Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Jesse James Rescues McDonald County

by Pa Rock
Native Son

While channel surfing earlier this week, I caught sight of something familiar as I cruised by the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) channel.   Quickly jumping back to TCM, I realized that it was the old McDonald County, Missouri, courthouse – the original one that still stands in the Pineville public square to this day.  That scene, where a young Jesse James rushes out of the building (supposedly the jail in Liberty, Missouri) and jumps on a waiting getaway horse, was from a movie that I know well – the 1939 20th Century Fox production of “Jesse James.”

That film, by director Henry King, brought money, movies stars, tourists and attention to the very rural county that forms the southwest corner of Missouri and helped to rescue it from the final throes of the Great Depression.  

Much, though certainly not all, of "Jesse James" was shot in and around Pineville, Missouri, but the stars stayed and played in the picturesque town of Noel on the beautiful Elk River.   (If you are starting to pick up on some community pride, it may because I grew up in Noel, the Christmas City of the Ozarks, and still regard it as home.)

Pineville had just gone through the expense of having its major streets paved prior to the filming, and the city fathers had to immediately go out and have them covered with dirt so that it would be historically accurate.  Businesses on the town square were remodeled to suit the needs of the movie, and the farmhouse on the old Crowder farm, just west of Pineville, became the home place of the James clan.

But other landmarks in the county were used as well.  There was a new log cabin constructed in the pines near Noel that was the fictional home of Jesse and Zee James.  After the movie was completed, that cabin was abandoned along side of the road where it survived several decades of hard neglect and occasional transient residents, and remnants of it can still be seen to this day.  The original Mill Creek Baptist Church, which has since burned and now has a newer structure on the sight, was where Jesse and Zee were married in the movie.    The old, and very distinctive, Kansas City Southern railway depot at Noel also figures prominently in one scene.  Today it serves as Noel's city hall.

The stars of the movie were Tyrone Power (Jesse), Henry Fonda (Frank), Nancy Kelly (Zee), Randolph Scott (Marshall Will Wright), John Carradine (Bob Ford), and Jane Darwell (Mrs. Samuels – Jesse and Frank’s mother).   (Jane Darwell commented in an interview years later that she made a career of playing Henry Fonda’s mother.  Her role as his mother – Mrs. Joad – in “The Grapes of Wrath” won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1940.  She said that Fonda would refer to her as "Ma" when they encountered each other in public.)

The movie crew brought a great deal of money and commerce into McDonald County.  It was estimated that over 200,000 tourists visited the county during filming of the movie.  One local man that I knew got his start in business by hauling water – with his horse-drawn wagon – to the crew when they were in remote locations.  Other locals appeared as extras in the movies, and many people made money using their yards and pastures for parking the automobiles of all of the tourists who came in hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars and see some of the movie being filmed.  Other locals set up concession stands in their yards to quench the thirsts of the tourists.

And the movie star mania was intense.  My mother told a story of a couple of the stars visiting the J.C. Penny store on the square in Neosho.  She said that word quickly got out that they were inside, and so many people began pushing and shoving to get into the store that the hapless stars had to be spirited out the back door.

Another business that drew in movie stars and star-gazers alike was Shadow Lake, a dance club on Elk River in Noel.  It became a favorite watering hole of the stars,  and Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power were even reported to have been spotted fishing from a boat near the club.

Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power stayed in a new log home on the bluff that overlooks Shadow Lake.   Nancy Kelly had a room in a nice home on Noel’s Main Street.  Years later, as a real estate broker, I sold that home, a sale that seemed to be made somewhat easier due to the Nancy Kelly-slept-here factor.

The summer of 1939 was certainly among the best of times for many who were struggling just to get by in a very remote part of the Ozarks during rough economic times.   Instead of taking money out of the community like the original outlaw was known for, this "Jesse James" brought money in and generated a sense of local pride that was sorely needed.  Today we are still proud that so many movie people recognized the natural beauty of the area and spent their time and energy making a movie in our county all those many years ago.

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