05 May, 2014

Jesse James


          He was born 100 years ago today [5 May, 1914].

            Romance novelist Barbara Cartland once said, "We didn't need sex, we had him."  It's often quoted that his ‘The Mark Of Zorro’ was an inspiration for Bob Kane’s Batman.  And, no small thing here:  my mother, a classic lady in the true sense of both words, had a crush on him.  Indeed, not unlike George Clooney today, “Ty” was the man every man wanted to be, and every woman wanted to be with.  As if that name on a marquee – for God’s sake, Tyrone Power? – wasn’t enough to get you in the theatre ...

            Thank you again, dear readers, for allowing me yet another of my “Top 5s," where I look at a given Actor / Actress.  Today we begin anew with someone many consider something of a dark horse of Hollywood’s Golden Age;  and, so, someone I thought would be fascinating to shed a little light on.  He was a Cowboy and a Swashbuckler and he surprised no less than Ernest Hemingway and Billy Wilder.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t know Ty, well, it’s my pleasure to introduce you

            Normally I build to the Top 5 list, but this time I'll go ahead and give it to you.  Listed – and I’ll comment on them – simply in the order the films were released, these are my personal favorites:

            'The Mark Of Zorro' (1940)
            'The Black Swan' (1942)
            'Rawhide' (1951)
            'Witness For The Prosecution' (1957)

            And we'll begin today with his own classic (and cue that great Louis Silvers theme) --

            'Jesse James' (1939)
            w Nunnally Johnson
            d Henry King

            Many people have asked why I pick who I pick for these Retrospectives.  So far we have Bob Hope, Errol Flynn and Danny Kaye.  And while they’re certainly big stars, they’re not -- how do I put this -- overly popular.  I’m not writing-up James Cagney, Clark Gable, John Wayne;  Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn.  Stars you immediately recognize, that have been written about ad nauseam.  (And I know Hope and Flynn and Kaye have been written about, will be again, and better stuff than mine, but you see what I mean.)  I hope to introduce or re-introduce you to names you probably recognize but whose stories you might not know.  And to a handful of their films I genuinely think you’ll enjoy.

            To really begin this round, a little bit about Ty himself.

            Tyrone Edmund Power, Jr. was born in Cincinnati, Ohio;  yes, 100 years ago today.  He descended from a long theatrical line going back to his great-grandfather, the actor and comedian William Grattan Tyrone Power (1795-1841), who was lost at sea in April, 1841, when the SS President disappeared without a trace in the North Atlantic.  (Predisposed to adventure much?)  If that isn’t enough, through his great-grandmother, Anne Gilbert, he’s related to Laurence Olivier.  Though his father was a respected New York Stage actor, Ty had to go door-to-door for his own career;  many contacts knew his father well, and praised his work, but there wasn’t any for our boy.  So, in 1936, he decided to cash it all in and go West.  If New York didn’t want him on the stage, maybe Hollywood wanted him on the screen.
            It was Henry King who spotted him;  indeed our Director today.  (Over the course of Ty’s career, King would direct him in eleven films, but we’ll get to that …)  King was impressed with Power’s looks and poise and insisted he be tested for the lead role in Twentieth Century Fox’s ‘Lloyd’s Of London,’ a role thought to already belong to Don Ameche.  King and Fox in-house Editor Barbara McLean convinced Fox Head Darryl F. Zanuck that Power had a greater screen presence than Ameche.  Despite reservations, Zanuck relented.  Power was billed fourth in the movie but had by far the most screen time.  And put to great use it was.  It sounds cliché but it’s true:  Tyrone Power walked into the film’s premiere an unknown and walked out a star;  which he remained the rest of his career.

            Over the next twenty years, he’d appear in forty-five films, become a Lieutenant in World War II – get this, this is real, flying cargo-in and wounded-out during the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa – would marry three times, be involved with Judy Garland and Lana Turner, and would literally die while filming a duel.  At his funeral, Laurence Olivier read a poem.  And now Ty rests in Hollywood Forever cemetery, next to a small lake, beneath a little marble bench engraved with the masks of comedy and tragedy.

            If you want to know more – and there’s as I keep saying much better stuff out there than this drivel -- go and enjoy.  For our time here, I go back to Orson Welles who once said, “Only art can explain the life of a man.  Not the contrary.”  So let’s get into what we came here for.  Ty’s first big hit, ‘Jesse James.’   

            I wrote in the ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ piece – that’s in my Top 5 Errol Flynn Films – “there’s certainly a blog to be written comparing the Henry King / Tyrone Power classic ‘Jesse James’ and the Andrew Dominik / Brad Pitt modern classic ‘The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.’”  Well, sorry, we’re not going into that here.  But, in dealing with a historical figure, we can’t help mention it:  “historical accuracy in cinema” and “where do we make a fair trade?”  The reel versus the real of the thing.  I wrote that ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ is George Armstrong Custer Warner Bros style.  And ‘My Darling Clementine’ is The O.K. Corral John Ford style.  Well, this is Jesse James Twentieth Century Fox style.  A 1939 New York Times article wrote, “It certainly isn't Jesse James, as even Jo Frances James, a granddaughter of the great outlaw and a technical adviser on [this film], ruefully admitted this week in an Associated Press interview, but ‘Jesse James,’ at the Roxy, is still the best screen entertainment of the year … an authentic American panorama, enriched by dialogue, characterization, and incidents imported directly from the Missouri hills.”  And I dare say that’s a fair trade indeed.

            Where I think this movie transcends its genre – what we think of as the typical Western (this was 1939, remember) – is it’s an early example of an “A-picture” Western rather than a “B-picture” Cowboy Picture.  (Interestingly, Ford’s masterpiece ‘Stagecoach’ came out the same year.  And for those of you interested, take a quick look at the caliber of films released that year.  We’d all be so lucky to have another ’39 to enjoy.)  But “The Western?”  The mid-to-late 30s well into the 50s marked the heyday of the likes of The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, et al.  So to have a film like ‘Jesse James’ come out – as much fun as it is, a major studio Western (which not even ‘Stagecoach’ was considered at the time) – was indeed a stand-out.  At a $2M budget, it was nothing small.  That it would go on to gross at least $10M (numbers differ) says how entertaining it was.  And why not?  It was Jesse James the character, still very much a conscious legend sixty years after his death.  And this was his first big budget color version (although sixth filmed out of to-date nearly sixty).  And the whole production really does soar.  Nunnally Johnson on script, Henry King behind the camera, hell of a cast, that great music.  And all taken rather seriously.  Historical accuracy aside, this was indeed 20th Century Fox style, their pulling out all the stops – including on-location shooting in Missouri – for their star.

            As if Ty as Jesse isn’t enough – during Production, Exhibitors voted him the number one male box-office draw in Hollywood – who’d they get to play his brother Frank?  Just Henry Fonda;  who, interestingly, wasn’t Henry Fonda yet;  the consummate master we now think of him.  But look at three of the films he’d appear in over the one year after ‘Jesse.’  ‘Young Mr. Lincoln,’ ‘Drums Along The Mohawk’ and ‘The Grapes Of Wrath;’  all for John Ford and all in anyone’s Top 10 Henry Fonda Films.  Indeed, he may have walked into 1939 a good actor – and he was – but he came out of 1940 Henry Fonda.  And speaking of collaborating with John Ford – they’d go on to ‘My Darling Clementine’ and ‘Rio Grande’ together as well – it’s interesting to appreciate Mr. Fonda’s magnetism in Westerns knowing he had a lifelong uncomfortability with horses.  He once said, “I never felt secure [on a horse].  I may have looked okay, but I wasn't any good.”  Fonda also revealed a dangerous day on the ‘Jesse James’ set.  “They had a group of us who had just escaped from jail.  Henry [King] wanted us to have guns in our hand, shoot in the air, rear the horses, and start off.  He made us do it over and over.  This one time, I lowered my hand without uncocking the gun, the horse wiggled his rear end, and my gun went off.  No bullet, but a full charge.  I sure as hell had powder burns.  They tore my trousers and burned my leg so badly I had to be taken to the emergency room.”  Fonda recovered, and turned in such a memorable performance that Zanuck immediately placed him in a sequel, ‘The Return Of Frank James’ (1940) which, most agree, is a worthy viewing.

            While we’re on our Cast – and only mentioning them hardly does them justice – there’s Jane Darwell as Jesse’s and Frank’s mother, Nancy Kelly as Zee, none other than Randolph Scott as Will Wright, Donald Meek as Mr. McCoy, and John Carradine as Bob Ford.  (Coincidentally, Power, Darwell and Carradine are also in ‘Brigham Young’ together;  that film with an oft-missed Vincent Price role.  But I digress …)  I have to single out Henry Hull as Major Rufus Cobb in our film today, wonderfully playing our pitch perfect comic relief.  (And if you’ve been kind enough to read more of these rants of mine, yes, that’s him as Mark Williams in Errol Flynn’s ‘Objective Burma.’)  As Editor of the local paper here – resetting all that type – I go back to our reel versus real bit.  Author Johnny Boggs writes that Hull’s role is real, sort of;  modeling on newspaper editor John Newman Edwards who “did help create an everlasting image of the James and Younger brothers, whom he constantly defended with his editorial rhetoric.” 

            ‘Jesse James’ holds another historical mark of a sort.  Remember that great shot of Jesse and Frank going horseback off the cliff?  Well, that horse died during that stunt.  (Even though the movie shows two horses and riders falling, the "second" is actually the same, just a second camera angle.)  The accident led to such protest by The American Humane Association that they opened a Hollywood office and in 1940 began officially monitoring the treatment of animals in films.  For years it was aligned with The Hays Office – remember, our frontrunner to The MPAA – but, when The Hays Office dissolved in 1966, The American Humane Association's Film & TV Unit lost its official right to access sets.  Neglect of animal safety returned in force, and it wasn't until 1980, when incidents on ‘Heaven’s Gate’ put new focus on the issue, that The Association was granted official on-set jurisdiction.  To this day The A.H.A. monitors some two thousand productions a year.

            Our Writer today is the often unsung Nunnally Johnson.  He began his career as a journalist and wrote short stories.  His first foray into film was selling one of those stories in 1927.  He asked his Editor if he could write film critiques but was denied.  Still sparked by Hollywood lights, he moved to California and quickly found work as a screenwriter.  He started at 20th Century Fox but soon began producing his own films;  including founding International Pictures with William Goetz.  (Goetz was a founder of Twentieth Century Pictures, which became Fox.  No slouch to Cinema Pedigree, Goetz married Louis B. Mayer’s daughter, and his brother-in-law was David O. Selznick.  When International was bought by Universal, it became Universal-International, where Goetz served as Head Of Production and Johnson returned to Fox.)  Nunnally Johnson was nominated for two Writing Oscars, for John Ford’s ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’ and ‘Holy Matrimony.’  He’d go on to Direct his own pictures as well, most notably getting Joanne Woodward her Oscar in ‘The Three Faces Of Eve’ and he’s probably most famous for Writing-Directing ‘The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit’ and Writing ‘The Dirty Dozen.’  He once said of Betty Grable, “I don't think she cares about Oscar on her mantle when she has every Tom, Dick and Harry at her feet.”  And of John Ford, “I think he dies because he can’t write, all those thoughts and ideas he can’t get down on paper.  Runs him nuts.”  Oh and his best friend?  Groucho Marx.
            As mentioned, our Director today is Henry King.  Another mostly “unsung” in the industry but really one of the great directors.  Perhaps not as stand-out as others – remember, this is when Directors were under contracts to studios, their projects Assignments – but he was incredibly adept at Story and, as importantly, different kinds of stories.  He started as an Actor, Directing his first film in 1915 (he’d go on to over 100).  Twice nominated for an Oscar – ‘The Song Of Bernadette’ and ‘Wilson,’ ’43 and ’44 respectively – he often worked with our star today and Mr. Gregory Peck;  including two of his best, ‘Twelve O’Clock High’ and ‘The Gunfighter.’  (In fact, 'Twelve O’Clock High’ is one of the films Rian Johnson made his Cast & Crew watch in preparation for ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi.')  And King was a sort of mentor to Ty, discovering him, supporting him, and, as mentioned, making eleven films with him.  (Also in this Top 5, they did ‘The Black Swan’ together.)  In his spare time?  King was an avid pilot – another passion he and Ty shared – and Mr. King was one of the 36 founders of The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences.

            Wrapping up today’s film, that original 1939 New York Times article concludes, “The principal beauty of ‘Jesse James’ (aside from Technicolor) is its Nunnally Johnson dialogue and its individual scenes:  the rout of the railroad gorillas, the train and bank hold-ups—especially the politeness of the railroad bandits—the marriage scene, in which the James boys interrupt Sabbath service in a country church-house and discover a sociological friend in the pastor, and the acting, anchored by Tyrone Power, who makes out an excellent melodramatic case against himself as Jesse, although, as far as we are concerned, the verdict is still ‘not guilty.’”

            It’s at the end of the film – not a spoiler, you know our hero gets shot – that our dear old Major Cobb cites this eulogy.  “There’s no question about it, Jesse was an outlaw.  Even those that loved him ain’t got no answer to that.  But we ain’t ashamed of him!  I don’t know why, but I don’t even think America is ashamed of Jesse James.  Maybe it’s because he was bold and lawless, like we all like to be sometimes.  Maybe it’s because we understand a little that he wasn’t altogether to blame for what his times made him.  Maybe it’s because for ten years he licked the tar out of five states!  Or maybe it’s because he was so good at what he was doing.  I don’t know.  All I do know is, he was one of the damndest buckaroos that ever road across these United States of America.”  It reads corny, sure;  but seen it’s a hell of a moment.  In the reel … and, well, really.

            Especially with that great Louis Silvers theme.

            Up next?  Ty trades a six-shooter for a sword as another type of Robin Hood in the genre-defining ‘The Mark Of Zorro.’

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