When Darryl F. Zanuck decided to cast Tyrone Power as Jesse James in the 1939 Technicolor movie of the same name, he reportedly wanted screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and Director Henry King to produce a happy ending. History records that Bob Ford shot and killed Jesse James while he stood on a chair to dust a framed picture, but Zanuck wanted James to ride off into the sunset because he thought a death would kill the appeal of the biggest star at the Twentieth Century Fox studio. Thankfully, King and Johnson finally convinced Zanuck to stick to the facts.
King directed a tough and uncompromising period piece with a schmaltzy romantic subplot involving Power and Nancy Kelly, who plays his loyal wife Zee. The movie opens with scenes of a railroad agent named Barshee (Brian Donlevy) going from farm to farm in Missouri buying up land for the railroad. The helpless farmers cannot stand up to him and his henchmen, so they end up giving away their farms for little money. However, things change when Donlevy tries to strongarm Frank James (Henry Fonda) and his brother Jesse. The James boys beat down the thuggish Barshee and he goes running to the sheriff. Suddenly, the James boys go on the run with a vengeance against the railroad. Their anger becomes even more acute when they learn that a bomb thrown by Barshee has killed their mother.
It’s hard to turn a nice, pleasant, hero-type actor such as Power into a villain, and the film doesn’t really try hard to do that. Instead, it frames Jesse James as a Missouri Robin Hood who only wants to punish the railroad. The real Jesse James kept the loot for himself, and he enjoyed living the life of an outlaw. Power’s James is a victim of circumstances beyond his control.
The movie features a couple of thrilling chases that enliven a story that slows considerably in other scenes because of excessive dialogue. One such chase involves the boys riding on galloping horses to board and rob a fast-moving train. Another chase comes after a foiled bank robbery that shows the brothers riding their horses over a cliff and into a river.
Randolph Scott adds a fine performance as Will Wright, a US Marshall who ends up helping Jesse James escape after the railroad dismisses Wright from working on capturing the outlaw. Donald Meek plays a detestable railroad baron, while Henry Hull plays Major Rufus Cobb, a tiresome and grating newspaper editor who constantly spouts editorials about the problems of the day. I got a little tired of Hull’s act, but I liked seeing Power and Fonda in the same film.