Jesse James: Review
Tyrone Power was a truly popular and successful actor for his time, and although he had many good films to his name throughout his career (The Mark of Zorro, The Black Swan) 1939 was the year that stands out as his most high profile with the successes of Rose of Washington Square, The Rains Came and the big budget, all star, Technicolor western Jesse James.
During the hey-day of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Power was considered the most beautiful man in motion pictures. 20th Century Fox held his contract and made the most of his good looks, charisma, and natural on-screen ability, first in the extremely flattering Kodachrome of black and white cinematography and then in the luscious saturation of the color process that enhanced Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. However, Jesse James was not originally slated to be a color film when it was originally expected to be just another western. But as it gathered more and more star power with the casting of popular star Randolph Scott, Academy Award winner Brian Donlevy, the beloved character actors Jane Darwell, Donald Meek and John Carradine, and acclaimed actor Henry Fonda was cast as Jesse’s brother Frank, producer Darryl F. Zanuck made the daring decision to make what was considered a lesser genre movie into a powerhouse extravaganza film by adding Technicolor.
Never before had Power’s dashing features looked so appealingly swarthy. Nor had the western enjoyed such a glorious cinematographic depiction as that so beautifully and colorfully shot by George Barnes (Academy Award winner for Rebecca) and W. Howard Greene (Academy Award winner for the color version of Phantom of the Opera). Zanuck also hired one of the best screenwriters of the era, Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, The Keys of the Kingdom) to turn what might have been a dry biopic into an exciting romantic, adventure tale. Johnson wisely focused on the sympathetic Frank and Jesse as they fight against the strong arm of the railroads that are squeezing farmers off their land. After a railroad agent forcibly evicts the James family (inadvertently killing their mother in the process) the James brothers resort to robbing banks and trains as a form of revenge. This sort of “sticking-it-to-the-man” type of protest placed Power and Fonda as the good guys as audiences were use to seeing them, and not as the outlaws history more aptly depicts.
Although Jesse James was a tremendously successful film with critics and audiences alike, the film is not much remembered today, and this id due largely to the unprecedented impact made by the other films of the year. It was 1939 after all, so it’s easy to understand how a Technicolor western would be easily overshadowed by the likes of Gunga Din, Stagecoach, Ninotchka and all the other films listed in this review column. If the film had come out any other year it may well have made a bigger mark on film history. But then, that’s the same story for every film every year. It’s all just a matter of timing. Regardless, Jesse James will stand as the first western as well as the first Tyrone Power film made in color. Both achievements worth noting in the annal of 1939.