Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Jesse James/The Return of Frank James

Jesse James (Henry King, 1939) Despite its popularity when it was first released,* and its subsequent help in gilding the legend of Jesse James—racist, Confederate guerilla, bushwhacker, bank and train-robber...and psychopath—if any movie deserves to be in the hypothetical Movie Hall of Shame, it might be this one. Nunnally Johnson's history of outlaws Jesse James and his brother, Frank, bankrolled somewhat hesitantly by Darryl F. Zanuck, is more full of holes than the Northfield, Minnesota First National Bank, painting them as Robin Hood-like heroes who only robbed banks and trains to avenge the murder of their Mother (Jane Darwell).

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), resulting in the brothers, Jesse (Tyrone Power) and Frank going on the lam. Once they hear of their mother's death, the two James boys (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 (seemingly a very tough thing to do from beyond the grave) and, while alive, made a pretty good living giving tours of Jesse's birth-house to yokels who wanted to believe fiction rather than the ugly truth.
But, she dies in the movie, and that's what turns Frank and Jesse into thieves and terrorists, rather than as 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 first 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 cowardly 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 pitching the story that Frank is still dead and that he saw him slain with his own eyes (a story that is part of the 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 the first film's director Henry 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 is 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.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Don't Make a Scene: The Princess Bride

The Story: The Princess Bride contains one great scene after another, with William Goldman's borscht-belt take on the European fairy tale. Hilarious, satirical, out-of-time and yet of our time, The Princess Bride lopes along with zinger after zinger. It was Rob Reiner's third movie, and a gutsy movie for a relative novice (studios had been trying to make a film of The Princess Bride for years), and there are pacing problems over all—the movie's tone wobbles and there are slow parts between the great ones. There are just so many great scenes that you forget the slack ones.

It was hard to choose just one; The Princess Bride is a great snack-food of a movie. There were lots of candidates (and I'll hold them in reserve). But I chose this one for one line, one of those "wise-acre" lines that Goldman throws in to skew the time-frame.* It's this: "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."

That line cheers me down to my cynically blackened heart no end. Way to throw a bucket of water on a fairy tale, Goldman. And so, this scene. And a casual look at it reveals something about the entire movie.

The Princess Bride isn't terribly well directed from a composition angle. It's shot in close-ups more for television broadcast as opposed to using the full frame of the screen (probably because so much of a film's market depended on television sales and it was easier just to center everything than screw up the film with the practice of "pan and scan" for broadcast**). The sets are obviously sets, especially the ones created to simulate the outdoors. One can imagine Reiner doing this deliberately to better sell the "never-never" world of the fairy-tale.

Where it excels, though, is where most of Reiner's films excel: casting. Except for Christopher Guest's not-evil-enough henchman, every role is cast meticulously, with some odd choices (like AndrĂ© the Giant, and Mandy Patinkin as the spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya) paying off royally. However, Reiner hit the jack-pot with his two dewey leads: Robin Wright as Princess Buttercup, and Cary Elwes as her true love Wesley—the lowly stable-boy, who framed his love for her with the words "As you wish..." Elwes is amazing, able to play it straight, and yet maximize the comedy (Mel Brooks used him as the title character of Robin Hood: Men in Tights) to create belly-laughs, and Wright is able to maintain a schiksa etherealness while displaying an iron spine, and a comedienne's goofiness.

The Set-Up: Buttercup (Robin Wright), hearing that her true love Wesley (Cary Elwes), has died seeking his fortune on the high seas, acquiesces and agrees to marry the evil, vile Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), who intends to kill her after their marriage. But she has been kidnapped by three miscreants from Gilder (Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and AndrĂ© the Giant), who are inconceivably chased by the Prince and by a mysterious black garbed figure, The Dread Pirate Roberts—the very man who killed her Wesley. Now, the DPR has defeated the Gilder ruffians, and made off with Buttercup, with the Prince and his hunting party close behind.


The Dread Pirate Roberts: Rest, Highness.
Princess Buttercup:
I know who you are.
Buttercup: Your cruelty reveals everything.
Buttercup: You're The Dread Pirate Roberts, admit it!
Roberts: With pride! What can I do for you?
Buttercup: You can die slowly, cut into a thousand pieces.
Roberts: Tch, tch, tch. Hardly complimentary, Your Highness. Why loose your venom on me?
Buttercup: You killed my love.
Roberts: S'possible. I kill a lot of people.
Roberts: Who was this love of yours? Another prince like this one? Ugly and rich and scabby?
Buttercup: No! A farm-boy! Poor!
Buttercup: Poor and perfect.
Buttercup: With eyes like the sea after a storm. On the high seas, your ship attacked. The Dread Pirate Roberts never takes prisoners.
Roberts: I can't afford to make exceptions. I mean, once word leaks out that a pirate has gone soft, people begin to disobey you and it's nothing but work, work, work all the time.
Buttercup: You mock my pain!
Roberts: Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
Roberts: I remember this farm-boy of yours, I think. This would be what? Five years ago?
Roberts: Does it bother you to hear?
Buttercup: Nothing you can say will upset me.
Roberts: He died well. That should please you. No bribe attempts or blubbering. He simply said, "Please..."
Roberts: "Please, I need to live."
Roberts: 'Twas the "please" that caught my memory.
Roberts: I asked him what was so important for him here.
Roberts: "True Love," he replied.
Roberts: And then he spoke of a girl of surpassing beauty and faithfulness, I can only assume he meant you.
Roberts: You should bless me...
Roberts: ...for destroying him before he found out what you really are.
Buttercup: And what am I?
Roberts: Faithfulness he talked of, madam, your enduring faithfulness.
Roberts: Now tell me truly, when you found out he was gone...
Roberts: Did you get engaged to your Prince the same hour or did you wait a whole week out of respect for the dead?
Buttercup: You mocked me once! Never do it again!
Buttercup: I died that day!
(Roberts turns, hearing horses)
Buttercup: And you can die, too, for all I CARE!
Roberts: Uhh!! As...
Roberts: ...you...
Roberts: ...wiiiiish!

The Princess Bride

Words by William Goldman (and S. Morgenstern)

Pictures by Adrian Biddle and Rob Reiner

The Princess Bride is available on DVD from MGM Home Video.

* And now that I think of it, this might be a little bit of baiting of brother William to brother James Goldman, whose The Lion in Winter  and Robin and Marian are up to their leggings with anachronistic details and lines. But then, William's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has some, too.

** At the time of his last film, The InterpreterSydney Pollack made no bones of the fact that he then felt free to shoot wide-screen, as opposed to shooting everything in a box-frame for television.