I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Republic Pictures made the best serials in the business. While you could sometimes find better acting in the Saturday-afternoon chapterplays from Universal and Columbia, neither could top Republic when it came to pure slam-bang entertainment. They employed the best stuntmen in Hollywood, and their serials were action packed.
Jesse James Rides Again, which was directed by Fred C. Brannon and Thomas Carr, could have gone the Poverty-Row route and used its western setting as an excuse to deliver a cheap finished product. They had the Iverson Ranch and plenty of reusable costumes, after all. Throw in some chases on horseback, some fistfights, some gunfights, and you’re golden.
Instead, Brannon and Carr delivered a fast-moving serial with lots of pyrotechnics. Some chapters are more exciting than others, obviously, but I still wasn’t expecting so many blown-up barns, flaming logs pushed down hills, exploding riverboats, and burning oil derricks.
Every chapter opens with a shot of men on horseback. They’re all wearing black robes and black hoods. The exciting theme music by Mort Glickman incorporates elements of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna.” The black-robed riders look exactly like members of the Ku Klux Klan in photo-negative, and they’re called — not terribly creatively — the Black Raiders.
The Black Raiders are secretly working for a man named James Clark, who’s played by Tristram Coffin, a dependable Republic villain playing the most dependable villainous archetype in westerns, the greedy land baron. Clark knows that the farmers who live in Peaceful Valley, Tennessee, are sitting on a rich vein of oil, and it’s only a matter of time before they find out about it.
Clark’s plan is to have the Black Raiders drive all the farmers out of Peaceful Valley by using violence and intimidation; good, salt-of-the-earth people like Ann Bolton (Linda Stirling) and her crippled father Sam Bolton (Tom London).
So in classic western fashion, into the Boltons’ lives rides Jesse James (Clayton Moore). The ex-Confederate outlaw is on the lam for a crime he didn’t commit (the robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota) along with his buddy Steve Long (John Compton).
Jesse James is traveling under the name “J.C. Howard,” and he’s a modern-day paladin, ready to take up arms in defense of the helpless, like Mr. Bolton and his daughter.
If you know anything about the real-life Jesse James, you’ve probably already realized that Jesse James Rides Again plays fast and loose with the facts.
But who cares? It’s all just an excuse for action and feats of derring-do, and as such, it succeeds admirably. Most of the chapters follow a predictable arc — J.C. Howard (né Jesse James) gets out of whatever scrape the previous chapter left him in, then it’s off to the James Clark Land Office, where Clark and his beefy henchman Frank Lawton (Roy Barcroft) discuss their nefarious plans for the oil under Peaceful Valley, just in case any of the kids in the audience are seeing the serial for the first time. Then Jesse James, Steve Long, and Ann Bolton become embroiled in another of Clark and Lawton’s plans, and have to fight their way out. (Clark’s role as villain is unknown to the protagonists until the last chapter.) And finally, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, like Ann Bolton unconscious inside a cotton compress, or Jesse James knocked out and left behind in the boiler room of a riverboat that’s about to explode.
As the weeks go by, Jesse James and the farmers eventually discover the oil they’re sitting on, and it becomes a race to register their land, sink wells, and get the oil out of the valley. All the while, Lawton and his boys commit one act of sabotage after another.
The most explosive and exciting chapter is the penultimate one, “Chapter Twelve: Black Gold,” in which Steve Long leads a wagon train carrying barrels of oil through a prairie set afire by Lawton and his boys. There are crackups and explosions galore. It’s not quite The Road Warrior, but it’s still an impressive set piece.
Clayton Moore, who plays Jesse James, is probably best known for playing the Lone Ranger on TV from 1949 to 1957. His role in Jesse James Rides Again sometimes seems like a dry run for playing the Lone Ranger.
Moore isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he’s a solid choice to play a stalwart western hero. Also, I really like the outfit he wore in this serial. Unlike the leather vests and dungarees favored by plenty of B western heroes, Jesse James wears a black hat, a black top coat, a black long string tie, and a dark vest over a white shirt. It’s what every Southern gentleman with a price on his head should be wearing.
Republic would make two more serials featuring Jesse James as a character; The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948), which again starred Moore as Jesse and co-starred Steve Darrell as his brother Frank, and The James Brothers of Missouri (1949), which starred Robert Bice as Frank James and Keith Richards as Jesse James. (No, not the Keith Richards you’re thinking of.)