Republic, 12 Chapters, 1949. Starring Keith Richards, Robert Bice, Noel Neill, Roy Barcroft, Patricia Knox, Lane Bradford.
Jesse James (Keith Richards) joins his brother Frank (Robert Bice) in the town of Rimrock, where former James Gang member Lon Royer runs a freight-hauling company; though still wanted by the law, the James boys plan to settle down to a peaceful and law-abiding life as partners in Lon’s business, under the aliases of John Howard and Bob Carroll. However, when Lon is murdered by ruthless rival freighter Ace Marlin (Roy Barcroft), The James Brothers of Missouri must return to their gunslinging ways in order to help Lon’s daughter Peg (Noel Neill) keep her father’s business afloat in the face of continuing attacks by Marlin and his outlaw followers. Unbeknownst to Peg and the James brothers, the Marlin outfit is secretly being backed by respected storekeeper Belle Calhoun (Patricia Knox), who hopes to gain a lucrative monopoly on the area’s freighting trade once she and Ace have forced the Royer outfit out of business.
James Brothers of Missouri was the third and last of Republic’s Jesse James serials; while not in the same league with the first entry in the trilogy, the excellent Jesse James Rides Again, it is a decided improvement over Rides Again’s immediate sequel, Adventures of Frank and Jesse James. Adventures’ scripters spent too much time reminding us that Frank and Jesse were planning to pay back alleged James Gang victims, while continually (and somewhat contradictorily) telling us that the brothers’ reputations as robbers were almost entirely undeserved. Fortunately, Missouri’s writers (Sol Shor, William Lively, and Royal Cole) seem far less obsessed with verbally reassuring us that the James boys are good guys, relying instead on the duo’s heroic actions to prove their heroic bona-fides. There are still a few references to the fact that the brothers haven’t done everything they’ve been charged with, and to their long-thwarted wish to go straight–but these references (like the similar ones in Jesse James Rides Again) are few and far between–and, as a result, carry more dramatic weight than the almost comically repetitious reminders of the heroes’ undeserved outlaw status in Adventures; Frank’s bitter melancholy when the brothers are forced to become fugitives in their new identities is particularly compelling.
However, the principal virtue of Missouri’s script–which distinguishes it not only from Adventures but from almost all of Republic’s other later Western serials–is its atypical plotting; beginning in Chapter Three, the writers abandon the mechanically predictable one-subplot-per-chapter format of nearly all Missouri’s contemporaries, instead spinning out their various subplots over multiple episodes. The villains’ creation of an illegal toll road is deftly made to occupy three whole chapters, while the James brothers’ attempt to clear themselves of a robbery charge is effectively used to fill two chapters. The serial’s climactic conflict (a struggle over a cave full of incriminating loot) is also drawn out to good effect, beginning (surprisingly early) in Chapter Eight and neatly filling the serial’s remaining episodes–with help from a suspenseful plot twist involving a near-exposure of the James boys’ true identities. By allowing subplots to carry over from chapter to chapter in this fashion, Cole, Dickey, and Shor save the serial from the ever-lurking curse of repetitiveness that plagued the aforementioned Adventures, Ghost of Zorro, and Desperadoes of the West; the long buildup to the (satisfying) last-chapter showdown is also a welcome departure from late-Republic norms, and makes said showdown seem like a logical development of the storyline, instead of an arbitrary finish that could easily have been brought about several chapters earlier or postponed for several more chapters (like the climax of Don Daredevil Rides Again).
Like Desperadoes of the West, James Brothers of Missouri makes frequent but completely undetectable use of stock footage from Republic’s vast B-western library, and avoids drawing too heavily on any one source; here, again, it improves on Adventures of Frank and Jesse James, which relied almost entirely on Adventures of Red Ryder for its stock shots. Some of the best of these blends of old and new footage are the lengthy horseback chase sequence in Chapter Two, the pursuit of the buckboard in Chapter Four, and the chase after the covered wagon in Chapter Eleven; the Chapter Five wagon chase is also good, but the fight in the back of the moving wagon that follows it is marred by a little too much process-screen work. The shootout at the end of Chapter One audaciously appropriates half of its footage from Son of Zorro, with old shots of Roy Barcroft, Al Ferguson, and other outlaws from the earlier serial being intercut with new shots of Missouri’s star Keith Richards; though recognizable to anyone who’s seen Son, the borrowing is completely seamless (although viewers familiar with Ferguson will note that Tom Steele dubs his one line of dialogue, in order to connect the old footage to the new).
Missouri’s identifiably all-new action footage is quite solid, and features some above-average camera work from cinematographer Ellis Carter and director Fred C. Brannon–particularly in the gunfight at the canyon in Chapter Three (shot and staged so as to make good visual use of the scene’s outdoor locations) and during the shootout in the freight-line yard in Chapter Nine (which features some strikingly well-balanced shots of the assembled villains). The large-scale battle between the James boys’ posse and Marlin’s gang in the final chapter is another highlight; like the Chapter Three fight, it’s enhanced by its outdoor setting (Iverson’s Ranch, in both cases). Tom Steele doubles star Keith Richards in most of the fistfights, with Dale Van Sickel doubling for henchman Roy Barcroft; however, Dave Sharpe can be seen standing in for Richards in one sequence–the excellent Chapter Four ranch-house fight, during which Sharpe and Bud Wolfe (doubling Robert Bice) fight Van Sickel, Steele, and Sharpe’s fellow-acrobat Duke Green; the energetic style in which Sharpe and Green flip, kick, and leap on each other here recalls some of the lively combats in Republic’s Golden Age outings. The fistfight at the woodpile between Steele and Lee Roberts in Chapter Seven is also very good, as is the Chapter Six office fight that pits Steele against Van Sickel and Sharpe (this time doubling henchman Lane Bradford). Ken Terrell, Duke Taylor, Chuck Roberson, Bert LeBaron, and Rocky Shahan all take part in the action as well.
Above, top left: The good guys fire up a canyon at Iverson’s (the opposing villains’ gunsmoke can be seen at the back end). Top right: Dave Sharpe springs onto a table preparatory to launching himself at Tom Steele. Bottom left: Tom Steele slugs Lee Roberts backwards towards a soon-to-topple woodpile. Bottom right: A well-composed shot of lurking villains, from the freight-yard shootout in Chapter Nine.
James Brothers of Missouri makes expected use of stock footage (the exploding powder barrel from Son of Zorro, the runaway mine car scene from King of the Texas Rangers, etc.) to supply its more spectacular chapter endings; although one of the smaller-scaled new endings (the acid peril to Noel Neill) is rather weak, several of the other new cliffhangers are very good–the Chapter Six ending (which has Keith Richards apparently hung while the heroine is seemingly run over by a runaway wagon), the Chapter Ten cliffhanger (which makes startling and effective use of close-ups as henchman Lane Bradford gallops his horse up to a moving stagecoach and shoots Noel Neill point-blank through a stage window), and the Chapter Eleven cliffhanger (in which an ex-James Gang member fingers our heroes for an inquisitive marshal; their escape from this peril is handled quite cleverly).
Clayton Moore had moved on to the Lone Ranger TV show when this serial was produced, forcing Republic to recast the role of Jesse James; Keith Richards, who generally played heavies in his many other serial, feature, and television appearances, was an offbeat choice for the part, but a pretty good one–being athletic and reasonably good-looking enough to pull off a heroic turn, but also sinister enough to lend credence to his “good badman” character. Richards’ grim face and his tough, sardonic-sounding voice help him give Jesse a properly hard-bitten and dangerous edge– particularly in his angry defiance of a lynch mob and in the scene in which he aggressively argues for direct action against Marlin, despite the heroes’ lack of legal proof against the villain. Robert Bice–who, like Richards, usually played a heavy–does a fine job as Frank James, coming off as more of a co-hero than Steve Darrell’s Frank in Adventures of Frank and Jesse James did; although Bice’s character tends to get knocked out quickly in action scenes, he receives a generous percentage of dialogue, and uses his dignified bearing and authoritative voice to make himself seem more or less like Richards’ equal. The contrast between Bice’s aura of sober responsibility and Richards’ dryly hard-boiled bearing also helps to differentiate the brothers more than in Adventures–in which Darrell was more or less a duplicate of Moore personality-wise.
Richards and Bice lack the geniality of Moore and Darrell, however, being very grave in manner throughout; Richards in particular rarely manages more than a wry smile, even in lighter moments. Fortunately, their extreme seriousness is balanced out by the presence of the charming and cheerful Noel Neill as the leading lady; she uses her sweet smile and her endearingly perky manner to very good advantage throughout, while also conveying suitable grief or appropriately feisty indignation when the situation calls for it (as in her interchange with the squealer Ed Thorne). Patricia Knox, who played several tough showgirl types and a few leading ladies in 1940s B-films, makes a very creditable brains heavy; she convincingly adopts a rather matronly friendliness when her Belle Calhoun character is chatting with the good guys (and pumping them for information)–but is just as believable when sneeringly plotting with her cohort Ace Marlin and harshly ordering him to perpetrate various acts of destruction.
Roy Barcroft is his typically swaggering and entertaining self as Ace–delivering threats with a bullying leer, smirking delightedly over victories, scowling and grumbling when things go wrong, and displaying an easygoing smugness in the plotting scenes that contrasts well with Knox’s tense and snappish demeanor. Lane Bradford, in one of his first big roles, plays Ace’s chief henchman Monk Tucker–and conveys all the toughness and icy menace that would serve him well throughout the remainder of his career as a screen villain. Most of the minor villains are played by members of the stunt team; Dale Van Sickel has the meatiest of these parts, appearing as a land recorder with a shady past who’s blackmailed into enabling the phony toll-road scheme. Lee Roberts is good as the thug whose drunk act provides cover for the robbery in Chapter Six, while Marshall Reed pops up as a luckless henchman who gets slugged first by Richards and then by Barcroft in an unexpectedly comic scene.
Edmund Cobb is the ineffectual and somewhat cowardly town Sheriff (he procrastinates in amusingly awkward fashion when Noel Neill appeals to him save Robert Bice from a lynching), while Gene Roth is a laid-back marshal who nevertheless proves himself competent–dangerously so, from the James brothers’ point of view. John Hamilton, Noel Neill’s future boss on the Superman show, appears here (very briefly) as her father. John Crawford is a friendly government official, Bob Wilke a loud-mouthed lynch-mob member, and Nolan Leary a likable old miner who’s threatened by the heavies. Hank Patterson has a nice bit as a gabby geezer in Chapter Four, Hank Bell puts in an appearance as a phony corpse, and an unfamiliar actor named Ted Hubert achieves a good combination of sanctimoniousness and cowardice as Ed Thorne–the former James Gang member who tries to inform on Frank and Jesse.
Lacking the marquee value of a masked hero or a well-known cowboy star, James Brothers of Missouri is almost invariably overlooked by serial buffs–but is nevertheless the strongest, overall, of the many pleasant but derivative Western serials Republic turned out after Jesse James Rides Again (their last really distinctive cowboy chapterplay). Its cast, action scenes, basic storyline, and location work are about on a par with those of its peers, but its touches of visual flair and the refreshingly non-repetitive way in which its narrative plays out raise it a decided notch above said peers.