McDonald County is located deep in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. So deep that it seems time stands still for decades. The most disturbing event in the county was the Civil War/War Between the States/The War of Southern Rebellion/That Late Disturbance (choose the name you know it by). I have read that by the end of the war only eight adults and a few children were living in the county. Not too surprising as both armies occupied the area and the residents either fought, fled or were incarcerated at a Union concentration camp at Granby, but I digress. The second biggest event was THE MAKING OF JESSE JAMES.
From the attention it got in the past 83 years (it was filmed in 1938) you would think it was of the same magnitude as that unfortunate war. It was a beautifully filmed inaccurate account of the James Brothers brief, but exciting career in robbery. I will write about some of the local information that is not widely known.
Henry King, a prominent director at 20th Century Fox decided to make his first technicolor western in Missouri, but unfortunately, St. Joseph had become too modern, so King set out in a small plane to fly over small Missouri towns seeking an authentic set. Thus, Pineville with its central square featuring a brick courthouse surrounded by buildings constructed before 1875 was chosen.
But even Pineville had inched forward since 1882, the year of Jesse’s death. Electric service had been installed and the WPA had financed the paving of the central area with creek rock and concrete (the streets were well constructed and lasted some 60 years). Nevertheless, these modern additions had to be removed or covered up. The power poles came down and the streets were covered with 6 inches of dirt. The film company sent carpenters to construct a few buildings to enhance the ambiance. The Dixie Belle saloon and some other small buildings with false fronts were added to fill in the square.
Some of those buildings are still in use, but after a few years as a movie theater, the town sold the saloon, and it was moved to Bunker Hill to end its days as a dance hall. Apparently, the thought of liquor made them nervous. The town was heavily influenced by the dry movement. After all, Laura LaMance, a local social leader was the National President of the national Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
20th Century Fox cast its brightest stars for the film. Tyrone Power was Jesse, Henry Fonda was Frank and many other well-known actors were in the cast – Randolph Scott, Henry Hull, Brian Donlevy, John Carradine, Jane Darwell and Lon Chaney, Jr. as examples. The lone black cast member, Ernest Whitman, who played Pinkie the hired hand, had to be transported to Neosho each night as there was a county ordinance prohibiting black people in the county after sundown. This law was observed until 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
When the staff came to prepare for the actual filming, they were prepared to pay $10 a day for extras. At the end of the depression this was a mighty sum. The local bigwigs reeled back in alarm and said, “You aren’t going to spoil our people that way.” They finally agreed that the pay would be $2.50 per day. I remember many of the people who were hired as extras and love watch the movie to see old friends and neighbors – Mrs. Poindexter, Mrs. Drum, Lucille Allman, Bonnie Belle Sweet, Ramsey Bone, Brownie Bradley, to name a few. One local went on to a fairly successful film career – Dabbs Greer. His last big role was in The Green Mile.
The three months of filming was quite a spectacle. Some days, 10,000 people came to watch the action. This was quite a boon for local businesses and entrepreneurs. Lots of money changed hands. Soon thereafter part of another movie – Belle Starr- was filmed in Pineville. Evidently, all this attention was more than local people could stand and soon they undid the changes that made it a good background for making western movies.
As the movie craze was closely followed by WWII, not much happened until the County Centennial came along in 1949. The civic leaders organized a celebration. The event was so successful that it was re-named “Jesse James Days” and is held every summer to this day.
Sleepy little Pineville is still several years behind the rest of the world. No longer a market town with a community gathering every Saturday, most days you could shoot a cannon down Main Street and not risk any harm. I think they are waiting for an enterprising man to fly over and restore it to a glamorous status once again.