The American Humane Association began to oversee filmmaking after a horse died when it was driven off a cliff on set.
A railroad representative named Barshee (Brian Donlevy) forces farmers to give up the land the railroad is going to go through, giving them $1 per acre (much less than fair price) for it. When they come to Jesse's home, Jesse (Tyrone Power) tells Barshee that his mother Mrs Samuels (Jane Darwell) is the farm's owner.
Barshee repeatedly tries to force her into selling, until her other son Frank James (Henry Fonda) gets involved. Frank fights and easily beats Barshee, but Jesse shoots Barshee in the hand, in self-defence. When arrest warrants are issued for Frank and Jesse, Major A. Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull) editor in nearby Liberty, Missouri and uncle of Zerelda (Zee) Cobb (Nancy Kelly), Jesse's lover, quickly comes to tell them to leave.
Frank and Jesse learn that Barshee is responsible for the death of their mother and Jesse kills him in revenge. This begins Frank and Jesse's career as outlaws. They are pursued relentlessly by the unscrupulous railway boss, McCoy (Donald Meek). Three years later, with a $5,000 reward on his head, Jesse marries Zee and turns himself in, at her insistence, having been promised a light sentence by Marshall Will Wright (Randolph Scott). But McCoy manages to manipulate the situation through his connections, by having the judge dismissed pre-trial, and installing a new judge, who is likely to favour McCoy's recommendation of imposing the death penalty for Jesse.
Frank breaks Jesse out of jail, and the James gang continue their life of crime. Eventually Zee leaves him, taking their son Jesse Jr. with her. Years later, following an unsuccessful robbery, a wounded Jesse returns home and Zee joins him in the belief that they will escape to California. Meanwhile, Bob Ford (John Carradine), an old member of the James gang, together with his brother Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen), contact Jesse, claiming that Frank sent them to ask Jesse to participate in their next robbery. They assert that the job will earn them all, a large sum of money for very little risk. Jesse nevertheless refuses the Ford brothers' offer, and the brothers exit the house. However, sensing an opportunity to claim the generous reward for Jesse's death, Bob Ford sneaks back inside, and shoots Jesse in the back, thereby killing him.Tyrone Power as Jesse James
Henry Fonda as Frank James
Nancy Kelly as Zerelda "Zee" James
Randolph Scott as Will Wright
Henry Hull as Maj. Rufus Cobb
John Carradine as Robert Ford
Charles Tannen as Charlie Ford
Ernest Whitman as Pinkie
Slim Summerville as Jailer
J. Edward Bromberg as Mr. Runyan
Brian Donlevy as Barshee
Donald Meek as McCoy
Claire Du Brey as Mrs. Bob Ford
Jane Darwell as Mrs. Samuels
Lon Chaney, Jr. as James Gang member
Eddy Waller as Deputy
Harold Goodwin as Bill
Paul Burns as Hank
Spencer Charters as Minister
Arthur Aylesworth as Tom Colson
Charles Middleton as Doctor
Charles Halton as Heywood
George Chandler as Roy
Virginia Brissac as Boy's mother
Ed Le Saint as Judge Rankin
John Elliott as Judge Mathews
Erville Alderson as Old Marshall
George Breakston as Farmer boy
Jesse James was a smash hit and the fourth largest-grossing film of 1939, behind Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and in front of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A sequel, The Return of Frank James, directed by Fritz Lang and with Henry Fonda reprising his role as Frank James along with a variety of other actors playing the same characters as they had in Jesse James, was released in 1940.
A remake was directed by Nicholas Ray in 1957, The True Story of Jesse James.
The film gained a measure of notoriety for a scene in which a horse falls to its death down a rocky slope toward the end of the film. This scene was one of many cited by the American Humane Association against Hollywood's abuse of animals, and led to the association's monitoring of filmmaking. However, according to Leonard Mosley's biography Zanuck: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's last Tycoon, none of "the horses [had] been injured. Under Zanuck's direction, a short distance down the cliff, on a conveniently broad platform, the unit roper had arranged a soft landing for the horses."
Much of the filming for Jesse James took place around the town of Pineville, Missouri in McDonald County, Missouri, because at the time the town and surrounding area looked much the same as it would have in the 1880s and 1890s. The town's historic Old McDonald County Courthouse, a National Register of Historic Places site, was featured in the film serving as a stand in for the Liberty, Missouri courthouse. Pineville still celebrates Jesse James Days annually in homage to the film and the movie stars who descended on the small town to make it. In their off time from filming, the films' stars and crew, including Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott, would seek out relaxation at the Shadow Lake resort in Noel, Missouri, on the shores of Elk River (Oklahoma).