The Return of Frank James (1940)


At first I was cautious about a sequel to Jesse James (1939). However it makes sense to let the full story be told, instead of ending at the demise of Jesse James being shot in his home. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) that really investigated the psychology behind both James and Ford. I feel the latter piece is a more accurate representation of the events. I can understand why in The Return of Frank James (1940) the demise of Robert Ford (John Carradine) was altered in a time when it was felt better that the James brother exact his revenge. Unlike the events seen in the Brad Pitt & Casey Affleck version that allowed a wannabe gunslinger bring down Ford in a bar.

Returning to the 1940 film and sequel it allowed for closure of all the character involved. Allowing for James to have his day in court, which felt like half of the film after riding around the open country that felt more in tone with the story.

Bringing back Henry Fonda as the lead role, where he belonged the first time around was the right decision for not just the box office but continuity visually and the characterisations.

The use of Gene Tierney in one of her rare Technicolor films is very typical of the period, loosely commenting on the rise of women’s equality in society. She borders between the stereotypical vulnerable woman, and that of an independent thinker that will be revolutionary in her profession. If indeed there was a female reported for the Denver Star I am yet to find out. The newspaper itself may be a work of fiction itself.

I can clearly see that these two films were made back to back, making use of the cast and sets at ease, which was repeated again by the makers of Back to the Future Part II and III,  at the demand of the studio however. Again allowing for continuity visually of style and script making for a successful sequel that resolves the legend, however blurred it may be. I feel that of all the Jesse James adaptations both Jesse James (1939) and The Return of Frank James (1940) are the more romantic, compared to the later version The True Story of Jesse James (1957) that really had no heart to it. Leaving to me personally the most recent take on the legend The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward John Ford (2007) the most accurate and psychological take that really investigates the key figures that we remember today.

Lastly the notion of shooting someone in the back is a cultural ideal that has been reinforced through Westerns really comes into its own through these Jesse James films. If Robert Ford did shoot Jesse James whilst facing him, then he would’ve had more respect for ridding the country of a major criminal. The ideals of a gunslinger and manhood are reinforced. To see the face of your victims shows bravery, however gruesome the crime. It could also be entirely an invention of the film studios, playing on this one incidents to add pathos to a genre and a law of the gunfighter that is expressed many times in films of all genres.

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