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

Monday, August 13, 2018

Young Jesse James (Fox, 1960)

Jesse not a saint for once

Fox made rather a thing of Jesse James stories. The studio made a big color A-picture in 1939 with Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank, Jesse James, and in 1957 they did it again, this time with Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter as the brothers, in The True Story of Jesse James (which of course wasn’t). In fact Fox had bought the rights from the James family and wanted to make the most of the purchase, which they did with some success. Both pictures were box-office hits.

They also made B-Westerns on the theme, and 1960’s offering was one such. It was a low-budget affair with lesser stars, and in black & white (the 1939 and ’57 pictures had been in color). But it wasn’t junk. Compared with, say, Don ‘Red’ Barry’s trashy Jesse James’ Women in 1954, released by United Artists, Young Jesse James was a mega-budget A-movie. It was in CinemaScope, for one thing.

It aimed to exploit the teen-rebel vibe that had been so popular in the 50s, and the slogan on the poster was TEENAGE TERROR OF THE OLD WEST, though this was a bit of a stretch because Ray Stricklyn as Jesse was 32. Despite the title, though, it wasn’t a juvenile Western. It had enough sex and violence for it not to be aimed at the kiddies market (though of course it is very tame by present-day standards).
The movie’s interest, inasmuch as there is any, is that for once Jesse was not a knight in shining armor. The first silent-movie Jesse James pictures, in the 1920s, starred Jesse James Jr. as the outlaw Jesse and were pretty well hagiography. Jesse James was misunderstood and a noble, brave fighter for the cause, not a psychopath. He risked his life to bring a little dolly to a small child, that kind of thing. Fox’s pictures had continued this theme, if not quite so blatantly, making Jesse a member of an oppressed minority fighting for the individual against ruthless corporate villains (the railroads were a favorite). So it comes as a refreshing change to see a Jesse who starts reasonably heroic but gradually becomes a killer who enjoys it and a hardened criminal.

Stricklyn was probably cast because of his youthful appearance. He had been signed by Fox a couple of years before and said, “I was 27 and still looked 16, but there was a whole new crop of boys coming up who really were that age. I'd thought my career was going straight up. So like a lot of foolish young actors, I started living beyond my means. I bought expensive cars, got into debt. Once you think you're going to be a star, then you're not -- it's a rude awakening.” He appeared in quite a few Western TV shows but not that many features. He was one of the kids in The Last Wagon in 1956 and the same year as Young Jesse James he would get a part in The Plunderers. In ’65 he was in the Audie Murphy/Buster Crabbe oater Arizona Raiders. He manages the part of the juvenile delinquent Jesse quite well, I’d say.
Ray is Jesse
Richard Dix's son Robert (who died a few days ago) was Frank. He’d had a small part in Forty Guns and an even smaller one in Lone Texan the year before Young Jesse. He was certainly not a big star. Actually, Lone Texan had Willard Parker as lead, and Parker took the principal support role in Young Jesse, second billed as Cole Younger, with Frank taking rather a back seat. Parker had already had several lead or co-lead parts in Westerns and in fact he had himself been Jesse James in 1953 in Universal’s The Great Jesse James Raid, directed by Reginald Le Borg, about whom I was waffling only the other day. His Cole is the good guy, an older cousin of Jesse who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow, a doomed effort. Actually, Cole Younger was only three years older than Jesse James and hardly a mentor. In the movie, though, there was a big age difference: Parker was pushing fifty and looked it.  

It starts with the old chestnut of brutal Union troops hanging Jesse’s father, to give some justification for the boy’s crimes. It never happened, of course, at least it was not a fatal hanging in reality and it was Jesse’s step-father. But we’ll let that pass. Jesse is distraught and rides off to join brother Frank with Quantrill’s guerrillas. Here’s another dubious portrayal as far as age is concerned because Quantrill (he’s Charlie Quantrill, for some reason, not William) is played by our old pal Emile Meyer, 50. In truth Quantrill was 24 when the war started and 28 at his death in June 1865. Oh well. Meyer’s Quantrill is a rascal, not a noble defender of Confederate freedom.
Emile as Quantrill
Quantrill as Quantrill
With the gang Jesse starts by being sick at the sight of blood (it is rather gory for the time, though in monochrome). This is when we see him in drag, dressed up as a girl to fool the Union soldiers while he is contacting a Reb spy. An officer rumbles him and Cole is obliged to shoot the fellow in the face. Later, back in the camp, the sergeant who hanged Daddy is captured (“I was only doing my duty,” he says) and Jesse shoots him in the back. “You didn’t have to kill him,” says goody Cole. “Well, you didn’t have to shoot that officer,” Jesse rebuts. You see Jesse is now becoming a hardened killer.
Jesse dresses up
Once he’s got his revenge, though, he goes back to the farm and the loving arms of his ma, Mrs. Samuel (Sheila Bromley) and his inamorata Zee (Jacklyn O’Donnell). His mother is one of those buxom apple-pie mommas who bears no relation whatever to Zerelda Samuel, the real hardened harridan of history, while Zee is another goody-goody, who won’t marry him unless he renounces his evil ways.
Zee tries to get him to be good
Now it is revealed that Jesse has second sight. While putting up a ‘God Bless Our Home’ sampler that Zee has made he foresees his death.

It isn’t long before Jesse is back with the guerrillas and robbin’ and killin’. At one point he falls from his horse and twists an ankle so Cole takes him to stay with Belle Starr (Merry Anders) until it gets better, and of course Cole and Belle are lovey-dovey and Jesse is a bit jealous. In fact, Belle was allegedly briefly married for three weeks to Charles Younger, Cole’s uncle, in 1878, but this is not substantiated by any evidence and Cole himself denied it. But various movies (e.g. The Long Riders) invent a Cole/Belle romance.
Merry Anders is Belle Starr (left, obviously) and the real Belle Starr.
They could be sisters.
Well, Cole, disgusted by Quantrill’s unpatriotic villainy, rides off to join Shelby’s regulars. Now one of the guerrillas (Rex Holman) tries to rape Zee, so Jesse empties his revolver into the fellow. Quantrill is not best pleased. “He was only having some fun.” Shaken, Zee tells him that she had come to get him because Union troops have firebombed the house and his mother has lost an arm (this event actually took place in 1875 at the hands of the Pinkertons but here it is a wartime occurrence). Jesse goes back to comfort his ma, where he is informed that Lee has surrendered and the war is over. He doesn’t cotton to that, saying he still has “a lot of scores to settle” but saintly Zee convinces him to ride in to town and surrender. While doing so, holding a white flag, a Union soldier gratuitously shoots him.

So you see a whole lot of half-truths and legends that people think they know are given us in a mangled way. Par for the course in Jesse B-Westerns.
Not the worst Jesse B-Western
Jesse recovers but though he and Frank do honest farm work no one will give them any credit. The banks and railroads are of course mentioned as responsible. Cole turns up again and says he is carrying on the struggle by robbing banks. Jesse and Frank sign up and there is a Northfield-style raid on a bank in Liberty, MO, with mucho shootin’. Jim Younger (Johnny O’Neill), Cole’s brother, is gravely wounded and it’s all Jesse’s fault. He doesn’t care. All he wants is the loot. He is beyond redemption now. He rides off, followed by a reluctant Frank (“He is my brother”) and to the strains of the same rather cheesy ballad we had at the start, Jesse James rides off to a life of outlawry.

Well, well. I have seen worse. I’ve seen a lot better, mind. But still, you could watch it.
Bill Claxton
It was directed by good old William F Claxton, who started Westerns as an editor on Frontier Marshal in 1939 and directed endless B-movies and TV shows until his swansong with two seasons of Father Murphy and the TV movie Bonanza: The Next Generation half a century later. He was probably best known for directing Bonanza episodes (he was a Landon pal) and The High Chaparral. I liked his The Quiet Gun in 1957.


  1. Jeff, another good write-up of the American public's favorite outlaw. I've been interested in the James-Younger Gang ever since I can remember. When I was a youngster, I recall my maternal grandmother talking about seeing the YOUNG JESSE JAMES movie. My Grandmother Lillie's father was a youngster when the James-Younger Gang stayed at their homestead while riding the owlhoot trail from Missouri to Texas. His father, my great-great grandfather had met Frank James during the War of the Rebellion. I'm also related, by marriage, to the Younger Family. As a youngster I watched the TV show THE LEGEND OF JESSE JAMES(1965-66) starring Christopher Jones and Allen Case as Jesse and Frank James. A girl I knew showed me a fan photo of Christopher Jones as Jesse James, which I thought was neat, at the time. I've been interested in the real Jesse, as well as the reel Jesse for a lifetime.

    I highly recommend the research and writings of my late friend Phillip Wayne Steele(1934-2007). https://www.amazon.com/Phillip-W.-Steele/e/B001K8HPTU In his book STARR TRACKS: BELLE STARR AND PEARL STARR(1989), Phillip writes of Belle's(Maebelle Reed) marriage to Bruce Younger, not Charles. Charles was Bruce's father. Also, Phil writes of the family ties of the Younger's and Dalton's. https://books.google.com/books?id=OtyZBAAAQBAJ&pg=PT45&lpg=PT45&dq=phillip+w.+steele+and+bruce+younger&source=bl&ots=sAFjBgTmI6&sig=t9UvkikRIDMf40l0Xx0xAG_2NoY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjwxPbnz_ncAhVK7YMKHSlhBJ4Q6AEwAnoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=phillip%20w.%20steele%20and%20bruce%20younger&f=false

    1. Hi there Walter
      Very interesting. So it seems from Mr. Steele's book that there was in fact some affair between Cole and Belle, though she married (for three weeks!) Cole's cousin Bruce. Fascinating stuff.
      My family can, tragically, boast no Jesse/Younger/Dalton background. I envy you yours!