The Many Movie Lives (and Deaths) of Jesse James

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: Brad Pitt as Jesse James in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Warner Bros, 2007]

When Bob Ford shot infamous outlaw Jesse James through the back on April 2, 1882, James the man turned into James the myth, a martyr to Unionist repression, corporate greed and one man’s cowardice. He was trumpeted as the Robin Hood of the South, and that’s the image that endures in the cinema. All those less savory details of his life were brushed aside, like the fact that he was a member of the brutal Missouri bushwhacker gang led by “Bloody” Bill Anderson, that he participated in the 1862 Centralia massacre of unarmed soldiers, and that all he gave the poor was lip service, never cash. The legend-mongering didn’t spring entirely out of his dramatic death — James had carefully cultivated his public image throughout his career. He jotted press releases that he’d leave at the scenes of his crimes, and agreed to long interviews with newspaperman and proud Confederate John N. Edwards, his mentor and informal P.R. rep.

In 1872, busy denunciating President Grant’s “corrupt, tyrannical administration,” Edwards penned an editorial in the Kansas City Times entitled “The Chivalry of Crime,” a puff piece on James that set the template for the idolization that would follow. Quoted in T.J. Stiles’ invaluable biography “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War,” Edwards says that a recent robbery at the Kansas City Industrial Exposition was “a feat of stupendous nerve and fearlessness that makes one’s hair rise to think of it, with a condiment of crime to season it, becomes chivalric; poetic; superb.”

And that’s how he was on-screen. The first documented James Gang film is “James Boys in Missouri” (1908), produced by the Essanay Company. It was such a success that two months later they released “The Younger Brothers,” about the other notorious members of the outlaw group. In 1921, Jesse James, Jr. was persuaded to portray his father in “Jesse James Under the Black Flag,” which was quickly followed up by “Jesse James As The Outlaw” that same year. “Black Flag” is one of the first films to make the argument that Jesse’s outlawry was caused by an incident in 1863 where Union troops invaded his home, strung up his father and whipped him in the fields. This event actually did occur, but it was perpetrated by the local militia who were searching for his brother Frank, already a feared guerilla fighter for Quantrill’s Raiders. Still, as a creation story, it explains and excuses James’ later behavior, making this hero’s crimes palatable to audiences (and more importantly, later on, the censors).

James’ sound film career started with the hugely successful 20th Century Fox Technicolor film “Jesse James” (1939). Directed with workmanlike efficiency by Henry King, it stars the blandly handsome Tyrone Power as Jesse, and a drawling, charismatic Henry Fonda as Frank. The film aimed for the widest audience possible, so all political affiliations are erased. The Union troops are replaced by an evil railroad agent who murders James’ mother — justifying his train robberies and violent revenge in one fell swoop. The figure of Edwards is caricatured by Henry Hull, who plays the ink-stained propagandist as a warm-hearted curmudgeon who gives his daughter away in marriage to James (who in reality married his first cousin Zee, named after his own mother).

The film was a box office hit, and Zanuck capitalized quickly, signing Henry Fonda to reprise the role of Frank in “The Return of Frank James” (1940). Henry King was replaced with the then-floundering Fritz Lang, who was attempting to recover from his massive (and underrated) Brechtian flop “You and Me” (1938). Eager to play nice and return to a studio’s good graces, Lang churned out a flavorless sequel indistinguishable from its predecessor. Despite Fonda’s tense relationship with the director, which went back to their work together on “You Only Live Once” (1937), he delivers a relaxed, charming performance in tune with the forced folksiness of the script, which throws history out the window fairly quickly, but neatly transfers the martyred hero complex over to Frank.

The greatest of the James films was made in 1949, in Samuel Fuller’s debut, “I Shot Jesse James.” It’s the first one that deals with the Ford-James relationship on a personal, rather than mythic, level. It’s more psychological drama than historical epic — and Fuller’s feverishly intense close-ups hammer this home. It focuses on Bob Ford in the years following James’ death, and the lies Ford tells himself to stay sane in the face of personal doubts and increasing public disdain. Motored by Fuller’s raw dialogue and invasive camera (Godard coined the term Kino-Fist after a viewing), it pulses with an energy the more whitewashed James stories lack. While hardly historically accurate, it channels the violent tenor of the period and intensely questions the concept of the “hero” well before the revisionist Westerns of the late ’60s and ’70s.

Fuller was able to pursue this rather uncommercial goal because he worked with an independent producer who didn’t impose the restrictions of a big studio. In 1957, Nicholas Ray had no such luck with “The True Story of Jesse James.” The remake of Henry King’s 1939 “Jesse James” was taken on as the assignment that sounded the least obnoxious in order to fulfill his contract with 20th Century Fox. The disappointments came early and often: he wanted to cast Elvis Presley as Jesse, but the studio forced their contract player Robert Wagner on him. He wanted to film it as a ballad, “Stylized in every aspect, all of it shot on the stage, including the horses, the chases, everything…” That idea was tabled immediately, and Ray soon lost interest as every decision of his was overruled. The result is a disjointed work with an awful tacked-on flashback structure, but which contains a few moments of inspiration, mainly at the expertly shot and paced Northfield Bank raid sequence.

The most acclaimed James film of the ’70s focused entirely on that robbery: Philip Kaufman’s “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” (1972). At this point, de-mythologizing American icons was de rigeur, so Robert Duvall’s James was depicted as a full-on Confederate ideologue, his murders payback for Union atrocities. The image of James had flipped from Robin Hood hero to near-psychotic villain. Neither is entirely convincing. Walter Hill’s “The Long Riders” (1980) continued the revisionist trend, a more formal work which avoided psychological motivations. It also cast three sets of brothers (Quaids, Carradines, and Keaches) to portray the sibling outlaws.

There has been no significant Jamesian film since… until this week’s release of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Andrew Dominik’s uneven character study that pilfers its visual ideas from “Days of Heaven” (1978). Brad Pitt slaps on the holsters this time, and depicts James as a mannered, gaunt paranoiac quite fond of licking his lips. His past is obscured, his politics absent. No longer hero nor villain, he’s simply a presence. Constantly framed against steam, sky and land by DP Roger Deakins, James is equated with nature, and is equally unexplainable. The legend of Jesse James has been so worn down and used up that Dominik doesn’t even engage with it — he just posits him as an enigma and leaves him be. He saves all his dime-store psychology for Bob Ford, a thin character give unexpected depth by Casey Affleck’s halting mewl of a delivery.

Jesse James has gone through infamy, idolization, deconstruction and dissolution in the Hollywood system. With his genre moribund and his legend fading, it might be time for the James myth to take a break. He can hide out in an abandoned Fox backlot until an intrepid/desperate producer calls his name, asking to remake Henry King’s “Jesse James” yet again — and he’ll crawl under the lights hoping there’s an iconoclast like Fuller to inject life into him again.

[Additional photos: “Jesse James,” Twentieth Century-Fox, 1939; “I Shot Jesse James,” Screen Guild Productions, 1949; “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,” Universal Pictures, 1972]



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.