"The usual conception of Belle is all wrong. She was a beautiful southern girl whose recklessness ran away with her."
- Irving Cummings, 1941.
We last encountered Belle Starr in the appealing form of Jane Russell in Allan Dwan's 1948 oater Montana Belle, but you'd hardly recognize the lady in Irving Cummings's more ambitious 1941 epic. Neither version of Ms. Starr hews very closely to the known facts of her outlaw career, but the 1941 model, a Twentieth Century-Fox production, has a distinctive archetypal parentage. While the Dwan model is a generic female outlaw, the Cummings version shows the influence of two popular films from two years earlier: the same studio's Jesse James and the Selznick superproduction Gone With the Wind. While the film is supposedly based on a Burton Rascoe novel of the same name, its Belle Starr is the bastard offspring of the movie James and Scarlett O'Hara, and comes off more like Jesse James as some modern writers see him, as an anti-Reconstruction terrorist, than like the nebulous Belle Starr of history. Belle Starr the Bandit Queen is a highly romanticized tale that employs top studio talent -- the Technicolor cinematography is by Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan, and Alfred Newman is credited with the score -- in the service of outright evil.
Something will sound familiar to classic film fans as soon as the movie starts. The title music is taken from Newman's score for John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln -- or at least that's where I first heard the particular piece of music I think of as the Ann Rutledge theme. Take a break to check out this scene from the Ford film to hear what I mean. prlosolvidados uploaded it to YouTube.
Call me sentimental, but using this music as the theme to Belle Starr the Bandit Queen strikes me as just a bit blasphemous. But Cummings goes for the tears right from the start. He opens in romantically desolate fashion with a black man and his son (or grandson) plowing a field in what used to be the yard of a Missouri mansion, shadowed by the ruins of marble columns. The plow digs up a long-buried rag doll, and the old man guesses it must have belonged to Belle Starr when she was a little girl long ago. Who is Belle Starr? the boy asks. Why, she's what white folks call a "leggend," the old-timer explains, and a "leggend" is someone who never really dies.
We then travel back in time to see the mansion in its old-time splendor, when it was the home of the well-to-do Shirley family. The Shirleys have survived the Civil War in good shape and their faithful Mammy Lou (Louise Beavers) has stayed on. Still, vivacious Miss Belle Shirley (Gene Tierney) resents the Yankee occupation, except for an old beau of hers, Major Tom Crail (Dana Andrews). She resents even more the arrival of carpetbaggers, black and white. We see her disgust when she goes to town. Because the status of slave marriages is in doubt, hucksters are selling their services to perform marriages for a price so freedpeople won't be living in sin. That's the least offense. White men are promising the former slaves that the white estates will be broken up and the land given to the blacks -- and that blacks will be able to walk on the same sidewalks as whites. Cummings cuts to a shot of three fairly attractive black women done up in arriviste fashion giving the camera come-hither looks. He presents them as if their presence were outrageous or obscene -- as if that's how we're supposed to feel about it -- and some 1941 audiences certainly did.
Going on her haughty way, Miss Belle observes a wanted poster offering a reward for the capture of Sam Starr, an unreconstructed reb carrying on guerrilla warfare against the occupation. She applauds Starr's efforts within earshot of one of the outlaw's incognito comrades (Chill Wills), and before long Sam himself (Randolph Scott) is presenting himself at the Shirley mansion -- on the same night that the family is having Major Crail and other officers over for dinner. Belle insists on having a place set for Starr, whose men eventually take Crail hostage to ensure Sam's safe exit. However, a white trash lurker about town, Jasper Trench (Olin Howard), has seen this and tipped off the federal troops. A complicated situation ends with Crail reluctantly carrying out an order to burn any home that harbors outlaws. With the Shirley mansion put to the torch, Belle vows revenge and joins forces with Starr's guerrilla band. She proves useful in many ways, not least by being a natural crack shot. She demonstrates this by daintily putting a bullet dead-center through the leaf of a tree, then knocking the leaf off its stem with the next bullet. Starr is practically goggle-eyed, or as nearly goggle-eyed as Randolph Scott can get, by this display of prowess.
Belle is soon riding at Sam's side, taking the fight to the carpetbaggers. By way of illustration, Starr's band is shown chasing wagonloads of defenseless black people across a bridge. In a slapstick moment, one utterly victim falls off a wagon and has to scramble aboard another before he's run down. Sure, they go after the occasional federal supply train as well, but it looks like Belle's default mode of resistance is ethnic cleansing. Call me a PC killjoy, but the thought of audiences applauding these scenes is chilling.
To the writers' credit, the script has Belle begin to question her war against the Yankees -- not because of any atrocities perpetrated upon blacks, of course, but because Sam, her new husband, has started recruiting riffraff into his band, most notoriously the Cole brothers, who are living off the land by robbing ordinary (presumably white) Missourians. That's beyond the pale -- not what Belle was fighting for, but Sam writes it off as wartime expediency. His attitude seems to confirm the suspicions Belle's brother had expressed earlier about Sam's character -- perhaps an echo of the fact that the real Sam Starr was a Cherokee Indian. Belle quits the fight and gives Sam his ring back, but when she learns that Sam and his men have been set up for an ambush, she drops everything to ride to his rescue -- only to be shot from behind by Jasper Trench. Spoilers follow for those who care...
Belle Starr is dead for practically the final reel of the picture, which is dedicated to the making of her "leggend." Trench brings the body in to claim the price on her head and wants to buy everyone drinks before he cashes in, but word of his unchivalrous act has spread quickly and no one will share his cheer. The bartender won't even serve him. Even the black shoeshine boy regards him with contempt. Meanwhile, Tom Crail has possession of the body, but won't confirm that it's Belle, for whom he still carries a torch. He wants family members to identify the body. He gets Mammy Lou and Sam Starr, who arrive together -- whether Sam is surrendering or offering an implicit truce is unclear. Sam looks at the body, and says it isn't Belle. Mammy Lou looks, and says the same thing. Jasper is apoplectic and sees the truth of the matter, that no one, not even the Yankee officer, wants him to have the reward for backshooting a lady. But there's nothing he can do. Tom allows Sam a last moment alone with the "anonymous" corpse, on whose finger he replaces the wedding ring. He looks out a window and sees two black men in the town square talking of how Belle Starr apparently cheated death. One mentions to the other that the whites are already calling her a legend. Again, what does that mean? The answer in this case is that Belle can change her shape; she can turn into a red fox and slip away when the soldiers think they have her cornered. Sam regards this scene with approval and the film ends.
The insistently lachrymose tone of Belle Starr the Bandit Queen only makes its ugly aspects more grotesque. It reflects the then-prevalent consensus among American historians that Reconstruction was a "tragic era" of unjust exploitation of a defeated South, and the racist consensus that freed blacks were self-evidently unfit to participate in government at that time. Just like The Birth of a Nation, the filmmakers probably think they're doing blacks a favor, and getting themselves off the historical hook, by spotlighting Louise Beavers as a good Negro, a role model of servile loyalty. But it's no good even to write the script off as a product of its time -- this was the New Deal era, after all, and more should be expected from its artistic output. More so even than Gone With the Wind, which after all takes a somewhat critical view of its heroine's adaptation to modernity, Belle Starr idealizes a bathetic nostalgia for an utterly vanished (not to mention deservedly destroyed) world and makes a martyr out of its idealized femininity. It's also not very good as a movie. It's meant as an early showcase for Gene Tierney -- while Randolph Scott is actually top billed, she gets a title card all to herself after the lead players are introduced -- but her early Vivien Leigh impersonation never hardens into a convincing hellcat bandit. Had she brought her later Leave Her to Heaven game to this picture everyone might well tremble, but as contemporary critics noted, the picture doesn't really give her much to do once she turns guerrilla. She doesn't even come as close to being a female action hero as Jane Russell did years later; it's as if they wanted to preserve a certain saintliness in the character that might be sullied if she were shown actually shooting people. That's the horrific thing about this movie: everyone involved actually seemed to see their invented Belle Starr as some sort of avenging-angel martyr-saint for the Lost Cause -- at least one early reviewer equated the character with Joan of Arc. That's just sick, but that tone gives Belle Starr the Bandit Queen a retroactive transgressive charge that may give viewers a strange thrill today. They may even feel a little dirty afterward. Whether that's a recommendation or not is up to you.