Frank James
the westerns

© 2013 William Ahearn

The Return of Frank James (1940)

There’s an anecdote that was told in Hollywood in which Fritz Lang, showing up to shoot exteriors for “The Return of Frank James,” looked through the viewfinder of the camera and yelled “that third cow, move her a little to the left, please.” Absurd as the idea of an émigré directing the most American of films, that’s exactly what appealed to Darryl Zanuck.

The story begins with Hollywood agent Sam Jaffe – someone who knew Lang’s German films – and Jaffe had heard that Lang was despondent over his career in the US and had holed up in his house in Santa Monica. “It’s hopeless,” Lang told Jaffe, “they don’t want me in Hollywood.”

Jaffe signed Lang as a client knowing that 20th Century-Fox was looking for a director for the “non-sequel” sequel to “Jesse James.” Jaffe convinced Lang to drop the monocle, put on eyeglasses and his continental manners and meet with one of Jaffe’s friends who happened to be the producer of the non-sequel, Kenneth Macgowan, who also was a fan of Lang’s German films. Darryl Zanuck loved the gimmick of Fritz Lang directing a western and signed Lang to a one-picture deal.

All that remained was for Lang to convince Henry Fonda to give Lang one more chance after the rancor and hard feelings of “You Only Live Once.” Fonda recalled that Lang “knew how I felt and came up to me with tears in his eyes, great big crocodile tears and said he had learned his lesson and so forth. I finally went along and said ‘Okay.’” He also said, that “The Return of Jesse James” “was the wrong film” for Lang and “that he hadn’t learned any lessons at all. He killed three or four horses on location. He was riding them too hard, making the wranglers ride them too hard up hills and at an altitude. Anyway, that was Fritz Lang.”

“The Return of Jesse James” is a good-natured cowboy yarn that – typical of Hollywood – takes an historical figure and creates a completely fabricated reality around them. In this case the historical figure is Frank James who sets out to avenge the killing of his brother, Jesse. The varmints are killed but none by Frank James who is now a redeemed man. There is nothing “Langian” in the film. No allusions to Kriemhild or German expressionism or anxious chiaroscuro settings.

Variety wrote:

“From standpoint of production and cast, Darryl Zanuck has spared nary a horse. It's filled with ah-evoking outdoor scenes and nostalgically-impressive western streets and indoor sets.”

Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote

“As spectacle, ‘The Return of Frank James,’ presently at the Roxy, is a handsome and spacious affair set against Technicolored mountains and night skies; many of its small-town scenes carry the flavor of the post-Civil War years. But in drama it is lacking.”

And, “But in the direction, as in the script, Fritz Lang has failed to make a successful compromise between a film that attempts to show the pressures that drove Frank James to robbery and murder or one that is honestly boots-and-guns horse opera. It has neither the actuality nor motivation for the former or the blood-and-thunder violence of the latter.”

In Fritz Lang In America, Peter Bogdanovich states “The conventional opinion is that after his first two pictures in Hollywood . . . [Fritz] Lang went into decline, with only occasional flashes of his former talent and personality.” This film may be indicative of Lang’s decline, but “The Return of Frank James” was an unqualified hit and it turned Lang into a Hollywood director with Zanuck signing Lang to a multi-picture deal.

In 1956, Jean-Luc Godard wrote: “The fact that . . . ‘The Return of Jesse James’ has a happy ending, should not be interpreted as a concession to American censorship. Leaving behind moral man, Lang finds sinful man, which explains his bitterness. Yet beyond the sinner there is a study of regenerated man, which intrigues the most Germanic of American filmmakers. When the fierce individualist Frank James finally finds his happiness, it is only after having atoned with his pain.”

In the above quote, Godard has slipped from critic to naïve cheerleader and that is one of the failings of the auteur theory. The happy ending isn’t a concession to “American censorship” because Lang never had any input into the ending. The studio dictated that ending; more importantly, the first draft of the script had already been written and approved by Darryl Zanuck. The major failing of the auteur theory – as applied to Hollywood films – is that it is utterly ignorant as to how films come to be films and how many Hollywood directors didn’t have the opportunity to make the choices that they are credited with making.

Western Union (1941)

On this film, the director worked closely with the writing team. Except the director wasn’t Fritz Lang, it was Irving Pichel and by the time Lang took over, the script was complete. The only input Lang managed was the casting of Virginia Gilmore. When Lang finished shooting, Zanuck ordered 50 re-shoots for editing “coverage” and Zanuck had final cut say-so and exercised it.

Variety said, “Mounted with expansiveness as a super-western of upper-budget proportions, picture displays some eyeful exterior panoramas. The tinting photography has some of the finest outdoor scenes which were photographed in the colorful Utah park country.”

Writing in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther noted,

“One can readily imagine what certain directors might have done with this story of the heroic laying of the first telegraph wire across the country. Without trying, one can vision the accumulation of prolonged do-or-die clichés which might have been dragged into it, one can hear the crescendo of symbolic sounds which might solemnly have represented the electric flight of words across the land. But Mr. Lang and his lavish producers have this time avoided the trap. They have brought within the frame of a straightaway ‘Western’ adventure tale as much of the excitement and significance of the project as one could fairly desire.”

Although Lang had little or nothing to do with the script, that never stopped him from claiming credit for it. In April 1968, Lang told Positif, “Since there were no real problems [in the real setting up of the Western Union telegraph lines], I made a love story for the hero and threw in the Indians.” Lotte Eisner was present for that interview and she echoes similar statements in Fritz Lang. Robert Carson – who has the screen credit for the film – told Alfred Eibel that Lang’s suggestions were either not productive or came too late to be incorporated into an already finished script. In her book, Eisner states, “Lang, to the contrary [of Carson’s memory], remembers that he had time enough to work through the script, making his changes in his accustomed way. The fact that he was given time and opportunity to scout for and choose his own locations would seem to lend credence to the director’s memory.”

If that leap of faith wasn’t enough to perpetuate the myth of Fritz Lang, Eisner adds:

“Lang’s first two Westerns reveal a trend towards a new development in the Western genre – the ‘psychological’ Western. His own distinctive manner of balancing right against wrong, of introducing darker undertones to run just under the surface of typical Western action, introduces a new element into the mythology of the Western; and these two Westerns clearly are preludes to the tragic imponderables of ‘Rancho Notorious.’”

The Western would change in the coming decade for any number of reasons and none of them have to do with “The Return of Frank James” or “Western Union.” In 1976, when Eisner’s book Fritz Lang was first published, the term “psychological western” was coming in vogue and that may account for Eisner’s utterly unsupportable statement. Lang’s first two westerns are completely devoid of anything remotely “Langian” and far from memorable films and in no way resemble a “psychological western.”

In The Films of Fritz Lang, author Tom Gunning notes “Although Lang did produce some conformist films during his Hollywood career (“Return of Frank James,” “Western Union,” “An American Guerilla in the Phillipines”), usually at moments of crisis in his career when more experimental films had failed, none of his films are totally bereft of interest.”

One would be hard pressed not to see most of Lang’s films in Hollywood as “conformist.” With the exception of the Diana Productions – still in the future – Lang was a for-hire contract director who did the work he was given. The only film he mentioned turning down was “They Won’t Forget” because he didn’t want to do another lynching film. The idea that there is a “conformist” and “non-conformist” Lang within the Hollywood studio system is absurd. Hollywood is by nature conformist and while Lang could work as he wanted in Germany, in California he was just another contract employee and rarely initiated his own projects. That is what the auteur theorists never understood. In Europe, Lang created – or worked closely with Thea von Harbou who may have had a far greater role than has been recognized – the script and directly supervised the editing. He was god as far as the production went. In the US, his involvement varied a great deal. Sometimes – no matter what he would claim later – he had no involvement with the script or the editing. Other times he had more involvement with the script than others and sometimes he had some involvement with the editing.

These Westerns are the reasons that Lang’s career continued. Both films were profitable and whatever Lang thought of the producers for the most part he kept it to himself. Eisner, Godard and others can dance around interpretation all they want but with these films Lang was playing the Hollywood game and what he made were successful Hollywood movies.

Man Hunt