Thursday, December 13, 2007

Jesse James (1939)

Jesse finally meets his boy.This is another Tyrone Power movie, but I like this one a lot better than The Black Swan. Instead of being distracted by unbelievable character development I was distracted by historical inaccuracies, but for reasons I'll get into I was able to forgive those for the sake of dramatic license.

In Jesse James, Power plays the Robin Hood version of Jesse James, which we all know isn't real. That means a lot of stuff -- and not just his motivation -- has to be changed to fit the movie's view of Jesse. In contrast, American Outlaws just threw out history altogether. There was no Northfield bank or Bob Ford; Outlaws is basically an unrelated Western (and not at all a bad one) with some historical names slapped on. Jesse James, on the other hand, tries to include some historical details, but manipulates them. For one example, it makes the traitorous Ford responsible for the Northfield failure. Another is Jesse's death.

I'm not defending the historical Ford's cowardly way of killing Jesse, but I do believe there was a tangible element of fear that contributed to his doing it that way. In Jesse James, Jesse poses absolutely no threat to the Ford brothers, so Bob's act just comes across as mean. And John Carradine plays Ford so sinisterly that they might as well have changed the character's name to Judas Iscariot.

But, inaccuracies aside, Jesse James is really a worthwhile movie. Power hated being stereotyped as a swashbuckler and I can see why now. Playing Jesse gives him a much wider range to play in than I've seen him use as Zorro or any of his pirate roles. Jesse starts off as just a nice, Missourian farmboy, but he quickly has to learn some wiliness in order to survive the persecution the railroad's putting on him. After a while of robbing banks and trains though, he comes to like it and his men and family begin to fear for his sanity. Eventually, a conversation with Frank (played with amazing, quiet power by Henry Fonda) brings Jesse back around and sends him home to his wife whom he hasn't seen in five years and the son he's never met. Power plays amiable, sly, menacing, and repentant equally well.

His talents as an adventure star aren't wasted though. Jesse James isn't a shoot-em-up, but there's still plenty of action and stuntwork, especially during a train robbery and the thrilling escape from Northfield.

I also liked Nancy Kelly's (Tarzan's Desert Mystery) performance as Zee. The script gives Jesse's wife a lot more to do than either American Outlaws or The Assassination of Jesse James and Kelly sells her as a woman torn between her love for Jesse, her fear for his safety, and her frustration at his inability to settle down.

There's some great scenery in Jesse James too. It's a color movie and they made full use of that new technology in the cinematography, especially in the horse chases and some of the James boys' mountain hideouts.

Jesse James may not reflect the real man, but it's a beautiful presentation of a great story about some fictional folks I ended up liking a lot.

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