“Jesse James” was a big hit for 20th Century-Fox in 1939. It’s ultra-romantic depiction of the life and death of the celebrated badman obviously struck a chord with Depression-Era audiences. The professional moralists had succeeded in emasculating the gangster film, but here was a new way of depicting little guys taking the system for what it was worth. Of course certain concessions had to be made, so while Rico Bandello, Tom Powers and Tony Camonte could be seen from the get-go as bad guys on the make, for the outlaw romanza to escape similar censure, their outlaw heroes had to be seen as being basically good guys pushed into crime by the depredations of “The System.”
Thus Jesse and Frank James start as peaceful Missouri farmers until the railroad sends a thuggish agent to strong-arm the farmers into selling their land for a pittance. When Jesse and Frank will have none of this, and send the battered agent packing, he retaliates by tossing a bomb into the James farmhouse killing the mother of Jesse and Frank and their younger retarded brother. All of the subsequent crimes that Jesse and Frank commit against the railroad, commencing with Jesse’s execution of the bomb-tossing agent, are seen as righteous retaliation. When the railroad magnate finally puts in an appearance, he’s seen as a detestable, cowardly, lying little man. What audience member in their right mind could favor Donald Meek over Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda? Even Randolph Scott’s marshal finds himself in at least partial sympathy with the James Brothers. The fact that “Jesse James” was filmed in Technicolor only added to its sense of lush unreality.
Having done well with the James Brothers, Fox soon filmed the “life” of our best-known female outlaw, “Belle Starr.” Belle is a devout daughter of the South who has her plantation burned by the Yankees because she sheltered her brother, a wounded Confederate officer. So once again we are presented with a wronged heroine who has what she sees as a righteous reason for her banditry. Teaming up with guerilla leader Sam Starr–Randolph Scott this time on the wrong side of the law–she wages a private war against the North. By the time she realizes that Sam and his men are in the raider business more for the loot than for Dixie, it’s too late for her to turn back. Again, unlike the gangster hero, these outlaw heroes always come to a point at which they’d like to chuck it in and resume their old lives, only to realize that this path is no longer open to them. Like Jesse, Belle is betrayed by a former sympathizer tempted by the big reward. Again Technicolor gives the film a sense of heightened reality, and Gene Tierney did a good job as the headstrong Southern belle turned bandit.
M.G.M. had released a more realistic version of the career of Billy the Kid, directed by King Vidor, in 1930. But for the Technicolor re-do they dressed their leading-man Robert Taylor in a waist-length, black leather jacket and turned him into an angry, misunderstood youth distraught over the murder of his father-figure employer by members of a corrupt political ring led by slimy Gene Lockhart. As Billy wages his one-man war against these plug-uglies, he alienates himself from his former friend, Pat Garrett, now a lawman. (Interestingly, Brian Donlevy, who played the bomb-throwing thug Barshee in “Jesse James” was good-guy Pat Garrett in “Billy the Kid” but would return to the dark side as Grat Dalton in “When the Daltons Rode.”) “Billy the Kid” had all the benefit of M.G.M.’s money and know-how, but it’s actually less satisfying than the other outlaw romanzas of the day. Possibly Taylor was too stiff in the role. He definitely seemed too old for the part.
With the available “big names” rapidly diminishing, the lesser-light studios, in this case Warner Brothers and Universal, grabbed onto the outlaw clans. Warner gave us “The Bad Men of Missouri” (about the Younger Brothers, but they wouldn’t get a film with their own names in the title until 1949), and Universal offered patrons “When the Daltons Rode,” from a book co-authored by sole surviving brother Emmett Dalton. I suspect that if Warner had had more faith in their project, they would have cast it with the top-tier stars. Instead they gave us Dennis Morgan, Wayne Morris and Arthur Kennedy as the ex-Missouri raiders who sometimes rode with Frank and Jesse James. Only this time out, instead of being former guerilla fighters, they were peaceful farmers chivvied out of their land. Again, righteous retaliation is the order of the day.
The Daltons went the Youngers one better by giving us Broderick Crawford as Bob Dalton, a rough-edged but popular lawman in his community, whose brothers Ben, Grat and Emmett work the farm of their aged mother until–yep–another scoundrel in cahoots with the railroad interests starts using the law to push farmers off of their land. With brother Ben framed for the murder of a railroad thug, Bob renounces the law in record time and leads his brothers–headstrong Emmett and crazy Grat–in a crime spree motivated by little more than their desire to “get even” by relieving the banks and the railroads of their cash. Randolph Scott showed up once again, this time as an old friend of Bob’s, now an attorney, who is unable to get Ben acquitted in a kangaroo court controlled by the railroad. A final meeting with their mother allows the brothers a last chance to dream of escaping to California and starting fresh. But, taking advantage of Bob’s absence, crazy Grat convinces his brother to pay one last visit to their hometown Coffeeville–to rob both of its banks at the same time. That turns out to be the worst idea since the James Brothers and the Youngers visited Northfield.
Because they were dealing with families, not individuals–and because they were frankly conceived as high-end “B” movies, the Warner and Universal romanzas spent less time making excuses for their protagonists and more time simply piling on the action, which was almost non-stop. The respective land-grabbing villains–Victor Jory and George Bancroft–took on more prominent roles. In “When the Daltons Rode” Bancroft seems like a true-blue friend to the Daltons for most of the film’s relatively brief running time and Scott doesn’t discover that he’s the real brains behind the unlawful evictions until the final five or ten minutes of the film. As “B” movies they could also offer more satisfying endings. Everyone may have wanted to see Donald Meek’s railroad tycoon get his, but he lives to evict more farmers. At least in “When the Daltons Rode” the dying Broderick Crawford gets to shoot the man who stole his family farm and sent him on his downward spiral. “When the Daltons Rode” may not have been in Technicolor, but I suspect that 1940 audiences left it in happier frame of mind than when they left “Jesse James.”
When the Revisionist Western came of age, these big name outlaws were again revisited. But in their new screen incarnations Jesse James emerged as a psychopath, Billy the Kid was seen as a mentally-defective back-shooter, Belle Starr was a potty-mouthed whore and Sam Starr was a knife-wielding thug. Only the Youngers came off with a bit of dignity in Walter Hill’s “The Long Riders”–and even he presented them as men of violence for whom the Civil War never really ended. The day of the outlaw-romanza was over.