Yodel-ay-hee-hoo, it’s Burl, presenting a new movie review for you! Ha ha, today it’s a review for a sequel to a movie I’ve never actually seen, 1939’s Jesse James! But of course I know the story in its broad strokes - don’t forget, it was covered in the more recent picture The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and you only need to read the title to get the gist of it, ha ha - and so I was never at a loss during my recent screening of The Return of Frank James!
Henry Fonda, well known from Tentacles and City on Fire, plays Frank, just as he did in Jesse James! The picture opens with Jesse’s killing at the hands of the coward Robert Ford, who here is played by the terrific John Carradine, whom we recall from pictures as diverse as Sunset Cove, Man of Grey Testes, The Boogey Man, and many, many others! His brother Charlie is played by Charles Tannen from Gorilla At Large! Frank, living the quiet life on his farm along with his pals Pinky and Clem, hears about the killing of his brother, straps on his six-guns, and heads out to get ram tough like a rock on those Ford boys!
Nothing, but nothing, will dissuade his little buddy Clem from tagging along, and Pinky later becomes a very important factor in the story too, though what the poor man must have gone through is not dwelt upon and his heroism is mainly implied! Lovely Gene Tierney from Heaven Can Wait plays a newspaper baron’s reporter-daughter Miss Stone, and Frank and Clem’s attempt to use her to spread a counterfeit story of Frank’s demise only brings a shady but persistent detective onto their trail! Ha ha, and the detective is memorably played by J. Edward Bromberg from Strange Cargo!
Henry Hull from Werewolf of London plays old Major Cobb, Frank’s excitable old pal! (I have to admit that for a while I thought the actor was Frank Morgan! I was certainly wrong about that!) Ha ha, Frank engages the old Major as his lawyer in the courtroom finale, and for a time one is not convinced that choosing to be defended by an apparent crazed hayseed was Frank’s best call; but it turns out that James truly is being judged by a jury of his peers: they all belong to the bumpkin class just like him!
But is Frank James really a bumpkin? Fonda, in some ineffable but fundamental way that is in no sense his fault, is ill-suited to play an old west character, whether an outlaw and gunfighter or the humble man of the soil he is at the beginning of this story! He does it well however, and somehow becomes the character in a different and more oblique way than that which we commonly associate with good acting! It’s like seeing The Elephant Man on stage with the actor wearing no makeup: you know he’s not physically an elephant man, but you watch the performance instead and the makeup becomes wholly unnecessary!
With a supporting cast that includes Donald Meek from Love on the Run (not playing aptly to his surname, for once), Russell Hicks from Hold That Ghost!, and of course Jackie Cooper in the role of the puppy-like Clem; along with several exciting gunfights; nice colour photography; and solid direction from none other than Fritz Lang, who later brought us Human Desire, it’s an entertaining and well-paced oater! It doesn’t stand out in the way of other Lang Westerns, most notably the terrific Rancho Notorious, but it’s a darn good show anyway! Ha ha, I’ll have to look out for the original Jesse James, but in the meantime I give The Return of Frank James two and a half plummeting dummies!