1939 was a famous year in the classic era of Hollywood film. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture, and many of them are still watched and loved to this day:
- Dark Victory
- Gone with the Wind
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips
- Love Affair
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
- Of Mice and Men
- The Wizard of Oz
- Wuthering Heights
Gone with the Wind was by far the top grossing film of the year. But the movie which came in second place on that list did not receive a single Oscar nomination: Jesse James.
The movie starred a 25-year-old Tyrone Power as Jesse, with Henry Fonda as his brother, Frank. Also in the cast were Nancy Kelly, Randolph Scott, Henry Hull, Slim Summerville, Brian Donlevy, Donald Meek, Jane Darwell, and the ever-present John Carradine as Robert Ford. (When I say ever-present, I mean it ... Carradine was in nine pictures in 1939 alone, including Stagecoach. Only 33 years old, he had already appeared in more than 50 movies.) One of the "historical data assemblers" was Jesse's granddaughter, which may account in part for the way the movie plays loose with the facts.
In this movie, Jesse and Frank have the people's support because the Brothers fight against the railroads. Jesse turns bad, but it's always blamed on circumstances, and when he dies at the hands of Bob Ford, Ford is the villain, not Jesse.
It's claim to fame is largely due to a scene where Frank and Jesse leap, with their horses, off a cliff into a river. A horse reportedly died during the filming of the scene, leading to the American Humane Association becoming a monitor for Hollywood films. They protested the release of the film ... since it finished #2 at the box office that year, I'm guessing the protests didn't keep people out of the theaters.
The acting is good, with Nancy Kelly getting a couple of showcase scenes that might have worked as Oscar bait, except Vivien Leigh was already going to win as Scarlett O'Hara. Fonda is probably the best of the main cast (a sequel with Fonda came out the next year, The Return of Frank James). Given the way Jesse is turned into a folk hero, I couldn't help thinking about one of my very favorite movies, Bonnie and Clyde. That film worked hard on the myth ... think of Bonnie's poem ("You know what you done there? You told my story.") ... Jesse James is more matter-of-fact about it. It's also less stylish overall, and it doesn't come close to the masterpiece that is Bonnie and Clyde. But I suppose it gets credit for being mentioned in the same light. 7/10.