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The True Story of Jesse James

by Glenn Erickson Dec 22, 2018

 

Nicholas Ray’s CinemaScope detour into outlaw Americana is yet another sincere artistic effort muffled by studio interference. Ray sought to examine a legend in terms of folklore and celebrity. Fox just wanted a cheap remake of its 1939 hit and undermined the director all the way. It’s a potentially great film marred by clumsy reshoots and re-edits.


The True Story of Jesse James
Blu-ray
Twilight Time
1957 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 92 min. / Street Date November 20, 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, Hope Lange, Agnes Moorehead, Alan Hale Jr., Alan Baxter, John Carradine, Rachel Stephens, Barney Phillips, Biff Elliot, Frank Overton, Barry Atwater, Marian Seldes, Chubby Johnson, Frank Gorshin, Carl Thayler, John Doucette, Ken Clark, Anthony Ray, Gene Roth, Sumner Williams, Carleton Young.
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Written by Walter Newman, based on an earlier screenplay by Nunnally Johnson
Produced by Herbert B. Swope Jr.
Directed by
Nicholas Ray

 

Nicholas Ray was a darling of French film critics, bringing new values of psychology and intense emotions to stories about thieves, rodeo riders, brutal policemen and juvenile delinquents. His ability to compromise and his maverick personality kept him going at Howard Hughes’ RKO, the most unstable studio in town. He was never a household name but his reputation must have been good; both Humphrey Bogart and James Mason turned to Ray to direct them in films that were different, special.

The True Story of Jesse James may hold the bottom position on a list of Nicholas Ray’s achievements. It was made for all the wrong reasons. Ray owed 20th Fox a movie, and the only decent project he was offered was a remake of Henry King’s Jesse James, a 1939 Technicolor production that had been given a successful reissue in 1951. Exhibitors asked for a Jesse James movie, so Fox’s Buddy Adler cozened Ray into accepting the job. He let Ray think that Elvis Presley was available to star, when, after making Love Me Tender the singer was on his way to Paramount and MGM. As Presley’s manager was insistent on building up a squeaky clean, family friendly image for his client, nobody wanted Ray to turn him into another James Dean-ish Rebel Without a Cause. Besides, Love Me Tender was set in the same post- Civil War border-raiding ‘bleeding Kansas’ episode that had spawned Jesse and Frank James. Why would Presley want to make another western with a downbeat finale? (Note: Ang Lee’s 1998 film on that historic period, Ride with the Devil with Tobey Maguire, is highly recommended.)

 

Fox also nixed Ray’s notions of filming Ballad on the original locations. The dry California landscape has never been a good match for the lush woods and green hills where most of the Civil War played out. The True Story of Jesse James instead has the look of a Griffith Park epic. Viewers familiar with the Malibu Ranch locations of M*A*S*H will recognize telltale rock formations. Town sequences and the famous Northfield Minnesota Raid were shot on familiar Fox ranch western sets.

Fox first rejected Ray’s first idea, which was to stage the story of the James Brothers as an abstract theater piece, on a blank stage. He was then given permission to ‘reinvent’ the famous outlaw with a radical storytelling style. Ray and writer Walter Newman hit on the idea of using the form of the famous ballad, the one with the lyric about ‘the dirty little coward / that shot Mister Howard.’ “The Ballad of Jesse James” would jump back and forth in time without benefit of wavy ‘flashback’ cues. Relevant episodes would be linked by association rather than chronological order.

Fox scotched that plan as well, but incrementally during shooting. After the relative failure of Ray’s first Fox film, the masterpiece Bigger than Life, the studio slowly negated all of his creative ideas and radical continuity. Reshoots were requested all the way through. Directing by notes from the daily screening room, the Fox brass reshaped Ray’s work into a dim repeat of Henry King’s Tyrone Power version. Ray reportedly was asked to reshoot scenes in which Frank James (Jeffrey Hunter) accuses Jesse (Robert Wagner) of believing his own legend, and trying to arrange his own death. A baptism scene was heavily cut; a scene where Jesse’s mother (Agnes Moorehead) goes into hysterics over the whipping of Jesse was reshot to ‘pull back’ her performance.

 

According to biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, the worst deletion was a scene in a revival tent, with a congregation of both suffering farmers and occupying Union troopers. Rising to repent his sins and testify to his desire to please Jesus, Jesse turns his speech into rant about how he enjoyed killing the pillaging Yankees back during the fighting. The description sounds as if the scene would have positioned Jesse James as a political terrorist striking out for Confederate values.

Several more key scenes are reshoots, rewritten to eliminate the content that motivated Ray to make the movie in the first place. These include scenes with the Jesse’s wife Zee (Hope Lange), and a key scene in which Jesse and Frank hide out in a cave. The dialogue in them now does little more than show Jesse becoming a less reasonable killer. Frank blames their failure on Jesse’s insistence on robbing the railroad, and Jesse responds by threatening to kill his own men. It’s only a matter of time before one of them betrays him.

At what point did director Ray realize that Fox really wanted an inexpensive action film? The two stars were already on contract, as was the inexperienced leading lady. Nicholas Ray found his cast easy to work with, but Robert Wagner was not the kind of actor interested in Ray’s sort of ‘inner truth’ method of creating scenes. By the end of filming the director had all but thrown in the towel — it was no longer worth the effort to try to put anything special into his work. A number of scenes, including the finish with Jesse ambushed as he hangs a picture on the wall, simply copy what was in the 1939 picture.

If you’ve seen Henry King’s Jesse James, Ray’s True Story will seem a rote remake, with more reasonable motivations to justify Jesse’s outlawry. The ‘true’ additions simply explain in more detail the way Jesse turns against some of his own men, and their various fates as they’re apprehended by railroad deputies led by detective Remington (Alan Baxter). Some of the injustice against the James boys is vengeance grudges left over from the Bleeding Kansas days, and other incidents are a violent overreach by the private police hunting Jesse. Remington and a prosecutor carry out an extra-legal murder raid on the James farm. With Wagner alternating between a desire to shoot his own comrades, and then behaving like a sensitive father to his kids, the character doesn’t really come together.

 

Many details are excellent. Ray includes a probably apocryphal story in which Jesse plays Robin Hood for a bankrupt widow. Cole Younger (Alan Hale, Jr.) is tickled by a penny dreadful chap book that makes Jesse a folk hero. A writer accompanying the posse scribbles notes during a gunfight. At one point Jesse shoots the camera of a photographer trying to record one of his robberies. The only reason Jesse gets some peace for a while, is an identification mixup that makes Remington think he is dead. At the finish, souvenir hunters purloin objects from Jesse’s home.

Ray’s ‘associative’ flashback pattern was thrown out, but the story wasn’t returned to straight chronological order. The Fox editors instead come up with a clunky series of flashbacks, each introduced by a garish ‘swirling cloud’ transition not particularly appropriate for the 1870s. One by one, Ma James, Zee, and Frank James make their testimony. These do jump around in time a bit, and it is sometimes difficult to know if we’re in a flashback or not. Clarity is not helped by a prologue action sequence that drops us into the middle of the Northfield Minnesota Raid, which is partly repeated in Frank’s later flashback testimonial. We see part of the raid in real time. Then we jump forward to when Jesse is hiding out in the hills. At Ma’s bedside the raid is discussed in the past tense. Then it’s happening in real time again courtesy of Frank. Someone not paying attention might think the one raid is two or three.

With the exception of the Northfield raid, most events play out out pretty much in the Henry King-Nunnally Johnson order: isolated formative incidents designed to be associative thoughts, or stanzas in a ballad of regret, now just seem like visual glue holding together an unnecessarily complicated timeline.

Seen now in full CinemaScope and in a good presentation, True Story comes off fairly well within scenes. The large cast shows police, the press and Jesse’s own bandit cohorts in fine confusion over his reign of terror. The way the James Gang raids Missouri and then takes off for Minnesota, reminds us the 1930s gangsters chronicled in gun-crazy thrillers like John Milius’ Dillinger. A few scenes break away to contemplate Jesse and Zee’s domestic dilemma, as they behave like the teenage fugitives in Ray’s first film They Live by Night. The actual Northfield Minnesota raid is introduced slowly and directed as a violent set piece similar to Sam Peckinpah’s opening for The Wild Bunch. Bandits in long dust coats find themselves in a shooting gallery, with citizens blasting them off their horses; we even see a bit of blood splatter from a bullet hit. Played for violent logic instead of old-style shoot ’em up thrills, the scene feels way ahead of its time.

 

One of Fox’s money-saving gambits seriously mars the film: since True Story recycles several spectacular scenes from the eighteen-year-old Jesse James. Fox’s optical department reformatted old, flat Technicolor action sequences from the 1939 film, taking a CinemaScope slice out of the middle of the flat Academy frame. A nighttime train robbery, bits of the Northfield raid, horseback stunts and various shots of riders are all obtained in this manner. Since Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda in the old movie wear bandannas during these scenes, the match with new shots of Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter is fairly successful. But the result still feels cheap.

1957 audiences that came to ‘see what they do with the story this time’ must have spotted the cheats right off. Jesse and Frank escape Northfield by jumping their horses through the window of a general store, an impressive stunt that nobody who saw the original could forget — the only difference is the severe cropping from the ‘scope reformat job. Even more unforgettable are two extremely cruel horse fall stunts taken verbatim from Jesse James. One at a time, two horses are tricked into riding straight off a cliff perhaps thirty feet in height. The daredevil riders fly clear while the horses twist and tumble on the way down. The filmmakers had every expectation that the animals might die. One horse was reportedly killed on the spot.

As with any Nicholas Ray film, the blocking of scenes and acting is still a cut above normal, and many good scenes stick out. We enjoy seeing familiar actors working under Ray’s tutelage — John Carradine, Barney Phillips, Alan Hale Jr., Frank Overton, John Doucette. In a bit part is Tony Ray, the director’s son, who would three years later marry his own father’s ex-wife, Gloria Grahame. A biopic called ‘The True Story of Nicholas Ray’ might be too strange to be believed.

 

Ray’s more challenging ideas simply aren’t present. He wanted Jesse to be more of an out-of-control delinquent, motivated by political oppression but also drunk on the illusion that he’s already a legend. He also wanted to work in the ‘story told as a song’ format that he’d learned working for the WPA twenty years before, recording local folk singers in the South. The only folk singing we hear is a street singer crooning “Black Girl” on a sidewalk. The odd ending shows Jesse and Zee’s neighbors rushing to view the death scene. Outside, the strolling singer invents a final stanza for the Jesse James Ballad. It’s all that’s left of the director’s idea of a biography held together by a song.

By now I’ve reviewed almost all of Nicholas Ray’s feature films. Only nine years after he had begun, his directing career began to crumble with this picture. Auteur critics find great things in most of his subsequent films, but he never again enjoyed full artistic control. Most admit that his personal problems were a big factor. Although the New Wave critics loved it, Bitter Victory is a foolish, grossly miscast war movie. The misshapen Wind Across the Everglades was taken away from him when he couldn’t function, Party Girl is a dull studio cookie-cutter project graced with some nice Ray touches, The Savage Innocents works fairly well but has some rough technical edges, and much of 55 Days at Peking was filmed by second unit directors and even its actors, in Ray’s absence. Only King of Kings shows Ray still in command, and even it was substantially altered by others. The Ray classics all came earlier: They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, The Lusty Men, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger than Life.


 

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The True Story of Jesse James is a good encoding of a picture that has been shunted aside for decades. Lecturer Jim Kitses showed us a severely degraded Fox print at UCLA, and until recently most TV broadcasts used a pitiful pan-scanned version. The faded film elements have been brought back to a very good appearance with today’s powerful colorization tools. Just the same, we wonder if some mistakes were made: in the middle of a contrasty scene in broad daylight, a character tells us that it’s supposed to be nighttime. A few scenes with subdued color may have come from dupe material that faded even more.

We also get a good look at the iffy quality of those ‘money’ scenes repurposed from the 1939 Jesse James. It’s a miracle that they look good ay all, considering that they were originally 3-Strip Technicolor. An Eastman negative would have to have been generated from 3 B&W protection elements, and then optically cropped, blown up and squeezed to produce a CinemaScope negative multiple generations from the original. Fox’s lab timers may have had to dull down the new footage to aid in the matching.

The not-particularly great film score is given an isolated track. The visual extras are a silent excerpt from a Movietone newsreel and an original trailer. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes generate excitement for the picture, noting the involvement of top talent and Nicholas Ray’s undiminished directing skill.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



The True Story of Jesse James
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -minus or Fair +plus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Fox Movietone Newsreels, Original Theatrical Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 21, 2018

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.