The Days of Jesse James

Editors' review

October 14, 2017

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Days of Jesse James (1939) starred "King of the Cowboys" Roy Rogers and was his thirteenth lead role in just two years. Rogers had made his film debut in 1935, as part of the vocal group Sons of the Pioneers in the short Slightly Static. The group's first feature would quickly follow with The Old Homestead (1935). Soon Rogers broke through as a leading man, headlining his first film in 1938 - Under Western Stars. It was directed by Joseph Kane, who also directed Days of Jesse James. In fact, Kane would go on to direct Rogers in some forty odd westerns between 1938 and 1944.

Joseph Kane spent the better part of his career turning out westerns for Republic Pictures. He came to the studio in 1935, when tiny Mascot Studios (where Kane made his first films) got folded into Republic. Kane remained at Republic until the studio shut down in 1959. In the intervening years, he not only worked frequently with Roy Rogers, but also made nearly twenty westerns with Gene Autry. In addition, he directed John Wayne in films such as The Lonely Trail (1936), King of the Pecos (1936) and Flame of the Barbary Coast (1945). Kane was also lucky enough to earn associate producer credit on many of his pictures. After Republic closed its doors, Kane turned to television, where he continued to direct westerns, including episodes of Rawhide and Bonanza. When asked why he loved the western genre so much, Kane replied, "I like the outdoors, the horses, the cowboys."

Besides showcasing Rogers, Days of Jesse James offered plenty of scene-stealing opportunities for his favorite sidekick George 'Gabby' Hayes who appeared in approximately forty films with the cowboy star. In this film, Hayes plays a former miner whose money is stolen from the bank. Pauline Moore co-stars as Hayes' granddaughter and love interest in Days of Jesse James. Moore appeared in a handful of Rogers outings, as well as several Charlie Chan features. She also turned up opposite Don Ameche and The Ritz Brothers in The Three Musketeers (1939) and played Ann Rutledge to Henry Fonda's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).

Don 'Red' Barry plays the title role in Days of Jesse James and is best remembered for the 12-episode Republic serial Adventures of Red Ryder (1940) which provided Barry with his nickname. One more familiar face to note in Days of Jesse James is Glenn Strange as Cole Younger. Strange gained fame for playing the Frankenstein monster in a number of films including House of Frankenstein (1944) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Days of Jesse James made no real attempt to be historically accurate. In fact, the plot, which has Rogers going under cover with the James gang, eventually establishes James and his crew as the heroes and not criminals. It wasn't the only film released in 1939 to take this approach. 20th Century Fox also turned out a bigger-budget saga on the outlaw simply titled Jesse James, that also depicted James as walking the line between folk hero and criminal. Fox's Jesse James starred Tyrone Power as James, Henry Fonda as brother Frank and Randolph Scott as Marshall Will Wright. Despite playing it loose with the facts, Days of Jesse James did kick off a trend in Rogers' career – a series of westerns based on real life heroes and outlaws. The next year would bring Young Buffalo Bill and Young Bill Hickok (both 1940) where Rogers would play the title roles.

Rogers would also go on to appear in two more films about Jesse James. First, he played the outlaw himself in Jesse James at Bay (1941). Then nearly twenty years after Days of Jesse James, Rogers had a cameo as the outlaw in the Bob Hope comedy-western Alias Jesse James (1959).

Producer: Joseph Kane
Director: Joseph Kane
Screenplay: Jack Natteford, Earle Snell
Cinematography: Reggie Lanning
Film Editing: Tony Martinelli
Music: William Lava, Floyd Morgan
Cast: Roy Rogers (Roy Rogers), George 'Gabby' Hayes (Gabby Whittaker), Don Barry (Jesse James), Pauline Moore (Mary Whittaker), Harry Woods (Captain Worthington), Arthur Loft (Sam Wyatt).
by Stephanie Thames