Photo above: Robert Ford (John Ireland) shoots Jesse in the 1949 I Shot Jesse James.
(This is the fifth part in our series on Jesse James. Please read the rest of the series here.)
“Thanks to Hollywood, the historic Jesse James has all but disappeared.” — J. Dennis Robinson’s blog,
“The Dingus Project.” “I’ve spent fifty years opposing the most popular myths associated with my great-grandfather and I challenge anyone to point out any movie that is more exciting than the real story. I hope one day someone in the entertainment industry will produce an exciting movie of outlaws and gunslinging, filled with a tremendous love story, and yet remain true to the life of Jesse James.” – From a The Los Angeles Times article by Jesse’s great grandson James R. Ross, an Orange County, California, Superior Court Judge, following the 2001 release of the Jesse James film American Outlaws.
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In one of its 1950 issues, the movie industry magazine Box Office ran a story with the title “Anyone Who Hasn’t Played Jesse James Please Stand Up.” It was an exaggeration, but only a small one and it was funny. There had been at least one and sometimes two full-length Jesse James films every year since 1945. 1949 alone saw the release of three. There would be three more in 1950.
None of them were memorable, with the single exception of director Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James, (1949) which focuses not on Jesse, but on his assassin, Bob Ford. It is their impressive number that reminds us that it was Hollywood that kept Jesse’s name before the public eye more than anything else. What other figure from history can boast so many films made about him in so short a time? The movies weren’t the first pop culture manifestation of Jesse’s hero status, however. That role was taken up by the dime novels, which had already begun publication before Jesse’s death and had become bestsellers. Sometimes they cost only a nickel, but always they were mass-produced pulp fiction that claimed to be “true stories,” but weren’t. Dime novels were published in series such as the “Boys of New York Pocket Library” and “Five Cent Wide Awake Library.” One publication devoted itself entirely to Frank and Jesse, and called itself the “James Boys Weekly Adventure Series.” A man named D. W. Stevens authored the James Boys’ series stories. He’s identified as a writer residing “in James’ Country,” which suggests Missouri, but if so, why not say so? His titles include “The James Boys’ Knights of the Road; or, The Masked Men of Missouri” and “The James Boys’ Ride for Life; or, Chased by Five Detectives.” My favorite title is “The James Boys and the Dwarf; or, Carl Greene’s Midget Detective.” The dime novels were comic books without the graphics, and were popular with the same crowd that would avidly read comic books when they came along nearly a half-century later: adolescent males, mostly, but readers came from every group: adults, girls, the elderly. In one major Jesse film – 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – the dime novels play a significant role, helping delineate the peculiar character of Jesse’s murderer, Bob Ford. In that movie, Ford, played to creepy and unsettling perfection by Casey Affleck, collects the novels about his heroes Frank and Jesse. He keeps his collection hidden in a box under his bed, where teenage boys might once have stashed porn. Ford is obsessed with the books. There’s no doubt he fantasizes acting out the stories they tell and lashes out angrily when his stash is discovered and he’s made fun of. How many movies have been made about Jesse altogether? In his book Frank and Jesse James (2000), the indefatigable Jesse researcher Ted P. Yeatman listed 35 films that appeared between 1908 and 1995. The earliest were The James Boys of Missouri (1908), all of 18 minutes long, and 1911’s Jesse James, making Jesse, not surprisingly, the subject of two of America’s earliest movies.
In 2007, J. Dennis Robinson, author of the children’s book, Jesse James – Legendary Rebel and Outlaw, announced he was going to view all the Jesse James films he could find and started a blog he named “The Dingus,” after Jesse’s guerrilla war nickname. Robinson recorded his thoughts at This Site. He added no new films to Yeatman’s list, except for those that had appeared after Yeatman’s book was published, but his reactions to what he watched provide a helpful framework for thinking about the movies. Then in 201l came Johnny D. Boggs’ Jesse James and the Movies, which is as complete a study of Jesse films as we’re ever likely to have. As a young reporter, Boggs was a sportswriter for Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers, before turning to writing western stories and becoming a six-time winner of the Western Writer of America’s Spur Award for novels such as Hard Winter and West Texas Kill. Boggs hasn’t watched all the movies, but he has watched most of them, done a lot of background research, and can be quite entertaining, particularly when the acting is bad – very frequently the case – or when the movie departs from history so totally that you wonder why it pretends to be about Jesse at all. My own personal greatest disappointment is that in none of the films I watched does the farm in the film look like the real James Farm. How hard would it have been to construct a replica of the original, and use it? After all, if Hollywood wants a Rome, it builds Rome. A modest farmhouse should present no problem. Armed with these three sources, Yeatman, The Dingus Project, and Boggs’ book – I searched Netflix, Amazon, and elsewhere, found a majority of the movies and proceeded to watch them. What did I find? Sadly, the silent films, mostly, have been lost. Even the 1927 “Jesse James,” which starred Fred Thomson, is gone. Thomson was a hugely popular star of silent Hollywood westerns – and, in a mix that one can’t imagine happening today, not since Pat Boone, anyway — an ordained Presbyterian minister as well as star.
Jesse Edward James, Jesse’s son and a Los Angeles lawyer and resident, was hired as a technical adviser for Thomson’s movie. Six years earlier, in 1921, Jesse Edward James had starred as his dad in Under the Black Flag and Jesse James As The Outlaw, which do survive in a 1930 version, and are available on DVD. However, Jesse Edward James was too long in the tooth (in his 40s; Jesse, his dad, had died at 34) and overweight to strike a convincing image of his dad. And as Johnny D. Boggs points out, Jesse, Jr., was no actor at all and even if he had looked right for the part, he wouldn’t have been able to play it. It wasn’t until 1939 that the first major Jesse film that’s still watched today made its appearance. Jesse James – it was in color — featured Hollywood legend Tyrone Power as Jesse and the great Henry Fonda as one of the best Frank James ever. Henry King directed and Nunnally Johnson, a former reporter later to script such classics as The Grapes of Wrath and The Dirty Dozen, did the screenplay. Jesse James was filmed in the Ozarks, not exactly the part of Missouri the James brothers came from, but nonetheless Missouri (and a place where Jesse’s legend was held in high esteem).
It boasted Jesse’s granddaughter, Jo Frances James as a technical adviser, but paid no attention to her advice. Showing that she shared her father’s wit, Jo later declared, “About the only connection [the movie] had with fact was that there was once a man named James and he did ride a horse.” She was right. The film departed from fact so often that it was more legend than history. Yet it possessed a few virtues as well. It’s always bothered me that Power was too Hollywood pretty to play Jesse. He did not look like a man who grew up doing farm work and had fought as a guerrilla in a gruesome war in which he had twice been seriously wounded. But Power did capture Jesse’s charm and humor, two characteristics everyone who knew him said he had. And the movie has good lines: “When I hate, I gotta do something about it,” Jesse says at one point, and it is easy to imagine the real Jesse saying something like that. It also has a neat summing up of Jesse’s character that no later movie ever matched. Near the film’s end, newspaperman Rufus Cobb (played by the great character actor Henry Hull) describes the Jesse he’s known and loved for many years, and he doesn’t leave out the faults. “There ain’t no question about it, Jesse was an outlaw, a bandit, a criminal. Even those that loved him ain’t got no answer to that. But we ain’t ashamed of him. I don’t know why but I don’t think America is ashamed of Jesse James. All I know is he was one of the dog-gonest, goldingus, dad-blamedest buckaroos that ever rode across these United States of America.” The movie was enormously successful, pulling in more viewers than any other film that year except for Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, which shows that 1939 was a stellar year for Hollywood classics
Boggs argues that the Great Depression helped create the film’s popularity. Viewers, often unemployed and facing grave economic problems, identified with Jesse, because the movie showed him fighting against the rich and big money interests of his time, the banks and the railroads. Viewers relished Jesse’s rebellion against the powers-that-be. I agree with Boggs, up to a point, but with a different emphasis. What the Great Depression did, to my thinking, was not so much create a spirit of rebellion, as it unleashed the long time latent feelings that Americans have always had for mavericks and bad boys, traits that had been part of the Jesse of legend from the beginning. It was after 1939 Jesse movies became more frequent. There was a movie where Jesse was a ghost. There have been gay Jesses, and at least one movie where Jesse was a serial womanizer. He’s been portrayed as a weird visionary and as a cold, calculating criminal. In American Bandits (2001), where he’s played by Colin Farrell, he is so likeable, even cuddly, that I have no doubt many viewers, male as well as female, thought he must be one sweet guy and wouldn’t mind giving him a hug. J. Dennis Robinson of The Dingus Project calls Farrell’s Jesse the worst of all movie Jesses. I disagree heartily: I think that award should go to Robb Lowe who played him the 1995 made-for-TV Frank and Jesse. Like Tyrone Power before him, Lowe is too Hollywood pretty to play Jesse and in this role is too wooden and dull to provoke the least bit of interest.
The worst Jesse movie award I find easy to bestow: It goes without hesitation to the most recent Jesse film, 2010’s American Bandits, a movie so bad that it is not in the least improved by the presence of veteran actor Peter Fonda. Former fashion model George Stults plays Jesse but Stults isn’t the problem. The film is lame and breathes no life into the Jesse story and legend. There are several Jesse films that can only be described as silly and mindless. Into this group comedian Bob Hope’s Alias Jesse James (1959) falls easily. Hope didn’t play Jesse, Wendell Cory did. Hope was a great and popular comic in his day but most of his jokes now seem dated. The Outlaws IS Coming (1965) with The Three Stooges is, well, a Three Stooges movie. It’s zany and without a stich of sense. Annie Oakley, who didn’t know Jesse, comes along to save the Stooges from a pickle they’ve gotten themselves in, and why not? The movie is so silly that it wouldn’t be surprising if Abe Lincoln and Babe Ruth likewise appeared as characters.
There is a Jesse monster film as well. A double feature from the 1960’s that ran under the name Shockorama! included Billy the Kid versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. A YouTube trailer of the latter film exists, which starred the now long forgotten John Lupton as Jesse and Narda Onyx as Frankenstein’s daughter (who turns out to be his granddaughter but the title “Frankenstein’s Granddaughter” doesn’t quite resonate). It was the only movie the Estonian-born Onyx ever made, but she can be seen in a number of Beverly Hillbillies episodes. Out of the Jesse movies I watched (and in some cases watched more than once), only six stand out as worth seeing. Here they are, along with a few caveats: 1) Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James (1957) is a failure because it promised to be much more than it turned out to be. In 1955, Ray made film history with the James Dean classic, Rebel Without A Cause. He had shown himself capable of powerful work. Ray wanted Dean to star in his Jesse film. But Dean famously died in a car crash right after he’d completed his part in his third film Giant. I’ve read that Ray then hoped to get Elvis Presley, who had just played a Jesse-like character in his first movie, Love Me Tender, but Pressley’s schedule wouldn’t allow it. So Ray settled for Robert Wagner, whose Jesse turns out to be so wooden and uninspired that (for me) it spoils the film.
Moreover, the film’s title “The True Story of” doesn’t deliver. Even where it would be easy to be accurate, it isn’t. The movie says the James family never owned slaves. They did, as many as seven at one time. Why fib about this fact? The film calls Bob Ford “Robby”! I have no doubt that a young man calling himself “Robby” would have faced merciless ridicule from his peers in the rural Missouri of Jesse’s time. Why not call him Robert or Bob? Still the movie is by an important director. Teenage alienation was a big theme in 1950’s in films like Blackboard Jungle and Ray’s own Rebel Without a Cause. And the film does offer some very good lines: “Jesse James is the shooting spokesman for every man whose life is quietly desperate.” It’s a touch melodramatic, but nonetheless true. James Dean would have played a convincing “alienated” Jesse, and maybe Presley could have too, but not Robert Wagner, who has few acting tricks up his sleeve except a gorgeous smile and a wrinkled brow to show when he’s being serious.
A side note: James Dean played Bob Ford, Jesse’s assassin, in a 1953 episode of You Are There, a series narrated by Walter Cronkite. John Kerr played Jesse.
2) 1972’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid gets my prize for the strangest Jesse film of all time. It’s been said that cast and crew stayed stoned throughout the making of the movie (1972 was the tail end of the 1960’s), and that might explain the film’s unyielding oddness. I have no way of knowing. The great Robert Duvall plays Jesse and what a Jesse he gives us! He’s a Jesse given to visions of a vaguely religious sort, one of which occurs at the movie’s opening when Jesse is sitting in a double-hole privy along with his brother Frank, who is played by John Pearce. As if weird visions weren’t enough, Duvall’s Jesse is a lusty gay man. At one point, this film’s Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) observes, “Jesse has ‘a sickness of the soul … he doesn’t like girls, especially young ones.” “What’s that good-looking kid’s name, Bob Ford?” asks Jesse near the end of the movie with an eager leer, with plans on his mind. “I think he’ll fit in just fine.” Sam Fuller’s 1949 I Shot Jesse James was the first movie to imply Jesse’s gayness. At the end of the film the dying Bob Ford, Jesse’s assassin, himself the victim of an assassin, mutters, “I’m sorry for what I done to Jess. I loved him.” Fuller once declared (without mentioning the source of his information), “The real Jesse James was bisexual, masquerading as a girl to holdup trains … the guy was a low-down thief, a pervert … but you couldn’t show that stuff on the screen back then, demystifying one of the great American icons.”
Now there’s no evidence at all to suggest that Jesse was gay, bisexual, or a “pervert.” All that we know about him indicates he loved his wife and was attached to family life, at least as much as a man in his precarious vocation could be.
- A side note: A gay actor once played Jesse, but didn’t play him as gay: Ray Stricklyn in Young Jesse James (1960).
3) Many people think The Long Riders (1980) is the best Jesse movie. I don’t. But I readily admit it is beautifully, even stunningly, filmed (Ric Waite was director of photography and Walter Hill directed). It is a movie I get pleasure out of watching every time I see it. The film’s innovation is that it brings actor brothers together to play outlaw brothers. It’s a clever idea, but I’m not sure what it contributes to the movie. James Keach is Jesse and Stacy Keach is Frank. David Carradine plays Cole Younger; Keith Carradine is Jim Younger and Robert Carradine Bob Younger. Dennis Quaid and his brother Randy play Ed and Clell Miller, members of Jesse’s gang. Two English actors, Christopher (now the 5th Baron Haden-Guest) and Nicholas Guest take on the roles of Charlie and Bob Ford.
My biggest problem with The Long Riders is James Keach as Jesse. He never seems to inhabit the role. He’s too solemn and taciturn. The other actors all do good jobs, particularly Keith Carradine, who always looks right in such roles. He made a great Wild Bill Hickok in the HBO series Deadwood, for example. The film also has great music by Ry Cooder. I’m particularly partial to his rendering of “I’m a Good Old Rebel,” whose lyrics are certainly pertinent to Jesse’s life: “Oh, I’m a good old Rebel / Now that’s just what I am … And I don’t want no pardon / For anything I’ve done … I hates the Yankee nation / And everything they do …” 4) The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James is a 1986 made-for-TV movie. What makes it fun is that the main cast is made up of country music all-stars. Kris Kristofferson makes a pretty good Jesse. Johnny Cash nearly steals the show as a Frank who quotes Shakespeare to his team of mules while they do the spring plowing. June Carter Cash, Johnny’s real-life wife, plays “Mother James,” which is what this movie calls Zerelda, Jesse’s mom. There’s a cameo performance by the great Willie Nelson, as Confederate general and hero Jo Shelby. Compared to other Jesse movies, “Last Days” is surprisingly accurate historically, which certainly doesn’t mean it gets even most things right, it doesn’t. William A. Graham directed. Three years later he would do another TV movie, Billy the Kid with Val Kilmer as Billy.
5) Rarely ever do I use the word postmodern, whose meaning is famously expansive and imprecise. But if there’s a postmodern Jesse film, it’s American Outlaws (2001), a movie many people hate. One of postmodernism’s goals is to cast doubt on our ability to know truth. This is precisely what American Outlaws does (I think, but I’m not absolutely sure) to the Jesse legend: It tries to show the legend’s hollowness through parody and gentle ridicule. Colin Farrell’s Jesse isn’t Jesse at all. He’s warm and lovable, and as impervious to bullets as Superman. The movie’s scenes are pretty, indeed, too pretty — they look like shampoo commercials: Everything is too perfect. The outlaw gang, though it makes great show of toughness, is about as tough as cotton candy. Consider the opinions of the movie’s makers: Wes Mayfield, the director, said, “As far as I’m concerned, Jesse James is a myth; the real life and demise are great mysteries.” And executive producer Jonathan Zimbert added, “The James Gang is kind of a rock and roll band on the road for their first tour together … This is something today’s audience can relate to.” An rock n’ roll band on tour? Hardly. And only if you regard a group of hardened guerrillas turned bandits and murderers as comparable to a group of teenage boys fresh from a jam session in a family garage. There is something breathtakingly mindless about American Outlaws. It’s like Animal House, only the frat brothers ride horses, shed blood, and fight (more or less) real battles. It carries the Jesse story into new territory where it means nothing at all and the legend is only a half-inch deep. Yet the movie does have its moments. “Lord, help any fool who tries to get between me and my farm again!” says Jesse at the end of the Civil War, as he prepares to return home. When I heard Farrell say that, it took my breath away: That’s exactly what the real Jesse’s attitude would have been. Kathy Bates is great in an all-too abbreviated role as Zerelda. And the film has its own and idiosyncratic style and energy. It’s a shame it isn’t a lot better than it is.
6) If there’s a great Jesse film it is surely The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). It has been called an “art film,” a term usually employed to describe a movie that’s solemn and slow-paced. “Assassination” has these characteristics. But it is also a hauntingly beautiful movie. Its cinematographer was Roger Deakins, who also did such films as Fargo and The Shawshank Redemption. Rural America has never been filmed more wondrously, except it wasn’t filmed in the US but in Alberta, Canada. Brad Pitt makes an impressive Jesse. It is a careful, nuanced performance with genuine depth. This is a Jesse who has “a hand and a heart and a brain”, as the Ballad describes him. It is a Jesse who can weep as well as kill. The Oklahoma-born Pitt was reared in Springfield, Missouri, in Ozark country, and I suspect his background gave him real feeling for Jesse, a fellow Missourian. Sam Shepard’s cameo as Frank James gave me goose bumps, so close it was to what I’ve read and imagined about Jesse’s older brother. Shepard was 64 when he did the part, considerably older than Frank, who would have been in his 30s, which makes his performance even more amazing. Then there is Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford. Affleck is the best thing in the movie. Sam Shepard’s Frank at one point says that Affleck’s Ford gives him the “willies,” and he does — to everyone viewing the movie. To watch Affleck play this part is discomfiting and unsettling. “Assassination” is a study in total obsession, Ford’s for Jesse, then Jesse’s for Ford.
This obsession seems to have a gay element, but it is deeper than that. In one scene, Bob Ford sneaks up on Jesse, who is taking a bath. Jesse has his back to Ford, but knows he’s there and feels Ford’s gaze on him. “What I don’t understand,” says Jesse, “do you want to be like me or do you want to be me.” Many scenes later, when Jesse turns his back on Bob and Charlie Ford to straighten and dust the picture on the wall, he hears Bob Ford cock his pistol, knows he’s about to be shot and accepts the fact. In this movie, Jesse has a death wish and makes use of Ford’s obsession with him to make good on that wish. The scene has its power – but I don’t for a minute believe it. I don’t think Jesse wanted to die at that time. I don’t think he would have had Ford kill him in the same small house with his children and wife close by. It is all a bit too “arty” for me. Make no mistake, however, this is a powerful film that causes us to think about Jesse in ways that no other move ever has. And I have my doubts that a better Jesse movie will ever be made.
Steve Goode grew up in Elkins, WV in the 1950s – a fine time and place to be young
– and attended Elkins public schools. He holds a BA from Davidson College, an MA from the University of Virginia, and Ph. D. from Rutgers – all in history – but pursued a career in journalism rather than academia. For 20 years he wrote on politics and culture for Insight Magazine and the Washington Times. He is the author of 17 nonfiction books and numerous articles in various publications. With his partner of 40 years, the botanist and artist Ray Petersen and their dog Pearl, he divides his time between their home in Milton, DE and a condo in Albuquerque, NM.