It can’t be a surprise to anyone that a blatantly derivative movie like 20th Century-Fox’s Belle Starr (subtitled “The Bandit Queen”) tried its damnedest to rip off David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind (1939). The first time I saw Belle Starr I was expecting an all-out western, with its title-role star, Gene Tierney, decked out in stylish cowboy hats and tight-fitting jeans. But for most of the picture the lovely young Tierney, a one-year novice in movies, is seen in long dresses with cinched waists. As Belle Shirley, a Missouri Southerner and every inch a Southern belle, Tierney was given the impossible task of trying to live up to Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and make us forget her. The deck was stacked against Tierney because everything about her film triggers shameless and unfortunate reminders of GWTW, Leigh, Hattie McDaniel, you name it. Tierney was a beautiful young woman (with a famous overbite) whose dark hair and fair complexion were quite similar to Leigh’s. The hairdressers took this further, giving Tierney one of Leigh’s Scarlett hairdos, thus making the comparison even more unavoidable.
Belle is a devout Confederate who, like Scarlett, has held on to her plantation throughout the war’s duration, seemingly through sheer force of will. As the film begins, the war is over, but not the bitterness or the resentments of true believers like Belle. As for her acting, Tierney, who went on to do good work in films like Laura (1944) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), is in way over her head. She’s an overanimated imitation of Leigh, with a touch much too heavy to be considered charming. She really pounds her Southern accent and gives overly deliberate line readings, often leading to shrill overacting. There’s plenty of wide-eyed pouting, “vixen” behavior, and eyebrow-raising, but without the sly wit to make it humorous, interesting, or, well, irresistible. Then you’ve got Louise Beavers on hand to recreate McDaniel’s Mammy, here cunningly differentiated with the name “Mammy Lou.” She even gets a crying scene like McDaniel’s. Of course, Belle shouts ”Fiddlesticks!” to Mammy Lou (who tells her that she’s “so full of the devil”). Like Scarlett, Belle often does things that a “lady” shouldn’t. When Sam Starr (Randolph Scott) is shot in the behind, Belle insists on tending to the wound, despite the protestations of everyone, including Scott himself. It takes nothing less than the arrival of Union soldiers to stop her from pulling down his pants. When the soldiers enter the house, we get another GWTW reminder: Belle, on a staircase, pulling a gun on a Yankee.
The failure is not all Tierney’s fault. Despite the fast pace and the colorful (some would say “garish”) production, it’s a defiantly mediocre and hollow movie, almost never convincing. The direction of Irving Cummings is content to remain squarely on the surface of things. Top-billed Scott performs as if he hasn’t read the script, merely showing up to give his usual performance, his easygoing, sort-of charming hunk-of-man shtick. Did no one tell him that he’s essentially playing the bad guy? Perhaps not, because Scott seems stuck in his gentlemanly mode, even as his character continues to fight the war, more recklessly as the movie proceeds, eventually becoming an out-and-out criminal. It might have been an interesting role—the “patriot” whose convictions have inadvertently veered off course—but Scott isn’t capable of ambiguity. After Sam and Belle wed, she becomes disenchanted with his lack of honor. But there’s never any threat or danger in Scott, who’s simply not up to the task of revealing Sam’s disintegrating morals. (This was a long time before his best work, in Budd Boetticher westerns and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country.)
The best performance comes from Shepperd Strudwick (then known as John Shepperd) as Tierney’s sensitive, gentle, very honorable brother. He’s a Southern gentleman in the Ashley Wilkes mold, yet another very definite reminder of GWTW. A mustachioed Dana Andrews plays a Union major smitten with Belle (though he does burn her mansion to the ground, providing the film with its big fire sequence, the closest it comes to GWTW‘s burning of Atlanta.) Tierney and Andrews were three years away from being dynamite together in Laura.
I realize that Technicolor is one of the main offerings of this kind of movie. All I’ll say about that is this: Tierney certainly packed a lot of bright red lipstick for her renegade life with Scott. Does anyone need to look that glamorous when hiding out in the hills?