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.
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.
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.