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Thursday, December 20, 2012

JESSE JAMES (1938)

Nunnaly Johnson had to twist his script like a pretzel to turn the outlaw Jesse James into the sort of wrong-headed, decent, mother-loving fellow Tyrone Power might play. And we’ve been paying for it ever since with scores of True-to-Life portraits just as phony. Nicholas Ray’s little seen THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES/’59 even lifted some of the stunt footage, including a jaw-dropping cliff dive that killed some horses. (There’s more spectacular horse chases, but apparently no other fatalities.) Henry King was usually at his best helming Americana stories, he understands the pace of the things, and he gets a good, sympathetic perf from Ty, with just enough of an edge for Jesse James. Unfortunately, Henry Fonda shows up as big brother Frank, and he puts out so much contained energy, he blows Ty off the screen. Lenser George Barnes kept the TechniColor as muted as possible @ 20thFox, home of the neon reds & greens, plus there’s a darn funny bit from Slim Summerville at the jailhouse and an irritating one from newspaper editor Henry Hull. The love interest, Nancy Kelly, had been a child star (collectors of camp treasure her OTT mother in THE BAD SEED/’56), but she’s awfully tame here. There’s an unusually strong supporting cast with Jane Darwell, Brian Donlevy & blue-eyed John Carradine as that famously, cowardly killer, but Randolph Scott is the guy to watch. Playing the sheriff who waits for Kelly’s misguided passion to cool, he’s so darn natural in the Western genre, you can miss seeing just how good is. But the studio execs must noted what was going on since he and Fonda both get shuttled to the side to let Ty take the spotlight.

DOUBLE-BILL: A sequel, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES/’40, has Fritz Lang, of all people, calling the shots. But Philip Kaufman’s THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID/’72 and Walter Hill’s THE LONG RIDERS/’80 give the grandest look at this era of bank-robbing outlaw brothers.

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