Just... wow. This 1939 film, written by Nunally Johnson and directed by Henry King and Irving Cummings, enjoyed the input of Jesse James’ granddaughter, who served as a consultant, but that doesn’t stop the film from completely re-writing the history of one of America’s most famous (or infamous) bandits and killers.
Jesse and Frank James are portrayed here (in shimmering Technicolor, no less) as two good boys striking back after being callously mistreated by a railroad company that bullied, intimidated, and robbed the poor folks of Liberty, Missouri, essentially stealing their land -- sometimes with physical force, sometimes with nothing more than legal threats. Jesse is played by Tyrone Power; his older brother Frank by Henry Fonda. Both brothers are "set in their ways," meaning that they are clever and strong and formidable; the film seeks to cement their reputations as decent men forced to go bad by corruption. Today, they’d be Tea Party favorites.
In point of fact, the brothers were Confederate guerrillas from a slave-owing family (no mention of that in the film). After the Civil War they took to robbing banks and trains and killing the occasional innocent. The film scrambles and re-purposes various elements of James’ life, but changes their meaning and context completely. As in the movie, Jessie married a girl named Zee (Nancy Kelly) and had a close friend who was a newspaper publisher (Henry Hull). What the movie neglects is to explain that Zee was, in reality, Jesse’s first cousin. The newspaper publisher was not Zee’s kindly, eccentric father, but rather a former Confederate fighter named John Newman Edwards. There seemingly were political elements to the gang’s outlaw activities, but they had to do with ideological tensions, not predatory corporations. Did I mention that today the James boys would be Tea Party favorites?
The script may be largely fantasy, but it is a compelling yarn; and the film may be an early, and gorgeous, example of color moviemaking, but its characters are pretty much black and white, with only the occasional seam of gray (and most of such nuance belongs to Jesse).
You’ll want to watch this film for the story and for Power (Fonda doesn’t have nearly enough to do; Kelly has rather too much screen time, most of it hewing close to the period’s gender stereotypes). The special features, such as they are, won’t be enough to warrant a purchase, though: You get a thirty second Fox Movietone clip about the film’s premiere, a minute and a half culled from another Fox Movietone segment in which Ed Sullivan (!) presents Power and Jeanette MacDonald with crowns as the "King and Queen" of Hollywood, and the film’s original theatrical trailer.