This ‘Western’ is dire. By 1966, in the swinging 60s, a decade after the ‘horror’ films of the 50s, you might expect this one to be self-mocking or a parody of the genre, yet it’s played straight, not for laughs, as if the makers expect us to take it seriously. But it’s very difficult to imagine anyone doing that.
Embassy was a small studio and distributor founded in 1942 by Joseph Levine, and it specialized in low-grade B pictures. As a production company in the late 50s and early 60s they made a Steve Reeves Hercules picture and assorted B movies, but they had bigger ambitions. They did a $30m deal with Paramount to make bigger pictures, and Levine produced the likes of The Carpetbaggers and its prequel Nevada Smith. They reached the heights with their distributing The Graduate and The Lion in Winter. It didn’t stop most of their own output being dross, as this Jesse James movie proved.
Great art it ain't
It was directed by William ‘One-Take’ Beaudine who was responsible for huge numbers of very bad pictures. He first worked in movies with DW Griffiths and was his assistant on The Birth of a Nation. He started Westerns as an actor in a 1913 Harry Carey silent oater, and he first directed one, Rosie’s Rancho, in 1917. After World War II he made a lot of very cheap Westerns and moved early into TV ones too. Once when informed that one of his pictures was behind schedule he replied, "You mean someone out there is actually waiting to see this...?"
Jesse James Meet’s Frankenstein’s Daughter was written (original story and screenplay), quite extraordinarily badly, by Carl K Hittleman. Hittleman had actually directed Westerns, bad ones, and was responsible for Kentucky Rifle, The Buckskin Lady and Gun Battle at Monterey (see them if you must). As a producer he had ‘credit’ for I Shot Jesse James and The Return of Jesse James. In 1966, with Beaudine, he came up with the script of twin Western-horrors, Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (which I will review one day if I absolutely have to) and Jesse James Meet’s Frankenstein’s Daughter. The Billy the Kid one actually, and amazingly, starred John Carradine as Dracula, though Carradine later said it was the most embarrassing moment of his professional life. The Jesse James one had no stars of note and that was probably better.
Jesse James was played by John Lupton, co-star of the TV Broken Arrow. He’d also been the gay poet in Escape from Fort Bravo, but it was downhill after that. This movie was his only Western lead, as far as I know. Sorry, but he really wasn’t very good. There’s no Frank James in this one.
Lupton as Jesse
Jesse wasn’t “killed up at Northridge” (whoever said he was?) but roams Arizona with a huge hunk named Hank (Cal Bolder – should have been Boulder really). They get involved with the Wild Bunch, which is down to three members (this wasn’t a big-budget film): Butch Curry (Roger Creed), his brother Lonny (Rayford Barnes) and another heavy. The stage robbery they plan goes wrong and Hank is wounded. The pair flee to Mexico where a comely señorita, Juanita (Estelita Rodriguez), helps them to two doctors with European accents in a gloomy mission. The docs are Maria, Frankenstein’s daughter – well, granddaughter, in fact, for they couldn’t even get the title right – and her brother Rudolph. Rudolph (Steven Geray) is wet and wimpy while Maria (Narda Onyx) looks like Isabella Rossellini but talks like Mrs. Thatcher. With me so far?
Of course Maria eyes Hank the Hunk up to become her new monster and duly transplants a brain into him (quite an addition in fact because he showed no sign of having one before) and he becomes Igor, who does her every bidding.
Maria turns Hank the Hunk into Igor
Jesse arrives at the mission and is overpowered. A sheriff (Jim Davis, slumming it; he had been Frank James in Bob Hope’s Jesse drama of seven years before) is on Jesse’s trail and calls at the mission, as does Juanita. Igor is to kill them all. What will happen? Well, watch and find out. I couldn’t possibly spoil the ending of this Shakespearean tragedy for you.
Lupton as Jesse is blond with dashing mustaches, a black frock coat and two guns. Still, he’s a better actor than Hank. The worst thespians of all are Juanita’s parents who are laughably inept. Juanita herself (Madame Rodriguez) is about the best, but it’s all relative.
To be brutally frank, this movie is not an essential part of the Jesse James canon and can be safely skipped. I sat through it so that you don’t have to. Now is that noble or what? Well, you know, a reviewer’s gotta do what a reviewer’s gotta do.