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Case Number 26803: Small Claims Court

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Jesse James (1939) (Blu-ray)

Fox // 1939 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge P.S. Colbert // January 6th, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge P.S. Colbert is now giving his support of high-speed rail some serious reconsideration.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Henry Fonda Film Collection, published June 7th, 2013, is also available.

The Charge

"Filmed in Technicolor, in actual locales of breath-taking beauty!"

The Case

Sadie, bar the door! See that rider, cutting across the pains like Quicksilver? He's heading this way, and danged if he doesn't look just like that bank robbin' feller everybody's been talking about—Why, I hear tell that he's nothing more 'n a mean, dirty killer!

Or maybe…

Maw, put the kettle on and set another place at the table. Paw, take down the jug; company's a-comin', and doggoned if he doesn't look just like that latter day Robin Hood feller who's been sticking up for us little guys by sticking it to those robber baron railroad owners!

Yep, ever since his (alleged) murder at the hands of Robert Ford on April 3, 1882, there's been quite a bit of quarreling over the years about how best to describe the man known far and wide as the "most notorious outlaw" of the wild, wild west era—Vicious gangster or American folk hero?

Darryl F. Zanuck's production of Jesse James hedges its bets. While never exonerating the title character (played by Tyrone Power, Blood And Sand) the film sets him up sympathetically, as a victim of ruthless corporate greed (or, "manifest destiny," if you will), provoked into his extra-legal escapades by a system that considers him worthless at best.

On the other hand, what looks at first glance like just another rootin' tootin' oat-laced time filler, is revealed upon further inspection to be—facts be durned—a wallopin' great Western, with a wit-loaded script by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes Of Wrath), fleet direction by Henry King (The Song Of Bernadette), and a top-drawer cast of character actors, alongside a bumper-crop of soon-to-be famous players, including Nancy Kelly (The Bad Seed), Randolph Scott (Man In The Saddle), John Carradine (Drums Along The Mohawk), characteristically sepulchral and perfect as that historical coward, Robert Ford.

Last but not least, there's Henry Fonda (The Ox-Bow Incident), second-billed here as Jesse's brother, Frank, though Fonda would move into starring position—playing the same role—in the sequel The Return Of Frank James, released a year later.

Fox's Blu-ray release of Jesse James most likely does the best restoration job possible, resulting in a reasonably clean (if somewhat darkish at times) full-frame image. The Technicolor shows obvious signs of advanced age (blues and reds being especially vivid), but even these degradations do nothing to mar the beautiful work of Oscar-winning cinematographers George Barnes (Rebecca) and W. Howard Greene (The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex). Sound is likewise sturdy, with no evident hissing, popping or dropping out. You can also throw out your tin horn; subtitles are available.

Extras are slight, especially the poorly preserved, fifty-second Movietone newsreel. There's also a time-worn theatrical trailer that succeeds on its merits as a hyperbole-filled hard sell, giving 21st century audiences a good idea of the lengths one had to go in order to squeeze pocket change out of Depression-era audiences.

Granted, Jesse James in lesser hands would be no more than a B-level matinee programmer, but if you're looking for a prime example of the early big-screen Western, this here's the genuine article. Considering that you already know how the story ends, all you have to do is settle in and enjoy the scenic, action-packed ride. What, you don't know how the story ends? Never mind—I got the cure for you, Doc: See this movie.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
• DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
• DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
• English (SDH)
• Dutch
• French
• Japanese
• Spanish
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Biographical
• Blu-ray
• Classic
• Crime
• Drama
• Historical
• Western

Distinguishing Marks

• Newsreels
• Trailer


• IMDb

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