CD Review: The True Story of Jesse James / The Last Wagon
In the late 1950s, the Western was facing a tough showdown during the last years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Interest in the classic film genre was fading, and you could hear the dying gasps before the genre moved to television and faded into the setting sun on film. Intrada recently released two lesser-known Western scores from the 20th-Century Fox vaults.
Nicholas Ray’s THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES (1957) stars Robert Wagner as Jesse and Jeffrey Hunter as Jesse’s assassin, Frank James. Ray had directed earlier Westerns such as THE LUCKY MEN (1952) and the Joan Crawford-Mercedes McCambridge JOHNNY GUITAR (1954). He cemented his reputation with the classsic film of teenage angst, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). In her liner notes, Julie Kirgo calls JESSE JAMES “REBEL on the range.”
Leigh Harline’s score for JESSE JAMES is worlds away from his Oscar-winning music for PINOCCHIO. After his split with Disney, Harline spent the rest of his composing years as a freelancer, moving to whichever studio had work. In addition to JESSE JAMES, 1957 was a particularly busy year for the composer, with three other films–THE WAYWARD BUS, NO DOWN PAYMENT, and THE ENEMY BELOW.
Most of Harline’s score for JESSE JAMES is dark, brittle, and action-oriented. He neatly bookends the film with the folk song, “The Ballad of Jesse James,” using the first three notes of the song as a motif throughout the score. The traditional hymn “Shall We Gather At the River,” written in 1864, subtly places the music in its proper period. Harline’s tender theme for the outlaw offers respite from the shadow of death that hangs over much of the music.
Delmer Davies’ THE LAST WAGON (1956) stars Richard Widmark as “Comanche Todd,” a Comanche-raised trapper wanted for murder after avenging the death of his Indian wife and children. Davies had directed earlier Westerns, including THE DRUM BEAT (1954) and the classic BROKEN ARROW (1950), starring James Stewart, but he is best remembered for his quartet of successful soapers starring Troy Donahue, beginning with A SUMMER PLACE (1959). Contributing the score for the film is Lionel Newman, brother of studio music department head, Alfred Newman, both of whom conducted Harline’s score for JESSE JAMES.
Newman’s music doesn’t bear the hallmark of a personal style to the extent that Alfred, Randy or Thomas Newman do, but that is no reflection on Newman’s craft. The score blends together traditional Western harmonies, Native American rhythms, and action-oriented cues to form an exciting, and at times moving, dramatic score. The tender love theme is an immediate standout. Add in the guitar and harmonica, and it’s a theme you can imagine hearing around a campfire.
Producer Nick Redman has arranged the tracks for both scores into lengthy cues. If you’re not familiar with the films, generic track titles like “Doubts” and “Tragedy” don’t help much in following the story. Overall, however, this is a minor quibble if your aim is simply to bask in the music, as the CD provides a satisfying listening experience.
You probably won’t leave this recording humming more than a couple of the themes. But while JESSE JAMES and LAST WAGON may not qualify as top-tier Western scores, the quality of the music stands up to repeated listenings. A welcome—if now out-of-print—addition to the Intrada line.