This review and the next will be late as I try to cram in three reviews (and the movies are getting longer). With that, this series has two fast-paced Westerns worth watching, and one lackluster sequel.
Jesse James (Tyrone Power) and his brother, Frank (Fonda) are forced into banditry after their mother is killed by railroad associates. As they start to lose connection with their town, dissension in the ranks puts Jesse’s life in danger.
I assumed this was a B-level biopic about James as a modern-day (for 1939) Robin Hood. While it does have the B-level biopic quality, the remarkably well-placed actors elevate the movie into a pleasant experience; it’s easy to understand why this was one of the highest grossing films of 1939. It’s not a Technocolor wunderkind like Gone With the Wind, but director Henry King refuses to make it an obtrusive, staid Western. There’s a silence and methodical approach to events which is helped by the lack of an overpowering score. The stunt work for the film is also worth mentioning. It’s easy to get complacent with stunts because of the overabundance of CGI but there’s a lot of well-done practical effects here, especially a scene where Jesse walks along the top of a moving train. Unfortunately, the movie gets a bum rap for being the impetus for the American Humane Association‘s seal-of-approval; a horse was intentionally killed during filming and after its release all movies were told to have the now familiar “No animals were harmed during the making of this film.”
The movie tells the basic outline of James’ story with a few embellishments. He’s no Robin Hood, nor is he an outright villain; in fact, when the duo does rob it’s just smile-inducing, especially Fonda’s Frank telling the people to “be sure to sue the railroad…because they’re responsible.” It’s a typical set-up of past and future James movies to create a moment of comedy to remove the focus that these people are criminals, and because Power and Fonda are such a dynamic duo I was snowed. Fonda gives the first performance, that I’ve seen where I loved him above all the other cast members. His Frank is stoic and quick on his feet – popping the evil railroad man, Barshee (Brian Donlevy) in the face. It’s also the first time he creates a character that isn’t incredibly serious, probably because the material is lighter. He has a brotherly sense of protection over Power’s Jesse and it’s interesting to see how things continue in the sequel. I also found that magnetism that everyone says about Tyrone Power. My first foray into his films was Pony Soldier, which was a better than expected work, but Power wasn’t nearly as compelling as I expected. Here, you chart the progression from boy to man. There’s no doubt that the man is gorgeous, looking younger and more virile than when I saw him last. You’d expect Power to shrink when placed against the strapping Randolph Scott, but the two are evenly matched. I did find the love triangle between Jesse, his wife Zee (Nancy Kelly), and Scott’s Will to be a hindrance to the story. Overall, Jesse James is a well-done B-level Western worth seeking out. Power and Fonda create a tightly bonded team.
Jesse James saw a sequel in 1940 with The Return of Frank James. After his brother is gunned down, Frank (Fonda) tracks down the men who killed him while raising a young man (Jackie Cooper) and falling for a rich reporter (Gene Tierney).
I know a cheap cash grab when I see it, and The Return of Frank James is one! All the good-will, the action, the relationships, established in Jesse James turn into a Western sitcom in The Return of Frank James. The original film was a contained biopic, but since Frank James surrendered quickly after his brother’s death in reality, the movie has to improvise and create a conflict to sustain the narrative; ergo, Frank James gets revenge on the men who killed his brother! Gone is the historical significance or interest, and in its place is a B-level Western with a host of side characters that are boring as wood.
Fonda sleepwalks through the role, and instead of being the firm second-in-command turned leader (as he was in Immortal Sergeant), Frank is the paternal caregiver for Clem. One pet peeve of mine is childlike characters who are meant to annoy before ultimately meeting their demise to garner sympathy; meet Clem! Clem is a man-child who Frank cares for and is never in a position of power; he’s told to return to the house and stay there. He’s the character with delusions of the grand Old West but is too green to survive in the world. Clem is annoyingly complimented by Gene Tierney – in her film début – as reporter Eleanor Stone. Tierney is drop-dead gorgeous, but she’s super annoying! She’s the uppity little rich girl trying to prove herself in a man’s world, and it never gels with the gritty dirt of the revenge plot. When things get tough for Tierney she runs to her father or gets misty-eyed. For fear of angering the real Frank James’ descendents, the studio removed a romance between Frank and Eleanor, so at the end it feels completely pointless to the story. A failed sequel that’s only saved by Fonda’s performance.
Moving from Jesse James to Wyatt Earp with My Darling Clementine. Clementine tells the story of Earp (Fonda) as he attempts to civilize the rambunctious town of Tombstone. As he vows to avenge his brother’s death he butts head with the suicidal Doc Holliday (Victor Mature).
Before I set out to review this Henry Fonda set, I wasn’t a Western fan; and while it’s not my go-to genre, I’ve seemingly re-evaluated my position and have discovered a new-found appreciation for the Western. My Darling Clementine continues in line with The Ox-Bow Incident and Jesse James, although I’d put this in between the two. My Darling Clementine is a movie about progress coming up against a primitive and lawless way of life. When Earp and his brothers arrive in the town they discover a world of sinfulness and wildness; where Earp can’t enjoy a shave without an Indian shooting a gun or someone being murdered. Director John Ford’s camera is highly observant, and several sequences are outright fantastic examples of what a cinematographer can do. Ford employs close-up to heighten the confrontational atmosphere between the Clanton gang and the Earps, uses turbulent clouds to symbolize a town in its own state of turbulence. He also integrates symbols of progress seamlessly to insidiously invade the town and change Tombstone (a name symbolizing death itself) into progress; a Shakespearean actor comes to perform, Clementine’s (Cathy Downs) arrival. The final showdown employs a nice bit of symmetry by having the ill-prepared, primitive Clanton’s coming up against the progressive, well-maintained Earps. Yet the movie always remembers its nostalgic past, as evidenced by Earp becoming the mythic hero riding into the sunset.
The actors are all sufficiently suited for a Western of this caliber and blend together to make a trio of good guys (or women) and anti-heroes. Fonda takes the patient, sensitive role he played in The Ox-Bow Incident and perfects it in the role of Wyatt Earp; creating a magnificent symbol of progress and the West. He’s romantic, loyal (he goes after the Clantons because “it’s a family affair), and devout in his adherence to the law, and he’s not against progress. His foil is Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday. Mature is an intimidating symbol of the Western, as well. Stacked up against Earp, Holliday believes in the method of shooting first before the other man shoots you. He spends the runtime dying of tuberculosis and refusing to acknowledge his lack of place in this new world. His two female lady loves each represent his possible future. Cathy Downs never made much of herself after this, but she’s fine as the meek and composed representation of Eastern ideals (coming from Boston). Where she’s fair and respectable, Holliday’s other woman, Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) is exotic and wild. Darnell is playing a role I’d envision Maureen O’Hara in. Darnell is the Western femme fatale and does a solid job although she is punished for having some type of relationship with the villain. If Doc Holliday cannot accept progress, Chihuahua proves the soon-to-be confining norm for women. A nostalgic reverence for the West of old united with an eye towards progress and order makes My Darling Clementine one of the foremost Westerns.
In terms of bonus content: Jesse James has two mini-Movietone news segments and trailers (little rewatch value); The Return of Frank James has a trailer and that’s it; My Darling Clementine has trailers for the theatrical and pre-release versions, scene-specific audio commentary with Wyatt Earp III (how I wish this and Ox-Bow had full-length), a stills gallery, and trailers.
Ronnie Rating for Jesse James:
Ronnie Rating for The Return of Frank James:
Ronnie Rating for My Darling Clementine:
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.