Nicholas Ray, Jesse Jamesand a Missed Opportunity

Turner Classic Movies, in an effort to eventually get articles up for all the movies in their database, assign films without articles to folks like me to write them up.  By coincidence, I was recently assigned  The True Story ofJesse James, directed by Nicholas Ray, just as Tony Dayoub was asking film bloggers to contribute to his Nicholas Ray blogathon at Cinema Viewfinder.  

To prepare the article, I was sent galleys of two books, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz and Pieces of My Heart: A Life by Robert Wagner with Scott Eyman.   I was interested to learn that Ray's first instinct was to make the entire film artificial.  His idea, so remarkable that I didn't even include it in the article because it would have taken the whole thing in the wrong direction, was to do it on obvious stage sets with visibly painted skies and backdrops.  He even wanted fake horses!  The whole thing would be done like an expressionistic stage play as preserved on film.  

I'm pretty sure I don't have to tell what the studio thought of this idea but just in case you're completely unfamiliar with the workings of studio heads who make the decisions, the reaction was something along the lines of,  "Are you out of your fucking mind?!"  He was, to a degree, but that's another story.  

So Ray went back to the drawing board and came up with Plan B:  Cast Elvis Presley and shoot on location in Missouri and Minnesota.  Ray was convinced that Presley had the real life country boy turned superstar experience to make the film work.  If he was going to present Jesse James as a kind of pre-20th century sex symbol, why not make the statement obvious and cast the man responsible for sending shivers of fear down the spines of good, honest, hard-working, boring, stupid, dumbassed Americans.  

The studio nixed that too.  They wanted to promote their in-house contract players, specifically Robert Wagner who they thought could catch fire with a starring role like Jesse James.  They were wrong for two reasons.  One should have been obvious, the other was an opportunity missed that could've made all the difference.  

The first one, the one that should have been obvious, was that Robert Wagner, despite being a talented actor, had nowhere near the same level of charisma as Elvis Presley and despite sporting a pompadour throughout the movie (bet you never knew James had a pompadour), Wagner just doesn't come across as anything other than bland.  He's got the look (they manage to get his shirt off multiple times) but not much else.  Jeffrey Hunter, as Frank James, is much better and Alan Hale, Jr (later to play the Skipper on Gilligan's Island) is the best of all, playing Cole Younger with the kind of flair and energy that Wagner can only imagine.

The second sinker of the movie, the great missed opportunity, was the decision to not play up Jesse James' death wish.  Ray wrote scenes - and filmed them! - of Jesse being told he wanted to die.  Ray wanted Jesse to be shown setting up his own death by manipulating Robert Ford.  Sound familiar?  That hypothesis would become the basis of the 1983 book, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and later the film adaptation with Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck.  Oh, it had been theorized since the day James was shot but no one in the movies bothered to go there until the book was released.  Nicholas Ray could have beaten them all to the punch and made the movie a much deeper, profound psychological study.  But the studio said "No."  

According to Robert Wagner, Ray was in a daze for most of the filming, high on drink or drugs.  At least, that's what Wagner saw.  He writes that no one on the set knew which Ray was going to show up each day and that direction from him was minimal and confusing.  Ray probably didn't care at that point.  Everything he wanted to do with the movie had been shot down.  He was left with nothing but the "inspiration" of a paycheck and the film suffers for it.  

What might have been.


This post is a part of The Nicholas Ray Blogathon hosted by Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder.