Sunday, June 5, 2011

MONTANA BELLE (1948-1952)

After all the scandal and controversy surrounding Howard Hughes's "adult" western The Outlaw, which launched Jane Russell's career, it wouldn't have been surprising if moviegoers identified Russell with the "outlaw" label. That'd explain her casting as Calamity Jane in the Bob Hope comedy The Paleface, as well as her star turn in Alan Dwan's more dramatic attempt to showcase Russell as a western superwoman. Having done Calamity already, Belle Starr was an inevitable role for Russell, and Dwan delivers a glamorously hard-boiled Trucolor romance, surrounding his star with several suitors while almost convincing you that she's smarter and tougher than all of them.

The historic Belle Star was the prototypical gun moll, elevated after her violent death at age 40 to the status of a female Jesse James -- Wikipedia asserts that she was a childhood friend of the James boys. Where the internet reference claims that her outlaw career ended -- with the death of her husband, Sam Starr -- Montana Belle begins. In the movie, Belle is rescued from a lynching by the legendary Dalton gang and allowed to share their hideout -- the home of the Indian Ringo (Jack Lambert) -- out of respect to the late Mr. Starr.

Belle causes trouble just by being there. Her main rescuer, Bob Dalton (Scott Brady) has a crush on her, but so does Ringo's pal Mac (Forrest Tucker). The two men have a brutal fight for her favors in a barn while she looks down on them scornfully. Her sympathies, however limited, are with Mac and Ringo, who are associates of the Daltons but not really part of the gang. Left behind while the gang prepares to rob Tom Bradfield's gambling den, Belle and her new buddies believe that the Daltons have ratted them out when a posse raids Ringo's land. Barely escaping, Belle proposes that the trio get back at the Daltons by stealing a march on them and hitting the Bradfield joint before the gang does. Bradfield's been tipped off about the Dalton attack by unwashed alky informant Pete Bivins (Andy Devine) and has men waiting to nab them when they come into town, but Belle's raid takes him completely by surprise. Her little gang makes a clean getaway, while the Daltons barely escape the ambush, only to be baffled when Pete shows up to compliment their slickness, inquire about their winnings, and ask for his cut.

Jane Russell is a gangsta!

The only problem with Belle's plan was that she left Bradfield's early when she heard gunshots outside and didn't get to break into the gambler and former bounty hunter's safe. So she decides to try again -- this time by infiltrating the joint as a bottle-blonde rich widow, the Montana Belle of the title. But Bradfield (George Brent) recognizes her eyes, the only part of her face that he'd seen before, and begins to bait his own trap for her. He lets her win big at cards and convinces her to invest her winnings into a partnership in the saloon, with Mac and Ringo as her right-hand men. Answering her partners' skepticism, Belle says the place is a perfect plain-sight hideout and the setup ideal for an inside job. Their cover's nearly blown, however, when Bob Dalton reappears and recognizes Mac. To save his own neck and plan for the future, Mac convinces Bob that Belle has become Bradfield's kept woman. Bob attacks Bradfield, who proves a tough customer with his fists, and when Bob goes for his guns, Belle shoots his holsters off his belt before he can draw. To bring you up to date, Belle can ride, shoot, sing and dance; she provides the entertainment at Bradfield's as well.

The Gilded Lily (see audio below)
Belle decides that Bob has to be broken out of jail, because otherwise he might rat her out. She hints that Mac and Ringo might want to finish Bob off afterward but eventually softens toward him as she learns that the Daltons had not tipped off the posse; a random Indian had noticed Belle and Ringo shooting target practice and informed the authorities, as we'd seen in the first place. Also, Belle needs the Daltons' help for a big job: the robbery of a $1,000,000 deposit at a local bank. What she doesn't know is that Bradfield has set up the deposit as a trap, assuming all along that Belle and the Daltons had been working together all along. But he's softening toward Belle as well, as she is toward him. Once she finally confesses to him what he already knows about her, he arranges for her to cross the border into Mexico until everything blows over, but just as she tries to get out, she gets pulled back in. Given an ultimatum by the Daltons to go through with the robbery or die on the spot, she agrees in order to protect Bradfield from harm, still not realizing the lethal trap that's been set for the gang -- the trap Bradfield doesn't expect Belle to walk into....

Montana Belle is minor stuff but effectively and entertainingly executed. Originally filmed in 1948 but inexplicably shelved for four years -- this time it wasn't Howard Hughes's fault, apparently -- it's decisive proof of Russell's star power as well as an amusing interplay of shifting loyalties that leaves you scrambling to keep track of who knows what. Russell is as convincing as she needs to be as a glamorous mastermind who can take care of herself in just about any situation, and for a while the film does have you wondering which of her three suitors, if any, she'll end up with. Interestingly, all three men end up ennobled by the experience. In a remarkable sequence, Bob and Mac help a wounded Belle onto a horse for a quick escape from the ambush, then shoot their way to shelter to keep up the fight. Once out of ammo, their situation is hopeless. They respond with admirable stoicism. "Let's walk out of this town," one says to the other as they holster their pistols, before walking into the middle of the street to be gunned down in cold blood by the posse. Classic Hollywood fans may groan with the realization that somehow, at this late date, George Brent again ends up with the girl. But he's just doing his archetypal job of seconding dominant females without stealing movies from them. He's especially unconvincing as a romantic interest for Russell, and her ending up with him is a regrettable final gesture of domestication. Worse, since the Code is still being enforced, Belle has to pay for her crimes with some sort of jail term, though we should be grateful that the enforcers didn't demand her death. Montana Belle might have been a better film had it been made two decades later, but as it is it'll make eighty minutes or so pass by pretty easily if you're a western or a Russell fan.

In lieu of the actual clip of Russell singing her big song in this picture, the swaggering, finger-snapping "Gilded Lily," here's an audio recording of her uploaded to YouTube by medtner1970.

1 comment: said...

Great write up of MONTAN BELLE! Thank you I agree, t's a lesser film, but nonetheless, it's an entertaining one. Warner Archive (which own the rights to the film) have yet to release MONTANA BELLE through their "On-Demand" DVD program of classic titles. They claim the actual 35mm film is in need of repair and cost prohibitive to do for a DVD release. Back in the 1990s, MONTANA BELLE was released on VHS in black and white with a disclaimer slate inserted at the beginning of the movie stating that this B&W version is the only known available copy. However, years later a color version popped up and has been airing on TCM as well as Encore Western. Although it's great to see in color, the available print is washed out and within single scenes visual quality alternates from fair to horrible, causing great distraction. Hopefully, MONTANA BELLE will receive the same treatment JOHNNY GUITAR has received with a pristine DVD/Blu-Ray release sometime in the near future.