"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (NBC TV, 1986)

Frank and Jesse in the 1980s

Every generation has to have its Jesse James movie and each new one gave us the fabled hero rather than the factual psychopath. This tendency started right back with the very first silent movie Jesses. The 1980s opened with The Long Riders, perhaps the best Jesse James movie though still highly inaccurate. And in 1986 we got another of those country-singer Westerns, with Johnny Cash as Frank and Kris Kristofferson as Jesse.

It was really no worse than many, and certainly a lot better than those dreadful 50s B-movie Jesses like The Great Missouri Raid (Paramount, 1951) with Macdonald Carey as Jesse, The Great Jesse James Raid (Lippert, 1953) with Willard Parker in the part, or Jesse James’ Women (United Artists, 1954) with Don ‘Red’ Barry both directing and starring as Jesse.

Many of the Jesse James movies either ignored Frank completely or put him very much in the shade of his brother, with Frank getting a much smaller part. But some did try to give equal weight to the pair. This one, if anything, gives Frank a little more of the limelight.

Jesse and Frank

In fact both Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson could act (unlike their comrades Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the like who, as actors, made great singers). Kris was, notably, Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah and Johnny was especially good, I thought, in A Gunfight with Kirk Douglas. And there was a vague physical resemblance of one to the other. Furthermore, there was the same age difference between Johnny, born 1932, and Kris, born 1936, as there was between Frank, born 1843, and Jesse, born 1847.

However, the constraints of the TV movie industry and the rather clunky writing – by Bill Stratton, only this and a Gunsmoke TV movie to his Western credit - didn’t exactly help and in this film neither actor was in much danger of winning glittering prizes.

The picture opens, as it had to, with Johnny singing The Ballad of Jesse James, and this remains one of the highlights of the overlong and rather slow movie that follows. We get the 1882 assassination, then flashbacks. Despite the title, the story deals with the last years of Jesse and Frank, 1877 to 1892 to be precise. Once Bob Ford (Darrell Wilks) is dead we just get a brief voiceover to tell us that Frank lived peacefully and died in 1915. This makes the coverage very similar to that of the recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but it’s done with nowhere near the quality of that fine movie.

Johnny’s Frank is a reformed character, or almost. He wants to settle down and farm. He is a devoted family man and very learned, quoting literature and the Bible all the time. Writers tried to do the same with Doc Holliday, making him a Shakespeare lover, but there is in fact no evidence whatsoever that either was well read or even much more than barely literate. He learns from his wife (Gail Youngs) the song The Old Rugged Cross (not actually written till 1912 but never mind, maybe he had an advance copy).

Johnny as Frank

Kris’s Jesse is rather more of a rogue. He chases women and he it is who convinces Frank to do “one last bank.” He also has regrettable friends and acquaintances who, in the end, bring about his downfall as at one point Frank warns him they will.

Kris as Jesse

We get June Carter Cash as a feisty “Mother James”, made aged by heavy make-up (actually she was Johnny’s wife, not his mother), single-handedly bashing out a song on the harmonium so that Johnny and Kris can join in. Jesse’s wife Zee (Meg Gibson) has a rather small part and Jesse spends much of the runtime wooing Sarah Hite (Marcia Cross). Jeffrey Buckner Ford is William (not Allan) Pinkerton.

The director was William A Graham (below), not the most accomplished of Western helmsmen though he has the Val Kilmer TV Billy the Kid to his name as well as Waterhole Three, if that’s your cup of tea, a few other TV movie Westerns and some episodes of Western TV shows. In this one, though, he definitely lacked pace. Bring back Lesley Selander.

William Graham

It’s in color and shot in some nice Tennessee locations, the Chattanooga choo-choo being used for the hold-up. It’s billed at 120 minutes runtime but it is (mercifully) cut these days for TV viewing and comes in at two hours including commercial breaks.

Once Jesse is dead, Frank surrenders publicly to Governor Crittendon (Ed Evans) and is acquitted after a noisy show trial in which the most fêted celebrity is General Joe Shelby, come to testify on behalf of his old comrade Frank James. The star witness is applauded as he enters the courtroom and no wonder, because it’s Willie Nelson.

Naturally the film can’t resist having Frank go after the Fords for vengeance. This was what Henry Fonda’s Frank did in the Fritz Lang-directed sequel to Fox’s Jesse James (1939), The Return of Frank James. He attends one of the performances of the lamentable (but profitable) show the Fords put on, which re-enacted the assassination of Jesse, and is restrained by his friend Major Edwards (Ed Bruce) from drawing on the villain in the theater. And he follows Bob to Creede, Colorado (called Creed in the movie) where he is a prime mover in the shotgun slaying of Ford by Ed Kelly (Slick Lawson). He gets to bend over the dying Ford and say grimly, “Goodbye, Bob.”

Actually, Frank James did not hunt down his brother’s killers. Five months after the 1882 assassination he met the Governor in the state capitol and surrendered on the understanding that he would not be extradited to Northfield. He was tried for only two of the robberies/murders the James gang had committed, both in 1881, the attack on the Rock Island Line train in which the engineer and a passenger were killed, and the robbery of an Army payroll in Alabama. He was acquitted of both. He went to Oklahoma to live with his mother. In later years Frank James worked a variety of jobs, including as a shoe salesman and then as a burlesque theater ticket clerk in St. Louis. In 1903 he was in a short-lived and unsuccessful Wild West show with Cole Younger, who had been released after serving his sentence for the Northfield, Minnesota bank raid.

Cole joined the show

In his final years, Frank returned to the James farm, giving 25¢ tours. He died there in 1915, aged 72.

Frank James aged 55

Still, you can’t blame the movies for jazzing it up a bit.

The whole thing is unexceptional but also unexceptionable.



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