Jesse James History Project Essay, Research Paper
Jesse James: History Project
Over one hundred years ago that “dirty little coward” Bob Ford killed Jesse Woodson James in his home in St. Joseph, Missouri. Today, the typical person has derived much, if not all, knowledge about the life and times of Jesse James from the movies. Beginning with Jesse James Under the Black Flag in 1921 starring Jesse Edwards James (referred to as Jesse James Jr.), and concluding with the 1980 film (The Long Riders) with James Keach, movies have portrayed Jesse James on both sides of the coin. He has been a hero or criminal, murderer or saviour, crafty individual or homicidal maniac, and a money-hungry thief or a western Robin Hood. And because of this dual portrayal, the public is often times unable to distinguish between fact and fiction.
This study will deal mainly with the depiction of Jesse James on film in order to illustrate why people confuse the real person with the legend. It will also explore how and why legends are made, and it will consider the evolution of western movies and the “cowboys” in these movies. Finally, it will examine the mirroring effect that the public has on movie production and which movie scripts have on its audience. In essence, movie production companies are mirrors receiving an image of what they believe audiences want to see in a movie. When the audience sees that movie they may perceive it as being more factual than it is, not realizing that they indirectly helped to construct that image.
Movies did not give birth to the Jesse James legend, but only continued with what had started before his death. After the Gallatin, Missouri bank robbery of 1869, John Newman Edwards, editor of the Kansas City Times, began molding the image of Jesse and Frank James. A letter that Jesse supposedly wrote appeared in the Times. This letter prepared the foundation for later letters which surfaced periodically. In this letter, Jesse James claimed to be innocent of all the Gallatin bank robbery charges; he admitted that he had been a Confederate guerilla soldier, but had since peacefully obeyed all laws (Settle, 1966).
In 1867 Edwards wrote Shelby and His Men, in which he supported Confederate guerilla warfare and glorified those Southerners who took part in these actions. In 1872 bandits robbed the box office at the Kansas City Fair, wounding a small girl in the process. Most people disapproved of the crime itself, and they were made aware of the danger to by-standers in such an event. Though Edwards also referred to the act as a crime, he admired the bravery of the criminals for “a deed so high-handed, so diabolically daring and so utterly in contempt of fear that we are found to admire it and revere its perpetrators.” (Settle, 1966, p. 45) In a Times editorial on September 29, 1872 entitled “The Chivalry of Crime,” he compared the outlaws to knights of the Round Table, who had been born too late in time (McGrane, 1980).
Although rival publications denounced Edwards’ views concerning Missouri crime and criminals, he continued to defend and praise the bravery of the James gang until the time of his death in 1889. His interpretations and justifications for the actions of Jesse James began the metamorphosis of Jesse James’ image from that of thief, killer and outlaw to one of a misguided, misunderstood Missouri Robin Hood (Settle, 1966).
Other writers continued Edwards’ eulogizing of Jesse James. Books and articles printed in the late 1800s had Jesse fighting the Mexicans or the Chinese, or saving damsels in distress. Street and Smith alone published 121 “dime novels” about Jesse James between 1901 and 1903 (Time, January 23, 1939).
The legend grew and the formula for that growth is attributed to Richard K. Fox, editor of the National Police Gazette from 1877 to 1922. According to Fox a hero had to have a mixture of ten qualities or components. Whether it was Jesse James or any other manufactured legend, the hero had to have a combination of these criteria:
1. The hero’s accuracy with any weapon is prodigious.
2. He is unequaled in bravery and courage.
3. He is courteous to all women — regardless of rank, station age or physical charm.
4. He is gentle, modest, and unassuming.
5. He is handsome — sometimes even pretty, so that he seems even feminine in appearance; but withal he is of course very masculine, and exceedingly attractive to women.
6. He is blue-eyed. His piercing blue eyes turn gray as steel when he is aroused; his associates would have been well advised to keep a color chart handy, so that they might have dived for a storm cellar when the blue turned to tattletale gray.
7. He was driven to a life of outlawry and crime by having quite properly defended a loved one from an intolerable affront – with lethal consequences.
8. He shields the widow and orphan — robbing only the banker or railroad monopolist.
9. His death comes about by means of betrayal or treachery, but
10. It is rarely a conclusive death, since he keeps bobbing up later on, in other places, for many years. (Lyon, 1960, pp. 35-36)
Most, if not all, of the above ingredients could be found in the literature and movie scripts written about Jesse James. Authors gave Jesse the qualities of bravery, courage, gentleness, and death by betrayal. They also revealed injustice as the reason for his turning to crime. But one attribute could not be bestowed upon Jesse in print until many years after his death. That was the reappearance of Jesse James from the grave. This resurrection became so common that when asked about it in 1939, Frank James’ son casually remarked that since 1882 he had had eleven different uncles named Jesse (Breihan, 1961).
The same qualities needed in literature to create a legendary hero carried over into the film industry. Three movies about Jesse James appeared during the 1920s. Jesse James Jr. starred in two of these, Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James as the Outlaw. The first title is the more noteworthy of the two, since the stockholders of this film were composed of members of the James family and a few Kansas City businessmen. The plot concerned a young Eastern fellow who wanted to marry the grand-daughter of Jesse James. Before agreeing to marry him the young lady made him aware of her family background by having her father read the story of her grandfather. This story, appearing on the screen, portrayed Jesse as caught in the uproar of the Civil War, which eventually turned him into a hardened criminal (Eyles, 1975).
In his book Jesse James Was His Name, William A. Settle, Jr. explores the myth that the war turned Frank and Jesse James to a life of crime. In this, the most factual of any book written about Jesse James, Settle denounces the myth when he states: “Examples are numerous of former Quantrill men who lived in peace and prospered quietly after the war. In all probability, boredom and inability to adjust to the calm of postwar life drove them to crime, though their defenders assert that they were avenging wrongs inflicted by rapacious bankers.” (p. 32)
Fred Thompson and his horse, Silver King, starred in the movie Jesse James in 1927. Typical of 1920s films, this movie concerned itself more with the star appearing in a role, rather than the content of the film. This becomes evident when Jesse commits only one crime, a stagecoach holdup, in the script. The presentation of Jesse as a western Robin Hood did not appeal to the audience or the critics, and this along with other disappointing westerns caused James R. Quirk to state in 1929 that the western motion picture had died and would never be revived (Settle, 1966; Tuska, 1976; Ferrin & Everson, 1962).
However, Quirk’s declaration of the western movie’s death proved unfounded. Had he waited a few years he would have seen an unparalleled flourishing of the western movie during the Depression. The social trend of the 1930s can best be expressed in terms of individual self-doubt and the search for security. During the Great Depression people disregarded the unauthentic historical representation shown on the screen in favor of movies as an escape from their everyday lives.
To fill the need of its audience, Hollywood cranked out hundreds of action “B” westerns. The public found a hero from out of the past in the “cowboy,” who was seen as a representative of American righteousness. To fulfill this desire of people to have a feeling of security the westerns produced during most of the 1930s catered to the public’s search of American “self-worth” and nationalism. Movie producers incorporated the qualities which Gene Autry called the “Ten Commandments of the Cowboy”:
1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage – even of an enemy.
2. A cowboy never betrays a trust.
3. A cowboy always tells the truth.
4. A cowboy is kind to small children, old folks, and to animals.
5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudice.
6. A cowboy is helpful and when anyone’s in trouble he lends a hand.
7. A cowboy is a good worker.
8. A cowboy is clean about his person and in thought, word, and deed.
9. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, and the laws of his country.
10. A cowboy is a patriot. (Maynard, 1974, p. 62)
During the latter years of the 1930s Hollywood turned to actual historical events and characters as subjects for motion pictures. These were not typical “B” westerns, but rather expensive, well-produced epics. Such movies as Union Pacific, Wells Fargo, Custer’s Last Stand, Stagecoach, and Jesse James emerged at this time. Even though the events and characters had historic ties, the producers and directors intentionally distorted, added or deleted historic truths so that the product appealed to their audience. Without knowing it, the movie industry followed a line from John Ford’s 1962 movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. That line comes near the end of the film when a newspaper editor tells Jimmy Stewart, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The 1939 production of Jesse James starred Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Ford as Frank. The filming of this movie is the basis of Larry Bradley’s book, Jesse James: The Making of a Legend. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck set out to create an authentic chronicle of the western outlaw and even hired Jo Francis James, Jesse’s granddaughter, to help research and assemble material for the script. After completing the filming, director Henry King stated that the film did not try to glorify or condemn Jesse James, but concerned itself with constructing an accurate historical representation of the outlaw’s life (Meyer, 1979). However, neither the intention of Zanuck nor the interpretation of King is found in the movie.
Henry King chose Pineville, Missouri [Larry Bradley's book, Jesse James: The Making of a Legend offers an account of the filming of this movie] as the site for the location shooting of the film, making it one of only two films (as of this writing) about Jesse James to be filmed in Jesse’s native state. [Jesse James Under the Black Flag was filmed in the Kansas City area.] The plot is simple. Jesse is driven into outlawry because of injustices to his family and cannot return to a normal family life. Thus, he lives out the remainder of his life as a criminal seeking revenge on the ones responsible for his fate.
This movie became one of the major box-office attractions of the year and turned out to be one of the top money-makers also (Steinberg, 1980). People went to see and appreciate a well-made movie and in the process were exposed to one of the most fictitious biographies in movie history. But unlike the audience of the 1927 movie , people during the Depression enjoyed seeing someone fight back against an oppressor and lash out at a recognizable force – the railroad – that was bent on the destruction of individual lives. Americans, tired of their everyday, uneventful, and often times miserable existence, found a hero, a modern-day Robin Hoood, from out of their past. And in the process of accepting this interpretation of Jesse James, they accepted the legend.
Several major elements of the legend are found in this movie. The opening scenes depict a St. Louis Midland Railroad representative named Barshee (played by Brian Donlevy) who is bullying people into selling their farms in order to make way for the new railroad line. When Mrs. James (played by Jane Darwell) refuses to sell , Barshee and Frank get into a fight, and Barshee is wounded. He later returns with the sheriff (played by Randolph Scott) and not knowing that the James brothers are gone, tosses a grenade into the house which kills Mrs. James. Because of their mother’s death, Jesse and Frank enter into a life of crime (Bradley, 1980).
This incident can be compared to a real event. On January 26, 1875 a group of Pinkerton agents threw a smoke bomb into the James’ home in an attempt to capture Jesse and Frank. Mrs. James pushed the bomb into the fireplace and it exploded, killing Archie Peyton Samuel, Jesse’s half-brother, and severely wounding Mrs. James in the right arm, which later had to be amputated (Settle, 1966). But this incident took place years after the James brothers became criminals, so to depict Jesse and Frank as being forced into a life of crime is stretching the truth.
One scene in the movie perpetuating the “Robin Hood” image finds Jesse coming to the aid of a widow about to loose her farm because she cannot pay the mortgage. Jesse gives her the money to pay off the mortgage, lies in wait until the banker has received the payment, then robs the banker of the money he originally gave the widow.
Some of the questionable, if not entirely untrue, segments of the movie include Jesse hiding out in a cave; Jesse turning himself in to the authorities and then escaping; Bob Ford alerting the authorities about the Northfield, Minnesota raid; and Jesse and Frank riding their horses off a cliff into a river in order to escape the Northfield posse (Bradley, 1980). In fact, most reviews tried to warn the public about the fantasy in the film. A Newsweek article labeled it a good melodrama, but not factual. Time compared it to a modern gangster movie. The New York Sun wondered if Hollywood would also glorify John Dillinger and Al Capone (Newsweek, January 23, 1939; Time, January 23, 1939). Finally, the Chicago Daily News declared the film should begin with the statement, “The events and characters depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” (Meyer, 1979, pp. 73-74)
Jo Francis James, Jesses granddaughter, refused to endorse or praise the content of the film. In an interview she said, “I don’t know what happened to the history part of it. It seemed to me the story was fiction from beginning to end. About the only connection it had with fact was that there once was a man named Jesse and he did ride a horse.” (Meyer, p. 74)
Why did a movie intending to present a historical biography of Jesse James turn out to be so non-factual? Director Henry King best summed up the reason when he said, “But what we were trying to do was to create a Jesse James who would be worthy of the legend; for we knew that no matter what we or any other creators of fiction did now, the legend would persist.” (Bradley, 1980, p. 26) In essence, he was saying that the legend would be a bigger box office hit than the truth and that people needed a movie hero to idolize.
The tendency to glamorize and popularize the Jesse James legend continued throughout the 1940s and the 1950s. But sometimes the character would be depicted as a worthless individual, rather than a Robin Hood. Various actors assumed the identity of the Missouri outlaw during this time, including such notables as Don “Red” Barry, Roy Rogers, Clayton “The Lone Ranger” Moore, Audie Murphy, and Wendell Corey (Eyles, 1975). But no movie or actor competed with the 1939 production. That is, not until it was re-made in 1956.
Robert Wagner starred in this 1957 release entitle The True Story of Jesse James. In this version the railroad is not blamed for causing Jesse’s life of crime. Rather, it was the “Yankees” migrating to Missouri who persecuted former Confederate soldiers and pushed them into acts that they would have avoided otherwise. As with the earlier version, this film centered on the legend and not the facts (New York Times, May 31, 1957). The major difference between the 1939 and the 1957 movies lay in the actors portraying Jesse. In the 1930s Tyrone power was the focal point for the injustices on the screen to the Depression audience. In the 1950s, Hollywood producers cast young Robert Wagner as Jesse in order to appeal to that audience, the teenager. Who better could relate to the persecutions of a young man on the screen?
In 1960 and again n 1965 and 1966 Hollywood produced movies about Jesse James aimed at the young movie-goer. Young Jesse James starred Ray Stricklyn. In this film Belle Starr chooses Cole Younger over Jesse as her lover. This rejection causes Jesse to vent his frustrations through his guns (New York Times, May 31, 1957). Two movies released in 1965 and 1966 had Jesse James as a main character. The Outlaws Is Coming was the name of a “Three Stooges” comedy. The title of the 1966 release, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, is enough to explain its appeal to the younger audience.
The 1960s also saw television attempt to sell a positive image of Jesse James to its audience. On Monday night, September 13, 1965 ABC aired The Legend of Jesse James. Modeled after the 1939 movie, Mrs. James is killed in the first show and Jesse (played by Chris Jones) and Frank (played by Allen Case) spend the remainder of the series protecting innocent victims and wreaking havoc with the Great Western Railroad (Terrance, 1976; Brooks & Marsh, 1979). Even though the station warned its viewers by including “Legend” in the title, this portrayal of the James brothers gave many viewers diabetes of the soul, and the series ended after only one season.
In the movies of the late 1960s and into the 1970s the Jesse James character follows the trend of many other films and the main character becomes an anti-hero. In the 1962 movie The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, director Philip Kaufman changes Jesse from the innocent rural ex-soldier to a psychopathic killer who believes the Civil War is not over (Life, June 16, 1972; New York Times, June 15, 1972). In this film Robert Duvall portrays Jesse as cruel, cold-blooded, and a little stupid. In general, he is the exact opposite of the 1939 Tyrone Power character.
William T. Pilkington and Don Graham (1979) in their book, Western Movies, draw parallels between the king and the Kaufman films. For Kaufman’s Jesse, the raid on Northfield is not revenge against injustices, but another act of guerilla warfare. Jesse is not a romantic lover, but a neurotic, impotent loser. Kaufman does retain the widow’s mortgage scene. However, instead of behaving like Robin Hood, Jesse kills the banker and then leaves a clue to incriminate the old lady. The escape from the Northfield posse is not a brave, adventurous one, as Jesse returns to kill the old widow and masquerades in her clothes to dodge the posse and make it safely back to Missouri.
One of the most recent, and in most ways the most factually accurate, portrayal of Jesse James in a film is in the 1980 release, The Long Riders. Director Walter Hill centers most of the attention of the movie on family ties and friendships. Unlike its predecessors, this film does not try to sway the audience’s opinion either for or against the outlaws. Hill gives the impression that Frank and Jesse James chose a life of crime due to the short hours and big paychecks, not because of outside influences and pressures (Newsweek, June 2, 1980; Time, June 16, 1980).
The Long Riders, unlike any of the previous films, leaves most of the legend aside and presents a story of Jesse James the outlaw, the brother, the husband, the father, and the friend. In short, a real man and not a “whitewashed being” assembled from someone’s mind. The other characters in this movie are also real, although at times they are treated peripherally.
As in most movies, facts are sometimes distorted, and this is apparent in The Long Riders, although on not so grand a scale. For instance, when the Pinkerton’s throw the bomb into the James; home, it comes through the front window and not the back door. Archie, the half-brother, is seen as a simple-minded teenager, instead of a normal nine-year-old boy. In addition, Jesse really died in the morning and not after the supper meal. Frank did not surrender to the authorities in order to bury Jesse, but actually held out for several months. And the train robbery from horseback and the ride through the front window in Northfield, which is also seen in the 1939 movie, may have been exciting viewing, but did not take place (Kansas City Times, June 13, 1980). Other characters — the Youngers, Fords, etc. — also take part in fictitious, entertaining scenes throughout the movie.
For eighty years Jesse James has been a part of the movie-goer’s life. And because of this exposure to his life, many people feel that they know the facts and can distinguish them from a legend that has carried over from popular literature. However, what they believe to be true is in part due to Hollywood. The movie industry, as with any industry, is in business to make money. To make money, the industry produces films that people will attend. The public sometimes forgets this aspect when they are viewing a movie. If you are watching a movie in which the title happens to begin with The Absolute, Unquestionable, Historically Accurate, True Life Adventure of . . . . Just plan on being entertained throughout the movie.
JESSE JAMES IN THE MOVIES
Year Title Actor
1921 Jesse James Under the Black Flag Jesse James, Jr.
1921 Jesse James as the Outlaw Jesse James, Jr.
1927 Jesse James Fred Thompson
1939 Jesse James Tyrone Power
1939 Days of Jesse James Don “Red” Barry
1940 Return of Frank James Jesse James – Not a Character
1941 Jesse James at Bay Roy Rogers
1941 Bad Men of Missouri Alan Baxter
1942 The Remarkable Andrew (non-western) Rod Cameron
1942 The Kansan George Reeves
1946 Badmen’s Territory Lawrence Tierney
1947 Jesse James Rides Again Clayton Moore
1948 Adventures of Frank and Jesse James Clayton Moore
1949 Fighting Man of the Plains Dale Robertson
1949 James Brothers of Missouri Keith Richards
1949 The Younger Brothers
1949 I Shot Jesse James Reed Hadley
1950 Kansas Raiders Audie Murphy
1951 The Best of the Badmen Lawrence Tierney
1951 The Great Missouri Raid Macdonald Carey
1953 The Great Jesse James Raid Willard Parker
1953 Woman They Almost Lynched Ben Cooper
1954 Jesse James’ Woman Don “Red” Barry
1954 Jesse James vs. The Daltons Not a character
1955 Outlaw Treasure Harry Lauter
1957 The True Story of Jesse James Robert Wagner
1957 Hell’s Crossroads Henry Brandon
1959 Alias Jesse James (Bob Hope comedy) Wendell Corey
1960 Young Jesse James Ray Stricklyn
1961 The True Gang Murders Documentary . . .
1965 The Outlaws is Coming (3-Stooges) Wayne Mack
1966 Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter John Lupton
1969 A Time for Dying Audie Murphy
1972 The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid Robert Duvall
1980 The Long Riders James Keach
1994 Frank and Jesse Rob Lowe
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