and probably growing old 40 years before her time while her husband is out working the plow). This is refreshing to see, but unfortunately, her first big scoop turns out to be a factual catastrophe that would sink any career for good before it got out of the gate — a little item that’s conveniently ignored for the rest of the picture after her father’s initial blow-up (maybe her nickname is Ivanka).
To be more specific, inexperienced Tierney swallows an intentional whopper from young Cooper’s character (posing as just some kid) about having seen Frank gunned down a couple weeks earlier on some faraway street. Worse, Fonda’s Frank, who has caught her eye while also being in new disguise, is sitting right there when Cooper spins this bogus yarn. So naturally, the bogus killing gets splashed across papa’s front page as Tierney wonders when she’ll see this nice gentleman again.
It’s around this time that one is forced to quit taking the movie too seriously and simply glean the pleasures to be had, one of which is John Carradine’s performance as Bob Ford from a time right after he and Fonda worked in synch together for John Ford in Drums Along the Mohawk and The Grapes of Wrath. It isn’t easy to reconcile the visage of Carradine’s Ford with John Ireland’s in Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James or Casey Affleck’s in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but in terms of appearance and flamboyant manner, he does come off as the ideal heavy to combust the ire of the far more reserved Fonda at this point of their careers.
There’s also the quality of the overall production, which again cements respect for at least the professional Zanuck, who managed to make Fox proficient at turning out pro-job ‘A’s’ and ‘B’s’ throughout the entire 1940s. But the Blu-ray is a little disappointing — did the original negative get destroyed in one of the studio’s periodic nitrate fires? — and only gets some of what one would hope we’d see from cinematographer George Barnes, who later shot a lot several Technicolor stunners at Paramount. Only the brighter outdoor shots offer hints of what opening night in 1940 might have been like.
Though Fox Home Entertainment released Jesse James on Blu-ray, Twilight Time has covered the other Fox bases with not just this release but also with its recent issuing of 1957’s The True Story of Jesse James, which has always come off as one of those relatively rare pictures (like Flying Leathernecks) where Nicholas Ray directed what almost inevitably came off as a pure assignment, with him trying just to do the best he could. Story’s a nice-looking disc, though, in color and Scope — even if the blown-up footage it cheekily recycled from the 1.37:1 Jesse original wasn’t going to match very well under any circumstances. Meanwhile, you have to wonder if the forefathers intended there to be a zillion more movies about Jesse James than George Washington.
Mike’s Picks: ‘Year of the Dragon’ and ‘The Return of Frank James’