Greenbriar's Outlaw Week --- Part One
My truest definition of a hit movie is one that draws people who don't ordinarily look at movies. Jesse James in 1939 flushed patrons out of the hills that had never been in a theatre before. It was a hit the whole country wanted to see, and by far biggest of a western revival that included Dodge City, Stagecoach, and Union Pacific. JJ was an old west Grapes Of Wrath with Okies that fought back, its late 30's timing ideal. Jesse and Frank taking on railroads (code for banks, which they also robbed) made both contemporary heroes frankly recognized as such from opening credits (... for good or ill said an intro, though it was clear where sympathies lay). The biggest period-set hits are ones that trip modern concerns. Jesse James did in ways peculiar to 1939, and maybe to here-and-now's economy as well. It probably won't get Criterion hugs like Stagecoach, but for evoking an austere west, this is far more the genuine article. I'd call Jesse James nearest to purity of a silent outdoor show than any a major studio tendered through the whole Classic Era, a western remarkably stripped of artifice that characterized most genre offerings. Henry King directed, having done so since 1916. He routinely cut dialogue as first order of business, hewing to conviction that pictures were better seen than heard. King's were rural sensibilities for having grown up in Virginia. Backwoods was preferred location and one he made most of, never so capably as here. Jesse James is countrified in the best and most evocative sense of that background all too often simulated in films. King went far off beaten location paths and found nature's last preserve of a nineteenth century he'd only barely have to redress.
They filmed Jesse James in and around Pineville, Missouri, a town beyond small that makes mine look like Metropolis, USA. Director King found it after scouting landscapes in his private plane. 1939 wasn't too late to uncover Civil War-era trains discarded rail side, as these were backwoods where, among myriad artifacts, horse buggies the James brothers might have ridden still saw practical use. Fox artisans modified Pineville's main street to a past century glow that came of having the real thing as foundation, which in this time capsule of a town, they did. Local folks played extras and a few of them spoke (you'll not mistake these for central casting). King had made Tol'able David and others deep in the sticks and had an unerring bead on natural settings. He'd be rewarded for such instinct with hectoring wires from Fox chief Darryl Zanuck, who maintained Jesse James' crew should come home and fake remaining exteriors on backlots with process screen assist. King must have called in plentiful markers to complete the shoot his way, and thanks be to posterity, he did, for Jesse James would not be half the show it is had DFZ's edict been observed (none of JJ's outdooring looks short-cutted, and I detect little rear projection). With regard creative and natural use of sound, Jesse James subs bird song and rivers running for music scored, a major lick for putting across a primitive backdrop that once-upon-a-time shielded outlaws. There are chases over field and wood that look like home movies the James boys might have shot given cameras, and a train robbery by night, a major advance, said King, in the progress of technicolor lensing, is marred only by Eastman processing done since and loss of three-strip elements that render impossible a true restoration for Jesse James.
Pineville still celebrates Jesse James Days during each year's August. The filming there remains uppermost of town events even after seventy years and counting. Attendance tends to around 2,500 for the four days they revel, and proceeds go to local volunteer firemen. Outdoor showing of the movie is a highlight. Fewer remain who stood before cameras, but sighting of grandparents and mostly gone neighbors persist. Think how many familiar faces (to Pineville residents) there are among the above mob surrounding Ty Power and Henry Fonda during a filming break. This photo, cribbed from my copy of Griffith and Mayer's The Movies, made a big impression upon mid-sixties acquiring of the book, being plain-faced (or rather thousands of faces) evidence of effect stars had on a movie-mad public. Pineville residents since may have forgotten Power and Fonda, but what fun to have had a major feature shot in your back yard, even if it's one folks way-back thrilled to. The closest we came was Thunder Road (several counties away, but it seemed like home) and a silent called Stark Love, directed by Griffith disciple Karl Brown and shot in these thar hills back in 1927. I attended a screening at Appalachian State University twenty or so years ago, where many in the audience yelled out names of locals they recognized upon that flickering, voiceless screen. Good thing Stark Love was run mute, for any mood accompaniment would surely have been drowned by who's who'ing from the audience (There's Great-Grandma!). I posted before about sentiment still accruing in Pinchot, Arkansas for A Face In The Crowd being partly made there, and ongoing reminiscing over same. As to Jesse James Days, I'm sad for that time certain when no one will be left to spot kin among long-ago Pineville extras. A nice book written by Larry C. Bradley and published in 1980, Jesse James: The Making of a Legend, detailed impact the filming had on locals and preserved many anecdotes they passed down.
Not that Jesse James was any textbook of the badman's actual life. Liberties they took were many and varied, despite director King's consultation with James family members (including Frank's still living son). There was no denying Hollywood convention even among remote environs, and who cared then about strict adherence to fact? Zanuck even considered alternate ends where Jesse survives (two such finishes were made, tested, then discarded). Tyrone Power was soon to be 1939's King Of Hollywood (succeeding Clark Gable) and few relished TP back shot by craven John Carradine (drat history for its bummer ending imposed on a great yarn). Jesse James came out in a rich filmgoing year and its $3.1 million worldwide rentals (on $1.1 spent) made Fox that much richer. I'd post more images off the film's spectacular pressbook, but the thing's as big as a horse blanket and my scanner balks at it. Jesse James had appeal across boundaries of class and mass. Social/political barbs went down smoother for a half-century's distance from events depicted, though few missed JJ's ongoing relevance. The film's thumping success probably gave Zanuck surer footing for the coming body slam of The Grapes Of Wrath, which neatly substituted autos and banks for horses and trains. Patrons viewing one within months of the other would recognize mid-westerner lives changed, but remaining pretty much a depreciated same (and in case parallels were missed, Henry Fonda's there to update Frank James as wronged man turned outlaw Tom Joad, with Jane Darwell again as enduring Ma).
Coming in Part Two: When Jesse James Rode Again --- A North Carolina Exhibition Story.