Al J. Jennings, the Robber

The Bank Robbery
R: William Tilghman. K: William Tilghman. D: Al J. Jennings, Frank Canton, Heck Thomas, Quanah Parker. P: Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Company. USA 1908

“One of the few instances where actors playing the lawmen and the robbers actually were the lawmen and the robbers: William Tilghman was a famous and respected U.S. marshal on the Oklahoma frontier; Al J. Jennings was a convicted train robber who took up acting after having been released from prison; Frank Canton was a widely feared gunfighter; Heck Thomas was a legendary sheriff; Quanah Parker was the son of an Indian father and a white mother who led several Indian revolts.”

Al J. Jennings (1863-1961) was born in Tazewell County in Virginia on November 25, 1863. He ran away from home at the age of 10 and went to Cincinnati because, he said, his father killed his pet squirrel. He then drifted west to Colorado, where he signed on as a hand on Jim Stanton‘s ranch in Trinidad, where he learned to handle a gun. Standing five feet, five inches tall, Al Jennings made up for his medium stature with bravado and an outspoken nature. Al had three brothers, who were all respected citizens, although one, Fred, later joined him in banditry. At one time his father was a circuit court judge. Jennings studied law and was admitted to the bar in Kansas in 1884. In 1892 he won election as county attorney in El Reno, Oklahoma. There was a feud between Al’s brother Ed and another man, and one evening, Ed was shot from behind. As he was dying, he asked Al to avenge him. A trial was held, and Ed’s alleged assassin was found not guilty. Al then devoted his life to revenge.
Soon, Al Jennings was in trouble himself. As he told it in later years, members of the Norman gang, who were clients of his law practice, held up a train. Although Al asserted that he was not with them during the daring escapade, he was incriminated, and even his father believed him to be guilty. Oklahoma authorities put a price of $20,000 on his head, at which time Al Jennings decided to become a bandit in earnest. He joined the Norman gang and became their leader. Many train robberies later, the Norman gang was caught while trying to blow a Wells Fargo safe in an express car. Under a life sentence, Jennings was dispatched to the Ohio State Penitentiary. While in jail, he made the acquaintance of Ohio industrialist Mark Hanna, who was a friend of the warden. Hanna believed Jennings’ contention that his life of crime started when he was unjustly accused, and he persuaded his friend, President William A. McKinley, to commute the sentence to five years. In 1907 he received a full pardon from President Theodore Roosevelt. Jennings returned to Oklahoma, where he ran for public office. He narrowly lost the race for prosecuting attorney in the same county which had posted the $20,000 reward for his capture, dead or alive, years earlier. Later, in 1914, he ran an unsuccessful race for governor of the state in the Democratic primary and finished third.
Jennings on the Screen: Drawing upon his experience and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for publicity, he appeared in many films, of which The Bank Robbery, produced by the Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Company in 1908 and which re-enacted Jennings’ robbery of the Bank of Cache, in the Oklahoma city of that name, was perhaps the first. (…)”
© 1995 Q. David Bowers

Four years earlier, Philadelphia:

The Bold Bank Robbery
R: Jack Frawley. B: Jack Frawley. P: S. Lubin. USA 1904

Siegmund ‘Pop’ Lubin is remembered today perhaps as one of Edison’s chief rivals in the patent wars at the turn of the last century. Lubin was based in Philadelphia, and is all too often referred to in the history books only for his ‘remakes’ (rip-offs) of popular Edison titles.
It’s true that the Lubin company turned out some pretty audacious imitations (their version of The Great Train Robbery, released a year after Edison’s version), but along the way, Lubin turned out some pretty interesting films which deserve to be evaluated on their own terms.
One such picture is Bold Bank Robbery, made in 1904 by Jack Frawley (who also wrote and shot the picture). The film begins a group of men enjoying a drink and a smoke, dressed in elaborate tuxedos and top hats. They are framed in a theatrical manner in front of a painted flat. What’s remarkable is the sense of space that this single, flat backdrop provides. It’s both highly theatrical yet also hints at the kind of screen space that more sophisticated sets would come to provide in the near future.
This ten minute film includes a tremendous amount of action. There are numerous chase scenes, and the final business, with the last robber being pursued through the streets, on the train, etc. is a remarkable bit of action staging. The exciting outdoor visuals contrast nicely with the painted flats of the interiors.
There are, of course, inevitable comparisons to be made to Edison‘s The Great Train Robbery and to Frank S. Mottershaw‘s Daring Daylight Burglary (produced by Charles Urban), both from 1903. Even the title is reminiscent of the latter film, and the staging of the action recalls Edison’s Great Train Robbery in the bank scenes, and also the final chase with the law pursuing the criminals. Lubin’s films may not have been the most original in their content or innovative in their style, but Bold Bank Robbery remains an exciting film in its own right, with some interesting location changes and, in a few instances, above-average production design.”
The Art and Culture of Movies