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Jesse James (1939)

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Jesse James (1939). Tyrone Power (Jesse James), Nancy Kelly (Zerelda). Jesse James, suuri seikkailija / Utanför lagen / Jess il bandito.     Director: Henry King. Year: 1939. Country: USA. Scen.: Nunnally Johnson. F.: W. Howard Greene, George Barnes. M.: Barbara McLean. Scgf.: William S. Darling, George Dudley.     Int.: Tyrone Power (Jesse James), Henry Fonda (Frank James), Nancy Kelly (Zerelda), Randolph Scott (Will Wright), Brian Donlevy (Barshee), Donald Meek (McCoy), Henry Hull (maggiore Rufus Cobb), John Carradine (Bob Ford), Slim Summerville (il carceriere), J. Edward Bromberg (Mr. Runyan).     Prod.: Darryl F. Zanuck per Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. 35 mm. D.: 106’. Col.     Helsinki premiere: 13 Aug 1939 Bio Rex, distributed by O.Y. Fox Films A.B.     Copy from BFI.     by courtesy of Park Circus.     Soul and Craft: A Portrait of Henry King.     Viewed at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, 29 June 2019. Ehsan Khoshbakht (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "The western, as far as the statistics show, was not Henry King’s forte. His mostly unseen early silents aside, he contributed very few entries to the genre. However, King’s revisionism and stylistic rigour made his westerns essential works: whether pioneer romance epic (The Winning of Barbara Worth), anti-capitalist outlaw western (Jesse James), anti-violence tragedy (The Gunfighter) or anti-vengeance drama (The Bravados)." "Here, the myth of the James brothers is depicted sympathetically and as the title suggests, the more charismatic, tobacco-spitting Frank James (superbly acted by Henry Fonda) is a secondary character – pushed to the centre only later, in Fritz Lang’s sequel, The Return of Frank James (1940). There are other colourful supporting characters, such as the perpetually Judas-like John Carradine as Bob Ford; the ranting, cussing Henry Hull as a newspaperman; and Randolph Scott as the sympathetic sheriff. Yet, the film is less a character study than a record of events, whose historical accuracy King took great pride in. If John Ford got the story straight from the horse’s mouth by meeting Wyatt Earp, King spoke to Frank James’ son, then a retired attorney in Kearney, Missouri. Throughout the shoot, he tried to retain a sense of accuracy – in the props, realist use of colour and choice of locations. The latter also involved King’s skill in aviation, using his aeroplane to scout locations, which brought a sense of command over the space in his direction of action sequences, contributing enormously to his adventure films."   "If one doesn’t consider historical facts as spoilers, then it would seem harmless to point out that Jesse gets shot in the back. Producer Zanuck disliked this ending, so much so that while King was in hospital, he asked director John Cromwell to shoot an alternative ending. Fortunately the result was disappointing, and the original was reinstated. Eventually a box-office hit, the film proved that “on some occasions it’s better to use a little common sense than a lot of manufactured fiction”, as King himself put it." Ehsan Khoshbakht AA: The year 1939 has often been called the best film year of all times. William K. Everson emphasized the year 1939 also as the most decisive turning-point in the history of the Western film. Since the advent of sound, the Western had mainly survived as a low budget genre, thriving mostly in popular series of programmers, with interesting exceptions of course, such as The Big Trail. All changed in 1939 with many A-budget Westerns directed by A directors, such as Destry Rides Again (also screened at this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato), Dodge City, Drums Along the Mohawk, Frontier Marshal, Jesse James, The Oklahoma Kid, Stagecoach, and Union Pacific. It was the start of the second golden age of the Western. Both Henry King and John Ford had directed a number of silent Westerns, but neither had made one since 1926 when King directed The Winning of Barbara Worth and Ford made Three Bad Men (both screened in Bologna this year). I had seen Jesse James before on home video, but like The Bravados, I saw the film's true grandeur only on the cinema screen. It was like a different film. In the silent Henry King retrospective in Pordenone in 1995 I noticed that King's best films were based on strong scripts. The screenwriter of Jesse James is Nunnally Johnson, one of the best scenarists at 20th Century-Fox; he had been on contract at the studio since its founding / merger year of 1935. (Last year in Bologna we saw Johnson's favourite film, Holy Matrimony , directed by John M. Stahl.) For King Johnson would produce his next Western, The Gunfighter. For Peter von Bagh, Jesse James was Henry King's masterpiece, seen in the context of the 20th Century-Fox ethos, a parallel work to The Grapes of Wrath which would have its premiere a year later, sharing much of the same cast, both written by Nunnally Johnson and both produced by Darryl F. Zanuck personally. A fury at social injustice is the driving force of both films, remarkably since the film-makers were no radicals. Nunnally Johnson's script is not based on historical facts about Jesse James. It is a Robin Hood fairy-tale reflecting on key periods of social injustice, mainly the period of the original accumulation of building the transcontinental railroads in the 19th century: the "Robber Barons, standing for a Gilded Age of corruption, monopoly, and rampant individualism. Their corporations were the Octopus, devouring all in its path" (Richard White). There is also an undercurrent about more recent financial speculators before the Great Depression. Significantly, Henry Fonda plays both Frank James and Tom Joad. From the viewpoint of Henry King, the saga of Jesse James is relevant to his affection of rural America, the honesty and dignity of its gentle farmers. When that dignity is violated by the brutal agents of the robber barons, the farmers are not going to meekly submit. This is an important extension to the tradition of Americana at Fox, a main founder of which was Henry King, following D. W. Griffith, together with John Ford, Frank Borzage et al. Tyrone Power is cast against type as Jesse James, and that makes the film more interesting. Like Richard Barthelmess in Tol'able David he is the all-American boy, gentle, nice and wholesome. The brutalization of his character is all the more alarming. Finally, realizing that he only brings disaster to everybody he loves he tries to change, but it is already too late. Jesse James is a tragedy in the form of a folktale, sincerely felt, and deeply moving. On display was a truly beautiful BFI print, doing justice to the concept "glorious Technicolor" and the art of George Barnes, advised in Technicolor by W. H. Greene. THE YEAR 1939, A TURNING-POINT IN WESTERN FILMS Across the Plains, Adventures of the Masked Phantom, Allegheny Uprising, The Arizona Kid, Arizona Legion, The Arizona Wildcat, Bad Lands, Blue Montana Skies, The Bronze Buckaroo, Chip of the Flying U, The Cisco Kid and the Lady, Code of the Cactus, Code of the Fearless, Colorado Sunset, Death Rides the Range, Destry Rides Again,  Dodge City,  Drums Along the Mohawk , The Fighting Gringo, Frontier Marshal , Geronimo, The Girl and the Gambler, Henry Goes Arizona, Jesse James , The Kansas Terrors, The Kid from Texas, Law of the Pampas, The Marshal of Mesa City, Mexicali Rose, New Frontier, The Night Riders, The Oklahoma Kid , Oklahoma Terror, Outlaws' Paradise, Racketeers of the Range, Range War, Silver on the Sage, Stagecoach , The Stranger from Texas, Three Texas Steers, Trouble in Sundown, Union Pacific , Wyoming Outlaw. AFI CATALOG ONLINE: HISTORY According to a pre-production news item in HR, Arleen Whalen was to play the female lead in this film. A 14 Oct 1938 news item in HR notes that director Henry King was confined to bed because of a swelling of his inner ear. Irving Cummings replaced King until he returned to the set on 24 Oct. According to materials contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection at the UCLA Theater Arts Library, Darryl Zanuck suggested that the desire for revenge for the railroad's murder of his mother should motivate "Jesse" to become a renegade. The real Jesse James was not the handsome romantic figure portrayed by Tyrone Power, but a cold, ruthless killer. Jesse was born in Missouri in 1847, and at age fifteen, joined a group of vicious, pro-Confederate guerrillas led by William C. Quantrill. After the Civil War, Jesse, his brother Frank and several other men formed an outlaw gang and began robbing banks, stagecoaches and trains. As depicted in the film, in 1876, the gang was almost wiped out during a bank holdup in Northfield, MN. Jesse and Frank escaped and formed a new gang. On 3 Apr 1882, Jesse was shot and killed by fellow gang member Bob Ford for a reward. Six months after Jesse's death, Frank surrended and was tried and acquitted twice. An article in Life notes that the film was shot on location at Pineville, MO, and cost $1,600,000 to produce. Materials contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Library add that during the execution of a stunt, a horse, ridden by stuntman Cliff Lyons, drowned after jumping off a cliff into Lake of the Ozarks at Bagnall Dam, MO. The crew attested that the horse did not suffer any injuries in the fall, but became excited when he hit the water and drowned before the crew could get a rope around his neck. Because of the incident, the regulation of motion picture production by the American Humane Association became part of the MPPDA code. Modern sources note that Jo Francis James, who is credited with assemblage of historical data, was Jesse's granddaughter. In 1940, Fox released The Return of Frank James , a sequel to this film (see below) in which Henry Fonda reprised his role as Frank James. Among other films based on the life of Jesse James was the Paramount 1950 film The Great Missouri Raid , directed by Gordon Douglas and starring Wendell Corey and Macdonald Carey; the 1972 Universal film The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid , directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall and the 1980 film The Long Riders directed by Walter Hill and starring Stacy and James Keach as the James brothers. SYNOPSIS The ruthless slaying of their mother by Barshee, an agent of the Midland Railroad who has been sent to swindle the farmers out of their land, forces the James boys to renounce their legacy of farming and become renegades. Fighting to stop the encroachment of the railroad, Frank and Jesse organize a band of outlaws to rob the line. After a series of successful raids, Jesse's sweetheart Zerelda, known as Zee, the niece of town newspaper editor Major Rufus Cobb, pleads with Jesse to give himself up and take the reduced sentence offered by McCoy, the head of the railroad. After he and Zee are married, however, Jesse learns that McCoy is planning to double-cross him and, with the help of Frank and the gang, escapes. Continually hunted, Zee grows tired of running and hiding, and after she must face the birth of her son alone, she begs Rufus to take her home to Liberty, Missouri. Accompanied by their friend, Marshal Will Wright, Rufus and Zee head back to Missouri, and when Jesse learns of his wife's departure, he chooses not to follow, realizing that she will be happier without him. Five years pass and while Jesse leads the life of a renegade, his son grows to boyhood, unaware of his father's reputation. One day George Runyan, the Midland detective, rides into Liberty and announces complete amnesty and a $25,000 reward in return for the death of Jesse James. Meanwhile, Jesse is planning a risky raid on the bank at Northfield, Minnesota. Learning of the reward, gangmember Bob Ford notifies Runyan of the raid, and when Jesse and Frank enter the bank, they find the law awaiting them. The brothers escape, but Jesse is badly wounded and taken by a friendly farmer to his cabin in the woods. He arrives to find Zee and his son, and the reunited family plans to begin life anew in California. Before he can set out on his new life, however, Jesse is shot in the back by Bob Ford.  PETER VON BAGH: HENRY KING: BEYOND THE AMERICAN DREAM (MUBI NOTEBOOK, 17 JUNE 2019) FROM THE CHAPTER: TYRONE POWER: THE FORCE OF PRESENCE Yet he is an insider in the mystery of time. He takes us on a walk through lost time and things past, for instance in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which proceeds in several layers of time, and in an even more significant work as well, Jesse James. Naturally Henry Fonda was excellent, too, in Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James (1940), but the electricity emanating from him was somewhat too obviously constructed in comparison with Power, who possessed the quality characteristic of film stars to project essence through mere presence. Under King’s direction Power radiates an alternating current in the friction between reality and Brechtian distanciation. FROM THE FINAL CHAPTER: THE FOX YEARS King’s undisputed masterpiece Jesse James premiered in 1939, perhaps the best film year of all times. One of the deepest pleasures is to sense how it resonates in the historical moment with a potent critical stance against capitalism as a response to the agony of the Depression years. Even more touching is the synchrony with its sister film, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), produced at the same studio. Together these two works offer an illuminating example of studios functioning at their best when there is an innovative and inspiring connection between creative teams and producers. The screenplay of Jesse James follows the arc of traditional tragedy. The narrative is deepened by lyrically compact observations. The aggressively bright Technicolor palette contrasts with the refined hues typical for King. As a colorist one might characterize King as a privileged painter of border zones. In his own words “the director paints with light.” Jesse James veritably bathes in the green of the landscape, as if breathing pure air by the riverside. King’s reputation as a routine director may be partially deserved; probably the bulk of his 1930s assignments was pure routine. A robust professionalism is evident in everything King did, but we seldom feel enthusiasm. That said, Jesse James is pure passion and simultaneously—this is worth remembering—a remake of a very familiar tale. After all, we cannot reproach Henry King for remaking Hollywood romances, as little as we can reproach Chekhov for lingering over trivial details or Hemingway for using simple sentences. King’s films are staggering, precisely because there is nothing original in them. As Jacques Lourcelles puts it, they are beautiful expressions of “Americana en profondeur.” They follow the plain logic of a popular song. In their utter ordinariness they pause in quiet reflection to face life’s fundamental truths.

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