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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]

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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