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Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Great Missouri Raid (Paramount, 1951)

Frank and Jesse ride (yet) again

In May 1950, after directing a couple of neat Randolph Scott Westerns at Columbia, The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949) and The Nevadan (1950), Gordon Douglas (there's a Doug-o-rama coming soon) signed a two-picture deal with Paramount (the second movie never happened) and made a Jesse James story, The Great Missouri Raid. It was released in February ’51.

Jesse was all the rage at that time. The James family had cannily guarded the rights to their name and done a shrewd deal with Fox which resulted in the major picture Jesse James in 1939, directed by one of their top men, Henry King, and starring their biggest contract player, Tyrone Power, backed up by Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott. It was in Technicolor and no expense was spared. And it was a big hit. The studio followed up in 1940 with a sequel, The Return of Frank James, helmed by Fritz Lang, no less. But then the rights deal expired and it was open season on the name, so all sorts of Jesse James tales began to appear. Don ‘Red’ Barry, Alan Baxter, Roy Rogers, Rod Cameron, George Reeves, Clayton Moore, Reed Hadley, Dale Robertson and Audie Murphy all got to play the Missouri outlaw, for a variety of studios. Lippert’s low-budget I Shot Jesse James, directed by Samuel Fuller, was a surprise hit in 1949 and the following year war hero Audie, who had signed a deal with Universal to make oaters, came in with Kansas Raiders, another success. So Nat Holt, producer of The Great Missouri Raid, thought he was onto a good thing.

Producer Nat Holt (with Anne Jeffreys on the set of another picture)

Douglas, as he admitted ruefully himself, made some pretty ordinary pictures. I have a large family to feed and it's only occasionally that I find a story that interests me.” And self-deprecatingly, even rather sadly, he commented, “Don't try to watch all the films I've directed; it would turn you off movies forever.” But I must say that as far as oaters go he made a good fist of it, and while there were one or two which were a bit ho-hum, actually several were very good. Maybe The Great Missouri Raid isn’t in the very top bracket but it gallops right along.

Director Douglas

The supporting cast was pretty good, and includes Ward Bond as the chief villain, bringing some weight to the role, with James Millican as his equally villainous brother, Bruce Bennett, Bill Williams and Paul Lees as the Younger brothers, Paul Fix and Ray Teal as Union army sergeants, Frank Ferguson as a townsman, James Griffith as a sneaky spy, and Whit Bissell as a weasel-like Bob Ford. Not bad.

Ward is the villain

The problem really came with the casting of the two leads. Wendell Corey was Frank and Macdonald Carey was Jesse. To be brutally frank, dear e-readers (and when is your Jeff anything less?) they weren’t up to the task. In fact producer Holt admitted to them that he had got mixed up with Coreys and Careys, and had meant to cast Wendell as Jesse. Oops. Never mind, Wendell would get to be Jesse at the end of the decade, in Bob Hope’s Alias Jesse James.

Corey 'n' Carey, or is it Carey 'n' Corey
It was Corey’s second Western, after Anthony Mann’s The Furies the year before, but he wasn’t really cut out for the genre, I reckon. As for Carey, he was a bit better. He had been not bad as badman Lorn Reming in Streets of Laredo in 1949, his first oater, and went on to do Copper Canyon, Comanche Territory and Cave of Outlaws. So he had some Western form. Later he would head the cast in Hannah Lee: An American Primitive. Not that Corey ‘n’ Carey are bad. They do try to be tough. But they are a bit anodyne, honestly.

Douglas did a good job on the look of the picture. It was shot in Technicolor up at Iverson Ranch (with railroad scenes at Jamestown) by the talented Ray Rennahan, 30 Westerns between 1923 and 1958, including Drums Along the Mohawk for John Ford, Duel in the Sun for Selznick and Stranger on Horseback for Jacques Tourneur. There are some fine shots in Missouri, notably views of action shot through foreground wheels and some well done nighttime gun battles and a nighttime train robbery which Andrew Dominik and Roger Deakins might have seen when they did their Frank and Jesse train robbery in 2007.

Douglas was good at action, and there’s plenty of it. Yak Canutt was stuntmeister. The James gang blow up banks, rob trains, gallop about and such.

They skipped the bank in Northfield, preferring a train robbery - perhaps so they could use Smoky Sue, a c 1869 locomotive up at Jamestown

It was written by Frank Gruber, the pulp Western novelist who also wrote dozens of screenplays and teleplays (Pony Express, Rage at Dawn, Denver and Rio Grande, etc) and was a leading light in the creation of the TV series Tales of Wells Fargo, The Texan and Shotgun Slade. The pressbook for the movie puffed it as historical. “After painstaking research involving little known records, correspondence and newspaper accounts, producer Holt has placed before his camera the authentic history of America’s most sought-after outlaws.”  It added, “To set matters right, top historical novelist Frank Gruber performed extensive research before he committed the screenplay to paper. The result is a startling historical revelation, as well as spine-tingling proof that truth is more stirring than fiction.”

Frank bashed out the script

As I have often said on this blog, I do not demand or expect historical accuracy when watching a Western movie. Westerns are entertainment, not documentaries, and if you go to a movie theater to learn all about nineteenth-century American history you are on a hiding to nothing. So no problems with the genre playing fast and loose with history. Where I do object, though, is when they claim to be true. All those movies that began with false ‘This is how it really happened’ statements should be ashamed of themselves. They are deliberately pulling the wool over the audience’s eyes with their presumptuous and mendacious claims. One big version was even titled The True Story of Jesse James (which of course it wasn't).

The Great Missouri Raid is full of factual errors, and while I would say that it is perhaps marginally less historical twaddle than some other versions, it is not “the authentic history of America’s most sought-after outlaws”. Frank James and his comrades did not run off the Union soldiers abusing his family, as in the opening scenes; Jesse was not wounded while surrendering at Independence; Arch Clements was not killed then either; Jesse’s paramour was called Zee, not Bee, and her last name was Mimms, not Moore; Frank’s wife was Anna, not Mary; the gang didn’t use dynamite in the Civil War (it was not even patented till 1867); Dick Liddil shot Wood Hite, not Ed Miller; it was the Pinkertons, not Ward Bond’s ‘Trowbridge Detective Agency’, that pursued the Jameses; and so on, ad pretty well infinitum.

The movie’s title also bears no relation to the Civil War campaign in Missouri. The blurb on Michael J Forsyth’s book The Great Missouri Raid (2015) tells us: 

In 1864, General Sterling Price with an army of 12,000 ragtag Confederates invaded Missouri in an effort to wrest it from the United States Army's Department of Missouri. Price hoped his campaign would sway the 1864 presidential election, convincing war-weary Northern voters to cast their ballots for a peace candidate rather than Abraham Lincoln. It was the South's last invasion of Northern territory. But it was simply too late in the war for the South to achieve such an outcome, and Price grossly mismanaged the campaign, guaranteeing the defeat of his force and of the Confederate States. This book chronicles the Confederacy's desperate, final, ill-fated attempt to win a decisive Victory.

Instead, the film just shows us bank and train hold-ups and general maraudin’. But enough of history. This is a Western.

The movie opens with a voiceover by “Ma James”, Mrs. Zerelda James, then Mimms, then Samuel (1825 – 1911) played, rather well in fact, by veteran character actress Anne Revere, said to be a direct descendant of Paul. Jess and Frank’s mother was often portrayed as a sweet (and always older, almost grandmotherly) apple-pie kind of woman (Jane Darwell in 1939) whereas in reality she was in her thirties, as tough as old boots, a slave-owning ardent Confederate who christened her daughter Fanny Quantrell “just to have a Quantrell in the family”. For me, Revere in this picture and Fran Ryan in The Long Riders were the best screen James mothers.

Zerelda Samuel

The good news: Edgar Buchanan is Mr. Samuel (they call him Samuels, as movies often did). The bad news: he has almost nothing to say or do except scratch his head and look perplexed every time he appears.

Scratch, scratch

The brutal assailants on the farm are led by sadistic Sgt James Millican, who takes gruesome delight in half-hanging Edgar, the swine. Jesse will shoot him in the ensuing melee (he didn’t really) but unfortunately it turns out that the sergeant is the brother of the big boss in those parts, Provost Marshal Major Trowbridge (Bond) and Trowbridge vows revenge at all costs. Ward always did the heavy well (in all senses). He verges almost on the overacting here but well, it’s Ward.

Brutal Millican strings Buchanan up

Major Trowbridge is ‘asked to resign’ his commission and starts up a detective agency with the sole aim of capturing/killing the James boys. He seems obsessed. The James boys derail the express in a spectacular scene. There’s no Northfield but after the train robbery Frank and Jesse separate from the Youngers (they don’t want to but Cole insists) and the Youngers are shot up and captured by the Trowbridge men. All the events are telescoped, so it seems that they happen in 1865 or ’66, whereas as we know, the Youngers weren't captured till 1876 and Jesse wasn’t murdered till 1882.

Bruce is Cole

At the end Frank and Jesse and their wives decide to go to Europe to let the heat die down, but the Fords (Whit Bissell and Louis Jean Heydt) put the kibosh on that. It is Bob who suggests that Jesse remove his guns, and it is a picture of Ma that Jesse decides to straighten. Jesse dies in Bee’s arms and suddenly it is The End.

Brian Garfield called it “not very fresh”. At the time The New York Times showered faint praise on it: “Frank Gruber's story and screen play give the outlaws decent lines to speak and loads of opportunities for hard riding, fast shooting, and a modicum of romance for the Jameses.” All in all it’s quite a fun watch and certainly a lot better than most of the black & white low-budget Jesses of the previous decade. It's well directed and photographed, and with better leads might have been quite good. Worth a look anyway.




  1. I seem to find that, in the right part, Wendell Corey could be very good (he impressed me in "I WALK ALONE" for example) but often he came across as very wooden. Not a westerner, for sure.

    1. I am sure he was a good actor. He just didn't seem to suit the Western, don't know why.