Belle Starr (also known as Belle Starr, The Bandit Queen)—Gene Tierney, Randolph Scott, Dana Andrews, Shepperd Strudwick, Chill Wills, Olin Howland, Louise Beavers (1941; Dir: Irving Cummings)
Early in her career, the beautiful Gene Tierney appeared in three westerns among her first four films: The Return of Frank James (1940), with Henry Fonda, Hudson’s Bay (1941) with Paul Muni, and this, with Randolph Scott and Dana Andrews. Although they were all based on historical persons or events, they had precious little historical accuracy in them. In particular, this depiction of the west’s most famous female outlaw has almost nothing to do with the historical person, playing her as a kind of Scarlett O’Hara in Missouri after the Civil War.
Scarlett, er, Belle Shirley (Gene Tierney), is a Confederate sympathizer with a lot of unused feistiness as the war ends. We see the family home as a large-scale southern plantation, which was probably pretty rare in Missouri. She shows her canniness by tricking ne’er-do-well thief Jasper Tench (Olin Howland) out of a stolen horse. Her brother Edward (Shepperd Strudwick) returns from the war, as does former romantic interest Thomas Crail (Dana Andrews), now a major in the Union army and the regional military authority. Crail is seeking former Missouri border guerillas who have not surrendered, such as Sam Starr (Randolph Scott).
Belle helps Starr escape Crail’s clutches, and Crail is obliged by the occupation rules to burn down her mansion. She flees to join Starr’s rebellion, and they fall in love and are married. Meanwhile, Starr’s rebellion continues to grow in size. Among the new recruits are the Cole brothers from Texas, said to have ridden with Quantrill during the war. The Coles have fewer scruples than Starr, and they influence him to move more in the direction of robbery and murder. Belle’s brother Edward comes to warn her about these new activities of Starr’s, and the Coles gun him down. Belle gives back Starr’s ring and leaves.
Meanwhile, Starr plans to show up at a speech of the carpetbagger governor as a show of strength. Belle discovers that it is a trap, with Crail’s men waiting for Starr, and she rides to warn him. As she does, she is shot from ambush by Tench for the reward on her head. The shot is taken as a warning by Starr, and the raid is aborted. But Starr gives himself up when he hears about Belle’s fate. He and Belle’s mammy (Louise Beavers) see the body, but claim that it is not Belle so the venal Tench won’t get the reward. Crail knows as well as they do that the body is Belle’s, but he plays along.
Gene Tierney as Belle Starr; and the real Belle Starr in a full-length studio portrait probably taken in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the early 1880s.
Tierney had marvelous facial bone structure and extraordinary beauty, but she was not a great actress and this is not her best work. (See Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and perhaps Leave Her to Heaven for that.) The writing makes Belle often seem angrily stupid, and the whole thing makes little sense. Scott and Andrews are good enough, and Chill Wills makes an early appearance as the outlaw Blue Duck (a strangely religious outlaw), otherwise best known on film as the principal villain in Lonesome Dove. But none of the characters in this film bear much resemblance to their historical counterparts.
The film has distinguished writing credits, with a screenplay by Lamar Trotti (Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky) and story by Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun, Pursued, The Furies). It just goes to show that otherwise good writers can come up with an occasional bomb. Director Irving Cummings had been an actor from the earliest days of the movies, but was not terribly notable as a director, having done a number of unremarkable films, along with uncredited work on 1939’s Jesse James. Music is by experienced movie composer Alfred Newman; the title music had been composed for John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln two years earlier. The film was shot in color (so it had a good budget for 1941), at the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California, at 87 minutes.
For a much more interesting depiction of Belle Starr on film, see Pamela Reed in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980). Although the real Belle Starr was ugly as a mud fence, she has been played on film not only by the glamorous Tierney, but also by Jane Russell, Elsa Martinelli and Elizabeth Montgomery, among others–usually in highly fictionalized form.