Review, 2/4, 1940s, Drama, Western, Fritz Lang

The Return of Frank James

#31 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

Freed from any kind of fealty to reality, Fritz Lang’s sequel to Henry King’s original Jesse James is a huge improvement, that is, until it becomes a shockingly dull courtroom drama in its third act. I’ve read that courtroom finales often end up because of budget issues. Instead of multiple locations or sets, you have one, enclosed set where you collect your actors to fill dozens of minutes of screentime. I wonder if that’s what happened here, the studio wanted a sequel to their unexpected success and they did what studios used to always do with sequels: cheap out on them to make a quick buck. They brought in Fritz Lang, who hadn’t exactly set the box office on fire with You and Me, and he probably made it try and fit his overall focus of justice within unjust systems (it does fit nicely with his other American films thematically), but he could only take the production so far. That dull third act nearly kills the film, reminding me of Hitchcock‘s The Paradine Case.

Lang’s first film in color, The Return of Frank James reportedly used the three-strip Technicolor process which should have led to wonderfully popping colors. However, being a Fox film of the late-30s and early-40s, the original Technicolor negatives were discarded by Technicolor when Fox refused them, leaving only Eastman color negatives that have a much more muted color palate like another Henry Fonda movie, the John Ford directed Drums Along the Mohawk.

Jesse James (Tyrone Power in a very brief cameo from footage from the first film) is dead, killed by Bob Ford (John Carradine), and Frank James (Henry Fonda) is content to remain in hiding knowing that the justice system will bring the murderer to justice. When he receives word that the governor of Missouri granted Ford a pardon minutes after the guilty verdict, Frank is off, leaving the young man he’s adopted and called son, Clem (Jackie Cooper) to tend the farm despite his protestations that he’s old enough to help. Frank is off to Missouri where he quickly meets up with Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull), the entertaining newspaper publisher and editor who’s solution to every problem is to advocate for the taking out and shooting of those that bother him, and he receives the news that the Ford brothers have fled westward.

The way this film fits within Lang’s American work so nicely is in the treatment of Frank’s sense of justice. In his mind, it was the railroad, led by McCoy (Donald Meek), that killed his brother, that led to the cowardly act of shooting Jesse James in the back instead of to his face, and he’s going to fund his quest for vengeance with the money of the railroad. He robs the local office, Clem showing up to help and just announcing their presence to the local authorities, and getting George Runyan (J. Edward Bromberg), a railroad agent, on their tail as well as killing the railroad employee in the building, killed by crossfire from the outside posse.

Heading out to Colorado, Frank takes on the persona of another man and, with the help of Clem, spreads the rumor that Frank James was killed in a shootout in Mexico six weeks earlier, a tale designed to clear Frank of the robbery he did commit as well as convince the Ford brothers that it was safe to come out of hiding. They employ the help of the wannabe reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney), the daughter of the Denver Star’s publisher, to spread the story. The conflict and tension of the dual chases escalates with the Ford brothers doing their first public performance of their roadshow detailing the killing of Jesse James (something they really did) while Runyan sees through the fiction of Frank’s deception easily. There’s a chase, Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen) dies (he really committed suicide later in life), and it looks like we’re set for the final chase to bring Bob Ford to justice.

Except that Frank’s black servant, Pinky (Ernest Whitman), has been arrested and will be executed for his invented part in the robbery that he actually had nothing to do with. Frank must go back and stand trial to free Pinky’s name. There’s a point to this, the friction between Frank’s need for justice for his brother and his need to retain his sense of justice in other matters, but the way it plays out, an extended courtroom sequence that just rehashes everything we’ve already seen before, drains all of the drama out of the film. It’s completely dead and uninteresting save for some moments of humor from Cobb.

Bob shows up to gloat at Frank’s verdict, but the jury lets him free, and we get our final showdown. It’s decently filmed, but it comes at the end of a sequence where all interest has simply vanished. Imagine, instead, a sequence where Frank had to free Pinky in a way that would give Bob Ford knowledge of Frank’s whereabouts, putting him in danger that leads to a final confrontation instead. That could provide real tension instead of this placid waters of the courtroom sequence.

Fonda plays Frank using his good guy persona. Any kinds of internal conflict, like he could demonstrate in John Ford’s Fort Apache, are washed away probably for similar reasons why Jesse James felt so safe and kind to the James brothers, because their relatives wouldn’t have liked a Hollywood movie showing their grandfathers as bad men. It works in this heavily fictionalized take on the whole matter, but it could have been more morally complex. Fox didn’t want morally complex, though. They wanted cheap, quick, and simple. Lang seems to have tried to introduce what kind of complexity he could, but the limits on oversight from wary executives afraid of James descendants and production led to something less. We do get some very nice visual moments (Lang really understood how to use shadows), and the film could have been something more if it had been able to follow through on the dramatic promises of its first two-thirds. It doesn’t, though, and we get something that balances out to mediocre.

Rating: 2/4

4 thoughts on “The Return of Frank James”

  1. The tradition of cash-in sequels has a long history in Hollywood. This is one of them. We also continue the Fritz Lang tradition of….courtroom scenes. Sigh.

    Yes, the fact that Frank James’s wife and kid were still alive (and supposedly threatened legal action) limited how much truth…and how much fiction was allowed in this film. There was supposedly as romance scripted between Frank James and Elenor Stone but it was cut. Also cut was any guilt Frank ought to have on his head as a result of decades of criminal activity, for similar reasons as you said.

    This is the least Fritz Lang-like movie of the bunch so far. It’s bland, unseasoned oatmeal. Gene Tierney is already a stunner. Henry Fonda still doesn’t come off as believably tough, he also doesn’t like to ride horses (famously, he said the only way he’d get on one is if you paid him). Jackie Coogan is annoying but that’s what he was cast for. It’s amusing in one way as he’s already growing out of child roles, physically at least.

    But there’s good stuff before I start growling about what I disliked, starting with the cast: Ernest Whitman is better than the material he’s given, you get to see John Carradine acting a little before he became a cliche, Bromberg was surprisingly good as the railroad agent (he looks more like a clerk but he carries a gun like he knows how to use it, frankly more realistic casting than I expected), George Barbier as the judge was better than that part of the movie deserved, even Victor Kilian as the hypocrite traveling preacher was amusing (I loved how his persona changed immediately after drinking some corn whiskey). The sets are good as are locations, costumes, props (the pistols are mostly period correct, including a S&W model 3 reloaded on horseback that the James gang favored), Zanuck didn’t completely cheap out here. As you mentioned some of the shots and camera work are interesting, but Fritz Lang and Westerns do not fit well together.

    Now onto the bad, and Rufus Cobb can eat a dick. First of all, this is boring. It’s a bad Western, poorly paced. Sam Hellman was a decent writer, he got a lot of work during the Golden Age, but he also wrote some stinkers…writing-wise he was quantity over quality and he seems to have kept working by delivering on what he was asked for. So the Zanuck might be more to blame than Lang or maybe Hellman. And though Gene Tierney is lovely, truly, she’s also annoying and bad at her job. She believes everything she’s told without checking up on any of it and just ‘believes’ Frank James couldn’t have done anything wrong. James is an admitted thief and murderer, the former is lauded and the latter is brushed away.
    Then there’s the whole law and order hypocrisy. Frank, and others, are pissed off by the Ford brothers being pardoned, but Frank James was outright acquitted despite having admitted to robbery. (which happened in real life two, he was tried for two crimes committed down south and was freed and lauded as a hero…he’d ridden with J. O. Shelby during the war…but he was never tried in Minnesota where his Rebel bona fides would not have worked so well). People outright say Jesse, his brother, deserved to get shot (though not in the back) and Frank doesn’t react at all.
    We’re back again to the ‘man unjustly accused’ story. And though Pinky probably doesn’t deserve too much punishment (he is guilty of harboring a fugitive, however), Frank James sure as Hell does. The station agent wouldn’t be dead if Frank hadn’t robbed the place…and if Clem wasn’t such a load.
    Also, Clem is a load and I can’t say I enjoyed seeing him screw up over and over and over again.
    The whole idea that the Railroad is the real bad guy also bugged me. He’s robbing the payroll of Railroad employees, meaning blue collar working me. He’s not touching the cash of the executives and managers, he’s robbing from the poor and pretending that it’s the rich. Likewise as soon as he decides to go after the Ford bothers, which I get, the first thing he decides to do is start robbing. Makes it hard for me to root for him.

    I do get, and agree with, that there is often no justice for the poor unless you take it at the barrel of a gun. Though that goes both ways, when both sides are carrying iron. But this movie doesn’t work as a revenge story, it doesn’t work as a biographical tale, it doesn’t work as a romance, it doesn’t work as an adventure story. It’s just sorta…there. Competently made, but it’s no lost treasure, that’s for sure.

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    1. No one wanted to approach the story of Jesse James or his brother in these two movies with any level of seriousness. It’s essentially trying to make those dime store novels that lionized the James gang in the 1880s into film, and they don’t even give us the good adventure aspects all that well.

      Sam Fuller did it better.

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