INTRODUCING GENE TIERNEY: The Return of Frank James

Gene Tierney made her screen debut in the 20th Century-Fox production of The Return of Frank James (1940) when she was twenty years old. Her looks were so striking that studio head Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to sign her up – twice. He was in the audience for her performance of the Broadway play The Male Animal in January 1940, and asked his assistant to find her contact information so he could sign her to Fox. Later he was at the Stork Club and was bowled over by a young actress on the dance floor. He told his assistant to forget about the stage actress and pursue this one instead, not knowing it was Gene Tierney dressed up. As Tierney’s future husband Oleg Cassini stated, “It is difficult to describe just how breathtaking she was. Photography never really did her justice. She had soft, golden skin, it seemed to glow. And her eyes: very light, green-blue, magical.”

Gene Tierney and Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James. 20th Century-Fox, 1940
Gene Tierney and Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James. 20th Century-Fox, 1940

Some spoilers are in the text below

The Return of Frank James, directed by Fritz Lang, was a sequel to Jesse James (1939). The film starts off with Jesse James being found by the Ford Brothers and shot in the back by Bob Ford as he was straightening a frame on the wall. The rest of the plot veers from fact but makes a good story. Henry Fonda plays Frank James, John Considine plays Bob Ford. Frank James has gone straight and is a farmer in the Missouri Ozarks. Jackie Cooper plays Clem his young protégé, and Ernest Whitman plays Pinky his black farmhand. James is happy being peaceful but then reads a newspaper that tells that the Fords were tried for the killing of Jesse James and found guilty but the Governor pardoned them. Clem, a hot-head, incites James  for the two to go after them. While James packs his gun and rides off, telling Clem and Pinky to take care of the farm, Clem soon catches up to him. Trouble starts when the inexperienced Clem joins James in a robbery of the train depot office in town,

Jackie Cooper and Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James

 

We first see Gene Tierney in a scene taking place in frontier Denver, where she is an aspiring “newspaper writer” for her father’s newspaper. Clem and James are there under assumed names, spreading stories about the death of Frank James in Mexico, hoping to flush out the Fords.  Tierney plays Eleanor Stone interviewing Clem and James about a “shootout” in Mexico where Frank James was supposedly killed. Positive chemistry was shown between Eleanor and James in the scene, “Sometimes I’ll have news, can I see you,” he says. “You can always reach me at The Star now” she tells James.

Gene Tierney as Eleanor Stone and Henry Fonda as Frank James

The brilliant costume designer Travis Banton designed Tierney’s costumes. He was only at Fox for a year since his lavish tastes in fabrics and furs did not mesh with Zanuck’s budgets. His excellent designs for Tierney can be appreciated in the details. While seated in the photo above, her long jacket is made interesting by the long row of buttons, and the horizontal pleats below the waist, complementing the pleats at the side of the skirt.

Frank James becomes livid when he learns that the Ford brothers have a stage play in town, portraying themselves as heroes, protecting the innocent against the evil James brothers. This starts  a series of chases and subsequent run-ins with the law for Frank James.

The latter part of the film takes place in a courthouse in Liberty, Missouri, where James is on trial for murder and robbery.  Eleanor Stone is in attendance, at a table reserved for the Press. The men there were surprised, but begrudgingly make open a spot for her.

While some critics were displeased with so much of the film taking place in court rather than in action scenes, I thought the scenes there had plenty of tension, repartee, and even comedy to make interesting viewing. It must be said that many of the characters, including the judge, James’s attorney and friend, and all of the jury were Southerners and Confederate sympathizers and even Confederate veterans. The prosecutor was a Yankee, and had a rough go at times. He was also in the pockets of the railroad company owner. The verdict is best left unmentioned, as is the film’s end.

Gene Tierney grew up in a well-off family in Westport, Connecticut. She attended St. Margaret’s School in Waterbury, where she played Jo in the school play of Little Women. She then travelled to Lausanne Switzerland to attend the Brillantmont International School where she learned to speak fluent French. Although her parents were not keen on the idea, she desired to become an actress. After studying with acting coach Benno Schneider, she then became the protégée of George Abbott. She got some small roles on Broadway in 1938 and 1939.  Columbia Pictures was the first studio to sign her to a contract – but the short, six-month contract lapsed before they found a film for her. Darryl Zanuck was not so hesitant. After seeing her in the Male Animal, and then at the Stork Club in January 1940, Zanuck had her start production at the end of April, 1940 on The Return of Frank James.

Gene Tierney had met fashion and costume designer Oleg Cassini at a party given in her honor after she arrived in Hollywood and shortly after she made Frank James. The notorious playboy Cassini swept Tierney off her feet and they planned to elope. Her parents put the brakes on that plan, with he having already been divorced, but after several months, the couple convinced her parents that their love was real. They loped to Las Vegas on June 1, 1941, without telling their home studios, he at Paramount, she at Fox, that they would be gone. Tierney had already made Hudson’s Bay and Belle Starr, and was set to star in Sundown, so Zanuck was furious when she disappeared without a word. Cassini was fired. Tierney managed to get him hired to design her costumes for The Shanghai Gesture in 1941 through Arnold Pressburger Films/United Artists.  Subsequently, with the U.S. at war, Cassini joined the Coast Guard and then was transferred to the U.S Army Cavalry at Fort Riley in Kansas.

Gene Tierney starred in many classic films through the early 1950s. Unfortunately, she and Cassini had marital problems, separating, rejoining, then divorcing, after their daughter Daria was born disabled in 1943. This was after Tierney caught rubella, most likely volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen. Tierney also suffered from bouts of manic-depression.  She died on November 6, 1991 at age 70. She will live on in her immortal films.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association spring 2024 Blogathon: SCREEN DEBUTS & LAST HURRAHS.  See here for more blog posts.