In the previous post, Westernsreboot discussed the real-time intersection of the historical Old West and film in the figure of Pancho Villa. Villa starred as himself in a 1914 film made by the Mutual Film Corporation in order to raise funds for his revolutionary efforts in Mexico.
There is another individual from the historic West and its era of outlaws that links to the early 20th century via film….the son of Jesse James himself, Jesse Edwards James (1875-1951).
Jesse E. James was born in Nashville, Tennessee while his Missouri-born father was based in that state during his outlaw career. Son Jesse was known as ‘Tim” in his youth to conceal his background and he carried that as a nickname into adulthood. He was present, along with his mother Zee and his younger sister Mary, in the rented home in St. Joseph, Missouri when his father was assassinated on April 3rd, 1882 by Bob Ford.
Jesse James the son would go on to become a lawyer, marry in 1900 and have four daughters. He would practice law in Missouri and eventually move to Los Angeles.
His father, Jesse Woodson James, moved from 19th century celebrity to legend with his death in 1882. The mythology of Jesse James has often portrayed him as a Robin Hood-like figure that resisted the corporations, banks and railroads exploiting the common person. Within that specific myth, his outlaw ways have been contextualized as resistance against a federal government and business class that unjustly persecuted him.
Recent historical scholarship has framed at least some of his actions in the context of ex-Confederates striking back at the Union following the US Civil War. This interpretation has been added to or replaced the views that he was simply lawless or chose to fight against corporate wealth. There has yet to be any documentation that he shared his spoils with anyone outside of his outlaw gang and family circle.
As 19th century dime novels both during the lifetime of Jesse James and afterward created fanciful fictional exploits which highlighted the Robin Hood myth, so too would many of the film portrayals.
In 1921, Jesse “Junior” would be asked to portray his father in two consecutive silent films, Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James as the Outlaw. The first film depicts the teenage James joining Confederate guerrillas during the US Civil War and his return to a peaceful post-war life and subsequent marriage to his wife, Zee. The second film contributes to the James myth – the dreams of Jesse James to live quietly are ended when he is wrongly accused of robbing a bank. James is thus forced to become an outlaw and the pattern of being falsely accused continues. Despite persecution by the malicious Pinkerton Detective Agency, James is able to act as a Robin Hood for local citizens until his assassination by the cowardly Bob Ford.
Considering that the younger Jesse was present as a young boy at the assassination of the elder James, it is poignant to consider that the first portrayals of Jesse James on film would have the son play the role of the father. His sister, Mary, also had a role in the first film.
In 1899, a book written by Jesse entitled, Jesse James, My Father, had been published and in that text Jesse Edwards James both defended the humanity of his father and shared some of his childhood remembrances of when his father was alive:
“It was….in this house on the hill in St. Joseph that I best remember my father. I was then six years old. I remember my father as a tall, rather heavily built man, with a dark sandy beard. He was very kind to mother and to sister and to me. I remember best his good humored pranks, his fun making and his playing with me. I did not then know his real name or my own.”
The second half of this book details Jesse’s own story of having been accused of a train robbery in 1898 – he was acquitted.
This screenshot from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), directed by Andrew Dominik, shows Jesse James (Brad Pitt) walking with his son “Tim” to their St. Joseph home as Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) stands waiting.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)