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’38 movie filming altered town, drew hoards of visitors

by RANDY McCRORY | September 7, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.

The filming of the Jesse James movie in 1938 took place in and around Pineville, Mo.

Filmed in technicolor by 20th Century Studios, then known as 2oth Century Fox Film Company, it stars Tyrone Power as Jesse James and Henry Fonda as his brother Frank James. The town of Pineville was selected only after the film company flew over 15,000 miles looking for the ideal location.

So why would a film studio come to film a movie in Pineville, Mo.? The town was chosen because the McDonald County courthouse so resembled the courthouse in Liberty, Mo. from the 1880s when Jesse James lived there.

After the announcement that Pineville would be the location for the film, they got to work converting it to look like a town from the 1880s.

False fronts were placed on the newer buildings in town. They also built a brand new storefront that wasn’t previously there. The paved roads were covered with 400 truckloads of dirt. Hitch posts were built around the courthouse and local businesses. The concrete sidewalks were covered up with boardwalks. The fountain in front of the courthouse was made to look like an old well house; an old wooden pump and water trough were also added. New signs were made for all the newly constructed storefronts.

The film company said that Pineville was so well preserved in its native state that the film producers estimated it would cost less than $25,000 to make it look seventy years older for the proper setting of the movie. But the overall cost of the movie would be upwards of $2 million. The film crew also planned to stay in the Pineville area for about eight weeks while filming.

Filming wasn’t just done in Pineville, but also around its general area, in the scenic areas of the Missouri Ozarks. Local farmhouses, churches, roads, high bluffs and a cave for a hideout were all used in the production. The train depot in Southwest City, Mo., was used to represent the train depot in Liberty from the 1880s. The depot in Neosho was used to represent the Kansas City depot from that period. And one of the train robbery sequences was filmed between Gravette and Hiwasse in Northwest Arkansas.

In the making of the picture, they used about 125 people from the studio in Hollywood, along with four baggage cars full of equipment to be used in the filming of the movie. An additional 200 to 300 people were hired as extras from the local vicinity. They were mainly used in the train depot scenes.

Though some animals were brought in from Hollywood, one Saturday was set aside for people to bring animals to town that might be used in the movie. Apparently, that day the town was full of horses. Many of the people riding them were already dressed from the time of Jesse James. There were also all kinds of old-time vehicles including surreys, coaches, buckboards, wagons and buggies.

That weekend filming was suspended because of the large crowd. Filming resumed on the Tuesday after Labor Day, but moved to filming a train robbery scene between Gravette and Hiwasse.

The Chamber of Commerce made arrangements to have parking and outside eating places available to accommodate visitors. During the filming, it wasn’t uncommon to see cars from the surrounding states. People had come to see a movie being made. Some people drove as far as 200 to 300 miles to get there. Traffic was controlled by local police and 25 state troopers were also brought in to help out with the traffic situation.

The little communities of Pineville, at that time with a population of 422, and Noel, then population 431, increased manyfold on a daily basis from their normal size.

In the town of Noel, Mo., where most of the cast and crew were staying, much remodeling and updating of cabins were done before the crews arrived. Many people moved out of their homes to make room for cast and crew members to stay there. It was said that over $100,000 was spent in town by tourists while visiting the area. This doesn’t include what the movie studio spent in the area.

One gentleman got a contract to feed the big names of the movie. He got the contract because he would lock the front and rear doors of the establishment and post guards with clubs to keep autograph hunters away. The Shadow Lake Café became the place to eat in Noel, because people were hoping to get a glance of one of the movie stars.

Food stores were having a hard time keeping anything consumable on their shelves because of the influx of sightseers. Local farmers were selling farm fresh milk and produce to many of the visitors. Eating places started to charge high prices for whatever food they could get, and people were willing to pay for it.

Since it was hot outside, the bottling company in Joplin was selling up to 500 cases of pop a day to the two cities. One gentleman sold 33 cases of pop while one scene of the movie was being filmed. An extra truck of bread was also being sent daily.

To take advantage of the town’s fame, some businesses briefly changed their names to things like: Hollywood Café, Hollywood Dress shop and Shirley Temple Tea Room. Just about everyone from that area came home with a little extra money while the film was being made.

There is a little folklore about Jesse James being in Missouri and Northwest Arkansas back in the day. It says he hid in caves in this area. One story says he stopped at a house and demanded the lady at the house fix him breakfast, which she did. He noticed she seemed pretty unhappy, so he inquired why she was so sad. She said there was someone on the way to the house to foreclose on her mortgage. She owed $200 on it. It is said he handed the lady $200 and directed her to pay the man and get a receipt. After she paid the man, Jesse James held him up and took the $200 back.

There is also a story that in 1874 Jesse James held up the Craig & Sons General Merchandise store on the east side of the Bentonville Square.

Jesse James Days are still celebrated in Pineville each year in August.

Randy McCrory is part of a group called Vintage Bentonville. The group hosts an online museum for Bentonville/Benton County at . They also host two Facebook pages called Historic Benton County and Vintage Bentonville. His column appears here monthly. Email him at [email protected] .


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