Jesse James in the 1960s
1. Young Jesse James (Fox, 1960)
Young Jesse James is OK. It’s another Fox effort but not at all in the line of big-budget Jesse epics graced by Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda and Robert Wagner. This one is a modest, almost B-picture directed by William F Claxton, who had started as an editor in the 1940s, graduated to directing B-Westerns such as Stagecoach to Fury or The Quiet Gun before moving to TV series like Yancey Derringer and Tales of Wells Fargo. It was written by experienced Orville Hampton and (less experienced) Jerry Sackheim, TV writers mostly.
It starred an over-acting (and not exactly juvenile) Ray Stricklyn as Jesse. He only did four feature-film Westerns apart from this one, though quite a few Western TV shows. It did have Robert Dix, son of Richard, as Frank and Willard Parker (Jesse in The Great Jesse James Raid) as Cole Younger. Rayford Barnes, who had the bad-guy part in a later 60s epic, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, is Charlie Pitts. It was all shot on the Fox backlot.
The whole thing was pretty unimpressive, therefore.
Still, it had certain qualities. It was quite violent for the day (no kiddies’ programmer). It was nearer the truth than many Jesse pictures hitherto. Jesse is no Robin Hood here. Being about the young Jesse, it’s set, like Kansas Raiders, in the Civil War. As in Kansas Raiders, he joins Quantrill because his ranch has been attacked by Redlegs and his pappy hanged. This was not strictly accurate - in fact it's baloney - but hey, who’s fussy. Parker, 48, plays Cole, 20, as an older character (well, he had to, really) who becomes disillusioned with the bushwhacker brutalities and walks out on Quantrill. Again, more fiction than fact but never mind.
The best actor, as in Kansas Raiders, is the Quantrill figure, in this picture Emile Meyer (Rufus Ryker in Shane). It’s a good part, of course, but Meyer handled it very well. Worth comparing with Brian Donlevy’s.
Belle Starr (Merry Anders) makes an appearance and takes a shine for Cole, as she was to do in The Long Riders.
Anyway, while not a great milestone in the cinematic history of Jesse James, Young Jesse James is not pulp and is definitely worth a watch if it comes on TV.
2. The Legend of Jesse James (ABC TV series, 1965/66)
The Legend of Jesse James wasn’t too bad either. Of course if you grew up watching black and white TV Westerns on TV, as I did, you measured everything by Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel and by those standards The Legend did leave something to be desired. But still, it had certain qualities.
It was about Jesse James, for one thing, whereas Paladin and Matt Dillon were made up. But of course this Jesse was to all intents and purposes made up too.
There was only one season, 34 thirty-minute episodes in 1965/66. In the first episode, Three Men From Now, there’s a great entrance by Jack Elam as The Deacon and he proceeds to act the socks off everyone else on the set. Having robbed a bank and shot the sheriff, he has to face down Jesse in a showdown gunfight on the steps of a church in Platte, for that sheriff had saved Jesse’s life, you see.
There’s a train. Even 30-minute TV Westerns could afford a train in those days.
The series was produced by Don Siegel and was written (mostly) by Samuel A Peeples, who had written episodes for Rawhide, The Rifleman, Tales of Wells Fargo and many others. Although the lead stars were a bit ho-hum (Christopher Jones as Jesse, his only Western, and Allen Case as Frank – he did episodes in loads of TV Westerns), there was a veritable galaxy of guest stars. Apart from One-Reel Jack in Episode 1, there were Robert J Wilke as a sheriff in two episodes and Claude Akins, Charles Bronson, Harry Carey Jr., John Carradine, Royal Dano, Dennis Hopper, Jeffrey Hunter (Frank in Fox’s 1957 epic), Strother Martin and Slim Pickens all made appearances. This was a Burke’s Peerage of Westerns.
Jesse is Robin rather than robbin’, of course. He gives money to farmers all over the place. It is never said how he came by this money. The title song says that “His killin’ turned him cold/He grew bitter, he grew bold” but there’s not much evidence of that as the story pans out. He’s rather a goody, in fact.
There’s a Ma James (Ann Dolan, colorless) but no Zee.
Jesse is in his early 20s so it’s presumably around about 1870.
The Legend of Jesse James competed with I Love Lucy and Dr. Kildare so I guess it wasn’t that much of a surprise that it only lasted one season. Still, I have seen worse. Much worse.
Meanwhile, back in the movie theater…
3. A Time for Dying (Fipco, 1969)
A Time for Dying is a flawed film. It has its moments and on paper it should have been good, or at least solid: it was written and directed by Budd Boetticher, it was produced by Audie Murphy and he played Jesse James in it. It was shot on location round Tucson by Lucien Ballard. All that should have made it top notch.
But the story and script were poor. We get 60% of the film before Jesse even appears. Despite the star billing, Audie doesn’t even happen along till 42 minutes in and then only really has a ride-on part. The film is only 69 minutes long, which does leave you feeling a little short-changed. The ‘stars’ were pretty much unknowns. The movie has an almost spaghetti look and feel to it. Because of the title you kind of know how it’s going to turn out.
It is a ‘late’ Jesse, in a way balancing Audie’s young Jesse of Kansas Raiders (1950). We are probably in 1880 or so, although Judge Roy Bean figures in Vinegaroon and he wasn’t a justice of the peace here till the summer of ’82, i.e. after Jesse was dead, but we’re not nit-picking here. Jesse has a beard and a Tom Petty hat. Frank is with him along with “Cousin Bobby Ford”. It is set around Silver City.
Audie's career wasn’t going well and he had not made a film at all in 1968, the first year that happened since he started doing movies. Budd Boetticher (who had directed Audie in The Cimarron Kid for Universal in 1952) was also going through a bad patch. The two formed their own company, Fipco, to make films. This was to have been the first of several.
It was to have starred Peter Fonda but that didn’t happen and Richard Lapp, who looks like a teenage Charles Bronson, was OK but, to be brutally frank, only OK. In the story he is a sunny, innocent youth who is good with a gun. He rescues an equally innocent girl (Anne Randall) from a crowd and a career in prostitution, they fetch up in Vinegaroon and Judge Roy Bean marries them without consulting their wishes in the matter. Bean is played by Victor Jory in a scenery-chewing way. Jory had been in Westerns, usually as the villain, since 1933 and then TV. I think he was truly great. But in fact, however well or badly Bean is played, one never ceases to be shocked by this quite appalling and odious man. Those actors who play it for humor do humanity a disservice, I think. Audie’s son Terry has a bit part as a youth casually hanged by the drunken bully.
It turned out to be both Murphy and Boetticher’s last movie. Sad, really.