Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James (1940) is producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s irreverently misguided attempt to create yet another deity from an outlaw. The overwhelming critical and financial success of Jesse James (1939) necessitated this sequel, starring Henry Fonda in the title role; a reprise from the original film.
The plot begins in earnest; Frank is living obscurely as a farmer with Clem Grayson (Jackie Cooper), the son of one of the gang’s ex-outlaws. He has forsaked his past and returned to the land. However, when word eventually comes down from the hills that it was none other than gang members, Robert (John Carradine) and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen) who put a couple of slugs into Frank’s brother, Jesse, old memories begin to stir.
At first, Frank is content to let the law catch up to the Ford brothers. But when he learns of both their acquittals and the fact that their defense was paid for with railroad blood money, Frank decides its time for a little old-fashioned vengeance.
Enter precocious reporter, Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney). She’s fascinated by the tales of Jesse James and is determined to pen his memoir…well, sort of, as a serial for her paper. Frank tells Eleanor stories of his brother without revealing his true identity and eventually he and Eleanor develop an attachment – one that is inevitably doomed to premature extinction. But Eleanor is not easily brushed aside, even after she learns Frank’s true identity.
Lang’s direction on this sequel is more spirited than director Henry King’s on the original. There is movement and cohesion between scenes, more of an emotional pulp to the meaty center of action. Fonda departs from fact in his characterization of Frank James, but the stoic maturity he brings to the role is complimentary to Tierney’s rather priggish awkwardness. In the spirit of studio economy, music and effects tracks from Jesse James are reused in this film (and also, in Fox’s lavish In Old Chicago).
Fox Home Video does not mangle this DVD presentation quite as badly as their efforts on the original film, though this presentation is far from perfect. In direct comparison to Jesse James, The Return of Frank James exhibits a decidedly brighter image with more detail and color saturation. The Technicolor mis-registration that plagued virtually the entire presentation of the original film, only sporadically reappears on this outing. Colors are more refined with flesh tones still appearing either much too orange or fairly pinky. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites adopt either a blue or yellow tint. The audio is presented in original mono and rechanneled stereo. Both are adequate, though just barely. There are NO extras!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)