"If we are ever going to have law and order in this part of the country, we got to take vipers like those Fords and that slimy railroad detective Runyon and shoot 'em down like dogs."
The Return of Frank James leaves off right where Jesse James ended. Jesse has been shot and killed in the back by Bob and Charlie Ford. Word gets to Frank (Henry Fonda) that his brother has been killed. He let people believe that he has been shot and killed and now he lives in the hills with Pinky and a kid named Clem (Jackie Cooper) whose father was killed in the last bank robbery with Jesse. Clem asks Frank is he is going to go after the Fords and if he can come with him to do so. Frank does not want to go killing the brothers he tells Clem that the law will get the Fords.
They find out later that Fords were captured and found guilty but were then given a pardon and the reward money that was put out for Jesse. When Frank hears this he decides to go after Bob and Charlie. The Fords were in a bar when the Major (Zee’s uncle from the previous film) walks in. He scares them saying Frank has a way of turning up when they least expect him to. The whole town is upset with the Fords because they were all friends of Jesse’s and especially because Bob shot Jesse in the back when he was not looking. The Fords wind up leaving town.
Pinky finds Frank and tells him that Clem has run away. Frank decides to steal from McCoy the man who runs the railroad and gave out the reward money. As he was stealing the money Clem walks in. Clem accidentally shoots off his and gets the town in an uproar. The night watchman is accidentally shot and killed by the men shooting outside.
Frank and Clem make it out west to Denver. They spread the rumor that Frank James was killed in Mexico for trying to steal chickens. Reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) hears the news. She works for her father’s newspaper and wants desperately to write a good story that will make her father realize she is not just a woman but a good reporter who should stay on at the paper. This story would be a big scoop for the paper. Eleanor sits down with Frank who is going by the name Ben Woodson. Clem tells the whole story and Frank watches how Eleanor is so excited at what she is hearing. Soon through her father’s paper the story reaches the entire country. Eleanor’s father still thinks she should just go to college and then settle down to a man and marriage.
The story was a way for Frank to bring the Fords out into the open so he could scare them. The town is putting on a play with the Fords and how they killed Jesse James. Frank gets a spot in the balcony right in their line of sight. When the brothers see him they start shooting. Clem and Frank go after the Fords but they do not catch them.
McCoy had hired a private detective to track down Frank and Clem. The detective talks to Eleanor and he tells her the truth of who Ben Woodson really is. Eleanor finds Frank and tells him that Pinky has been arrested on charges of having been at the bank robbery. Frank knows what McCoy and the detective are doing they are trying to bring him out in the open he knows that Pinky has never even so much as stolen a chicken in his life. Frank is now determined to find the Fords he has to get to them before Pinky is sentenced to hang. If he cannot find the Fords before that time he will turn himself in.
Frank is unable to find the Fords before Pinky’s hanging and turns himself in. Eleanor gets herself down to Liberty to be at the trial. The detective thinks Eleanor is there to break Pinky out of jail and the mayor has a fit before she explains that she is just down there as a reporter. The trial is a bit like a circus. A judge from another town with no ties to Liberty or the James or Ford brothers is brought in to preside. The lawyer for McCoy feels personally involved and gets too bias with his questioning. The Major is defending Frank; he used to be a lawyer before he was the owner of the town paper. Eleanor feels like it is all her fault for all of this Frank would have come back anyway if she had not said something.
Frank is found not guilty by the jury on any of the counts he was convicted of. All the sudden Bob Ford walks into the court room. As soon as Frank hears the sentence he leaps over the divide and runs after Bob. A shot is heard outside. Clem is down on the ground near a tree. He has been shot but he was able to shoot Bob Ford. Ford has gone into a warehouse. Frank goes in there. None of the townspeople get in his way. Frank finds Ford he is wounded and winds up dying from Clem’s shot.
Henry Fonda was great as Frank. Frank was a character that was calm and had a lot of reserve much like Fonda himself. The character of Frank was very well written he was out for revenge but he was not blinded by it. This was Gene Tierney’s first film. She was so ridiculously adorable and incredibly beautiful. She was only nineteen years old when she made this. I find it interesting that Tierney was so excellent in this film and then in her films after this until maybe Rings on Her Fingers (which also stars Henry Fonda) six films after The Return of Frank James she was so terrible that it is hard to watch her. I am just going to put down he bad acting as the fault of the directors of the films.
The Return of Frank James I found to be ten times better than Jesse James. I liked this story much better and it moved along at a better pace there were no slow scenes. I also liked how Frank and Eleanor were not a romantic item. According to IMDB the relationship did not happen because Frank James’s wife and son were still alive and the studio did not want to be sued. Good think I liked how Eleanor was concerned for Frank as a friend.