At the end of the American Civil War southern beauty Belle Starr (Gene Tierney) welcomes home her brother Ed (Shepperd Strudwick) among the returning soldiers who lost the Confederate cause. Yet while Ed accepts his lot, plucky Belle remains defiant against the Yankee carpetbaggers and new laws telling proud Missourri folk what they can and cannot do. In a show of defiance Belle invites Sam Starr (Randolph Scott), handsome captain of a ragtag group of rebels, into her house for dinner right in front of Union officer Thomas Crail (Dana Andrews). On military orders, in spite of his feelings for Belle, Major Crail has his men burn down her house before arresting Sam. This spurs Belle to spring Sam from jail whereupon she joins his outlaw army and puts her sharpshooting skills to use fighting Yankee invaders.
This sugar-coated biopic does not let a little thing like historical accuracy get in the way of a rattling romantic yarn. For the record the real Belle Starr – or Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr which was her full name – was a notorious outlaw and prostitute in the Old West. She rode with Jesse James, was romantically involved with both Sam Starr (whom she did indeed marry) and Cole Younger and had no real political motivations behind her actions. Needless to say she bore no resemblance whatsoever to the heart-meltingly lovely Gene Tierney. Tierney's mega-wattage movie star charisma goes some way towards making this saccharine tosh palatable although no fan would rate this her finest hour.
Remarkably, Belle Starr was scripted by Lamar Trotti who penned John Ford's superb Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and the equally laudable The Ox-Bow Incident (1941) along with the original Cheaper By the Dozen (1950). Yet this film serves up a crass, sentimentalized vision of the Old South heavily influenced by Gone with the Wind (1939) with noble plantation owners fighting only to protect their freedom (including the right to enslave other human beings) and inexplicably beloved by their faithful black servants. The film holds up Belle as a heroine somehow emblematic of the Antebellum South, a gusty, defiant proto-feminist who risks all for her cause and her man. Yet it regrettably weds these heroic qualities to some deeply dubious politics. While Belle exhibits nothing but love for her Mammy Lou (Louise Beavers) the film exudes outrage over images of newly-freed slaves whooping it up in the streets and black women wearing pretty frocks once reserved for their white mistresses. Gasp! For a modern audience the casual racism is hard to bear no matter how jokey the tone, whether it is Sam calling Mammy an Ethiopian elephant or Ed's reoccurring monologue (“Did I ever tell you the story of the old darkie...”).
Still, one suspects Trotti's script was heavily altered once Twentieth Century Fox brought on board Irving Cummings, the veteran actor turned producer-director best known for splashy Technicolor musicals involving the likes of Betty Grable, Shirley Temple or Alice Faye, who was actually set to star as Belle until last minute casting changes. Having said that Cummings was Oscar nominated for In Old Arizona (1929), an accomplished western adventure detailing the exploits of O. Henry's the Cisco Kid, and the first talkie filmed outdoors. While Belle's arc is much the same as that of Scarlett O'Hara, transitioning from spoiled, naive rich girl to conscience-stricken heroine, the script does not let her or Sam entirely off the hook. As Ed points out their actions only plunge Missouri deeper into turmoil. When Sam's merry outlaws are joined by the Cole brothers, Belle rightly pegs them as fellows who could not give a hoot for the South and what they are fighting for. Sure enough, tragedy ensues and she is left wondering whether Sam really feels the same way about things. The depiction of how the carpetbaggers' callous destruction of the South sowed seeds of embitterment that endured well into the twentieth century carries a grain of truth but this is not the film that grapples with the complexities underlining such issues. Further Belle Starr movies followed down the years with Jane Russell bringing some va-va-voom to the role in Montana Belle (1952) and Elsa Martinelli no less glamorous in Lina Wertmuller's spaghetti western oddity The Belle Starr Story (1968) but only Pamela Reed got the closest to a relatively accurate portrayal of the lady outlaw in Walter Hill's late western The Long Riders (1980).