Friday, December 6, 2013

JESSE JAMES: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1939) Fox Home Video

The great American movie: alas, sadly a thing of the past. At Hollywood’s zenith, the motion picture industry dedicated itself to producing art of the highest order. It isn’t simply that the overall quality of the work was approached with hearty competition from the major studios, each earnestly toiling to outdo with bigger, better and brighter entertainments. It is also that the cultural mindset from this period (roughly 1929-1960) demanded the very best from its stars and movie culture. To this end, the dream merchants approached making movies as an artistic endeavor. Naturally, making money was the focus. It always is. But at some level the Louis B. Mayer’s, Carl Lemmle’s and David O. Selznick’s intuitively strove to make their products a really good show for the masses. You weren’t simply entertained. You were made a little bit better for having had the experience of seeing their movies. And something else: yesteryear’s dream merchant was invested. They loved making movies and knew profits would follow.
By comparison and contrast, today’s storytellers have entirely forgotten that any great society is judged – not by its technological advances - but chiefly, by the art it creates. Art endures as a cultural touchstone because – done properly – if continues to inform, shape and reflect popular opinions and future outlooks. Whether explicitly done to appease Hollywood’s self-governing code of censorship (and thus keep the specter of government intervention at bay) or simply given over to more altruistic and enlightened perspectives to counterbalance the grimmer realities of that time (the Depression, WWII) Hollywood sought to disseminate nobler tales to its audiences. Movies spoke to the higher ideals of mankind; expressing the virtues rather than the vices – or, if vices were the focus, they were brought to heel by ‘the moral of the story’ before the final fade out.
Today’s movies seem intent on extracting the corrupt and decadent, to celebrate it as the new normalcy. Even the 1960’s counterculture renaissance did not go this far. To be clear, not all art has to be pretty. But at its most base level it should always do more than merely repulse, indoctrinate and/or anesthetize its audience. Movies today have become disposable entertainments for the vulgar, cheap and idiotic. The other great tragedy readily on display in today’s ‘pop culture’ is, of course, that we utterly lack ‘star power’ to propel our narratives into the stratosphere. There is something to be said for the presence a real star brings to any movie: the indelible, one-of-a-kind iconography of a Spencer Tracy or Bette Davis instantly informing the audience about the sort of character representation they are to witness. Today’s cookie-cutter celebrity doesn’t stand out. They blend in; every blonde starlet and each buff guy vaguely caught in a cheap imitation of somebody else gone before them or perhaps even still occupying the same space. To misquote Sunset Blvd.’s Norma Desmond, stars had faces then. Today’s celebrities merely possess a firm body, limited appeal and virtually zero staying power.
In reviewing Henry King’s Jesse James (1939) today, I was immediately reminded of these aforementioned discrepancies between the old and the new; the essentials of golden Hollywood in Nunnally Johnson’s glowing tribute to the famed outlaw and his brother Frank. At times, Jesse James is a portrait of virile masculinity with an aside to the reality of these notorious outlaws amiably transformed into deified figures fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Johnson’s screenplay discounts the infamous duo’s train-robbing exploits. In fact, the movie only depicts one such hold-up, Jesse and his band glimpsed with scarves tied around they faces to conceal their identities. But even then the desperadoes are presented as cordial as English gentry as they lighten passengers of their wallets aboard the train. Yes, Jesse commits a murder too – but only after the victim, railway representative Barshee (Brian Donlevy) is directly responsible for the death of Jesse and Frank’s beloved mother, Mrs. Samuels (Jane Darwell).
Tyrone Powers iconography as 2oth Century-Fox’s most bankable heartthrob, as well as the aforementioned Production Code, precludes Jesse James - the movie - from being anything more than a glorious exultation of one man struggling with his own pride; desperate only in his conflicted emotions and desire to do the right thing for the right reasons, but ensnared by circumstances beyond his control and taking his stand in more unorthodox ways. It also helps the movie that James was seen as something of a savior in his own time; a then modern day Robin Hood avenging the encroachment of the iron horse and its eviction of homesteaders from their lands. To be clear, the real Jesse James harbored few of the more self-sacrificing motives of his more dashing cinema alter ego. He was, in fact, a train and bank robber, and, murderer of notorious repute. Again, herein we can see Hollywood’s unabashed sentimentality in the reconstitution of that Jesse James into this man of integrity, along with his brother, Frank (herein played by two of the most popular leading men – Ty Power and Henry Fonda – already beacons of stardom amongst their contemporaries).
Jesse James – the movie – is a tale of daring exploits, of misguided loyalty, of men aspiring to do the honorable thing for the love and loss of their beloved matriarch, yet receiving their ‘just rewards’ (death for Jesse, exile for Frank) for their complicity in doing wrong in the world. Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay effectively balances the robberies with a sort of grassroots heroism that is infectious and exhilarating. When Jesse and Frank deliberately ride their horses over the side of a craggy cliff into a raging river far below to elude authorities (the death of one of the horses lending credence to the American Humane Society’s demands for stricter laws regarding the exploitation of any animal stunt work in the movies) one is completely given over to the sincere hope that somehow these boys will survive and escape to pillage and plunder another day. Of course, any good action movie needs a villain, and since Jesse James is clearly not represented as one herein, the heavy-lifting falls to the railway and its maniacal roster of employees; Brian Donlevy’s despicable Barshee; coercing the back wood homesteaders into signing their properties away with threats of bodily harm, and, Donald Meek’s hard-hearted president of the line, Mc Coy plotting to destroy Jesse and Frank by whatever underhanded means are at his disposal.
In the history of the American west there were no such clear-cut heroes and villains. Still, the press did side with Jesse and Frank James for a time, promoting the public’s skepticism toward the intrusion of government into the life of the individual. This narrative thread cuts to the heart of Jesse James – the movie – too; Nunnally Johnson’s social commentary constantly being informed by the hot-headed (though comedic) muckraking of local yellow journalist and editor-in-chief, Maj. Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull) who screams in his bylines for the heads of various authority figures with his stock editorials. Cobb’s daughter, Zerelda (Zee for short) (Nancy Kelly) is in love with Jesse; the ever-doting/ever-loyal woman behind the man. Zee elects to wait for Jesse, marries him, then coaxes her beloved to turn himself in under a promise made by Mc Coy and the local magistrate that Jesse’s sentence will be light (5 years!!!). Even the present sheriff, Will Wright (Randolph Scott) is sympathetic to Jesse’s plight; having also fallen in love with Zee. Unable to convince Zee to marry him, Will has set aside his disillusionment and jealousies to help the couple on their very bumpy road to holy matrimony.
Too bad Mc Coy has reneged on his promise. He aims to see Jesse hang for the initial train robbery for no other reason than to counterbalance his own humiliation. Evoking martial law to override Will’s authority, Mc Coy receives a threatening letter from Frank (who has escaped and is in hiding with the rest of Jesse’s gang, including Bob Ford (John Carradine). The letter calls for Jesse’s release…or else. Mc Coy laughs off the threat. After all, the town is surrounded by military troops. How could Frank and his men possibly get in? But, of course, they do and free Jesse in short order as the jailer (Slim Summerville) looks on with wide-eyed chagrin. For a time, Jesse and Zee are serenely contented together. She bears him a son, Jesse Jr. (John Russell) and entertains frequent visits from Will who has since been relieved of his law enforcement duties. But when Jesse turns to bank-robbing to ensure his family’s survival, Will begins to encourage Zee to reconsider her love for Jesse.
After all, it can come to no good. Jesse is an outlaw and all outlaws – but particularly those featured in vintage Hollywood movies – must be made to pay the price for the error of their ways. After a daring escape on horseback, Jesse and Frank make a perilous leap off a craggy precipice. Frank regains control of his horse and rides off. But Jesse is badly wounded, electing to hide in the marshes. He finds a kindly famer to conceal him from the law and is given a ride back to the house he once shared with Zee. She is still desperately in love with Jesse, nursing him back to health under Will’s watchful eye. Zee also reveals to Jesse that they have a son. It is this patriarchal bond that serves as the crux of Jesse’s reformation. He and Zee make plans to leave Missouri immediately and start their lives anew in California – then, the still glistening Eldorado of the ‘new’ west.
Regrettably, Bob Ford and his brother, Charles (Charles Tannen) arrive at Jesse’s home to goad Jesse into one more robbery, presumably orchestrated by Frank. Actually, the whole thing is a set up – Ford planning to deliver Jesse into the arms of the law for the reward money. Jesse briefly contemplates joining his old posse for one last hurrah. After all, he and Zee could use his share of the money to start over. But when Jesse witnesses his son playing with the local children; the other boys pretending to shoot the outlaw dead, he realizes what a burden his legacy has been on his family and decides instead to leave Missouri post haste. Bob and Charles pretend to depart disheartened, Actually, Charles prompts Bob from his view through an open window, Ford cowardly shooting Jessie in the back twice. At Jesse’s funeral, Maj. Cobb delivers a glowing eulogy, revealing an obelisk-shaped tombstone dedicated to the legend rather than the man as a small gathering, including Zee and Will looks on.
At its heart, Jesse James is a finely wrought melodrama; the fourth highest grossing movie in a year replete with an embarrassment of cinematic riches. George Barnes and W.H. Greene’s lush cinematography captures the rural splendor of Pineville and McDonald County, Missouri where almost all of the exteriors were photographed; with a minor nod to Fox’s back lot western street façades and some clever, studio-bound interiors looking every bit as rustic under William Darling and George Dudley’s superb art direction. The movie’s central theme, being unable to avenge one injustice with another, helped to quell protests made by the Catholic League of Decency who viewed the movie as a rather worrisome exaltation of lawlessness.  To this end, Tyrone Power’s introspective law breaker exhibits virtually none of the hard-bitten qualities of the real Jesse James, emerging as a magnanimous man of the people who inadvertently follows the wrong path in life in his attempt to do right by the memory of his late mother.  It’s a fine line of distinction, but one superbly realized in Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay and empathetically played by Power, partly relying on the elixir of his handsomeness to sell Jesse James as a young buck to swooning female patrons.
The entire cast is excellent, particularly Henry Fonda and Henry Hull giving good solid support. In a year dominated by Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz, Jesse James holds its own as a superb slice of Americana narratively rearranged for the movies. Those in search of a history lesson would do wise to seek it elsewhere. The point of movies in general, but particularly those made during Hollywood’s golden age, was that they were never meant to represent the world as it actually exists or existed. Hollywood’s vision of humanity was theatrical. People didn’t talk – they emoted. Situations didn’t just happen. They were carefully orchestrated into a cleverly built three act structure designed to move the audience in unexpected ways. Audiences never asked for ‘reality’ from their popular entertainments. They only required that they be good, solid and engaging in all their alter-universe of fictions. 
And Hollywood in general and Jesse James in particular deliver the goods as few movies of any vintage have. This is a phenomenally good western/melodrama with a pluperfect cast and some very fine writing to make ‘history’ more palpable. Something Hollywood understood then – yet all but ignores now – is that the truth is rarely satisfying.  Movies need not explain any situation as it is or was. They need only cast a spell on our minds with their beautiful lies. Jesse James is just that; an exquisite perjury of the facts, expertly played and sold with all the soaring majesty of a bygone period that, in actuality, never really existed to begin with. In retrospect, Hollywood and the old west are two mythologies that were made for each other.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is extraordinary. When Fox released Jesse James to DVD back in 2003 the results left a good deal to be desired. The print was muddy, the colors faded and, on occasion, mis-registered with annoying halos. Fox has gone back to the drawing board on the Blu-ray and the results should please everyone. The 1080p image positively glows with a lush Technicolor-esque palette that brilliantly recaptures much of the essential vibrancy of the original process. Fox destroyed all of their original 3-strip separation masters somewhere in the mid-1970s. So Fox Home Video is working backward from less than first generation elements. That said, they have done an exquisite job remastering, restoring and color correcting this movie for home video in hi-def. 

Is it true Technicolor? No. Is it a superb remastering effort that evokes at least some of that rich palette only true 3 strip Technicolor could offer? Arguably, yes. Contrast is solid. Film grain is present. Fine details sparkle throughout. The image is sharp without appearing to have been digitally manipulated or enhanced. Bottom line: you are going to love this disc. It’s that simple. Fox gives us two audio options; original restored mono and a new 5.1 mix that is actually quite good. Regrettably, Fox has once again made short shrift of the extras. Two Movietone squibs and a badly worn trailer (part of their DVD release) is about it. I would be more critical of this oversight if the movie didn’t look so gosh darn fabulous. That said, Jessie James belongs in everyone’s Blu-ray player this holiday season. A must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


1 comment:

David M. said...

Terrific news! This and "The Black Swan" (which I guess isn't as good on Blu-Ray) are two of the Tyrone Power titles I didn't have on DVD, so I'll be happy to pick them both up. But "Jesse James" really is underrated, and I think you've nailed the reason why.