As if money had nothing to do with it.
In the film, the bank (represented by Brian Donlevy) is trying to move Mrs. Samuels** off her land for lease to the railroad, but she won't budge, leading the bank agents to remove her in the most subtle of ways, by fire-bombing her house (and yes) killing her, this after an altercation with Frank James (Henry Fonda), and the brothers , Jesse (Tyrone Power) and Frank going on the lam. Once they hear of their mother's death, the two brothers (no other siblings are mentioned) seek revenge for their mother's murder by robbing the symbols that killed their Mother, the banks and the railroads.
Which, of course, isn't true. The truth is that she died at the age of 86 of a heart attack (on a train, ironically), and is credited with writing Jesse's epitaph (a very tough thing to do from beyond the grave) and made a pretty good living giving tours of Jesse's birth-house to yokels who wanted to believe fiction rather than truth.
But, she dies in the movie, and that's what turns Frank and Jesse into thieves and terrorists, not Confederate separatists who would disfigure Union sympathizers they came across. Why, the movie even gives them a "colored" friend named Pinkie (Ernest Whitman), when the truth is a bit less white-washed (Jesse was known to have black acquaintances—if they supported him with food, money, or a hastily acquired transportation). As William Wellman said of studio sabotage with his intended "warts-and-all" film of Buffalo Bill: "It made me want to vomit." That one, as well as the white-washed Custer picture They Died With Their Boots On (starring Errol Flynn), and Jesse James are three of the more artfully fictionalized legends of American history.
But, the idea was never to be "true" to the story of Jesse James, any more than the dime novels and subsequent museums and festivals in Missouri dedicated to his memory (and for taking a buck from the unsuspecting), are meant to be true. But "if the legend becomes fact, print the legend."***
But, it looks great in Technicolor (the version I saw, anyway), and Tyrone Power makes a photogenic Jesse—to the point where cinematographers George Barnes and W. Howard Greene give him the spotlight rather than ingenue Nancy Kelly (playing his wife "Zee"—no mention is made that they were cousins). Henry Fonda gets the best lines as older brother Frank
Jesse James is notable for one thing, historically: after this film, movies began to have the now-familiar credit "No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture" as audiences raised a hue and cry for one scene in particular in which a horse died after being pushed off a cliff, and movie filming began to be monitored by the American Humane Association.****
The Return of Frank James (Fritz Lang, 1940) With the death of Jesse in that film, there couldn't really be a sequel but as it was 20th Century Fox's big hit in that year, one was rushed to production with Henry Fonda and most of the surviving cast returning for the story of Frank James coming out of hiding to find Robert Ford (Carradine, again), the man who shot his brother in the back in his own house. Frank has been living as a farmer—his occupation before the events of the first film that "inspired" his life of crime. But, when he hears that the Ford brothers are not being convicted of Jesse's murder due to the influence of some powerful businessmen, Frank decides to take matters into his own hands. Things are further complicated when the James' farm hand Pinky is about to be hung for being an accomplice to the James gang.
With the son of a slain James gang member, Clem (Jackie Cooper), Frank starts to go after the Fords, all the while claiming that Frank is still dead and that he saw him slain with his own eyes (a story that is part of legend of both frank and Jesse). But the local newspaper (run by Henry Hull, who was also in the previous film) sends a reporter (Gene Tierney in her film debut) to interview "the man who saw Frank James die" and she becomes suspicious.
Where King keeps things bright and in focus to keep the Technicolor popping in the original Jesse James, the director of The Return of Frank James was the German ex-patriate Fritz Lang, as unlikely a director for a Western yarn given his dark, fantastical films in his own country (M, Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse). But one immediately sees a change of tone between the two films despite the same level of flim-flummery in the script. If Lang couldn't do anything about the story, he did at least bring a more practiced eye to Return with an expressive use of shadows, which was just as impressive in Technicolor as it was in his black and white films.
Lang's direction and the presences of Fonda and Tierney make Return the better of the two films, as popular as the first was. And one might argue that a movie true to history is rarer than hen's teeth. Beyond the ones mentioned, there's Braveheart and Gladiator, Pearl Harbor and Shakespeare in Love, Amadeus and Krakatoa, East of Java (it was west of it, actually). In fact, the history of history in movies is filled with the facts of lies as frequently as thunder is placed simultaneously with lightning and why viewing any movie, even one "based on actual events," should be served with popcorn generously dashed with grains of salt.
Jesse James and Frank James
* In 1939, one could argue the movies' "best" year, it was the fourth highest grossing film after (get this) Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Fifth, by the way, was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
** Her real name was Zerelda Elizabeth Cole James Simms Samuel. No "s." They couldn't even get that right.
*** A line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (said by a newspaperman) and could be said to be John Ford's mantra for the history portion of his early career. In his later career, legend became less of a concern than casting aside myth.
**** That footage was re-used in the sequel and the 1957 Nicholas Ray film The True Story of Jesse James.