Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tonight's Movie: Belle Starr (1941)

After watching THE TALL TARGET (1951) last night, tonight I decided to stay in the Civil War era by watching BELLE STARR (1941), also known as BELLE STARR: THE BANDIT QUEEN. Gene Tierney, the star of Friday night's movie RINGS ON HER FINGERS (1942), plays Belle, a Missourian who refuses to accept that the South has lost the Civil War.

Tierney seems, especially in the early scenes, to be channeling more than a little of Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara in her portrayal of flirtatious, temperamental Southern loyalist Belle. It's a bit disconcerting at first hearing Tierney with a high-pitched Southern accent, rather than her usual smoother tones, though perhaps it wasn't as much of a shock as hearing Tierney's Brooklyn accent in RINGS ON HER FINGERS! Ultimately, however, it's an interesting performance, in part because -- like the heroine of RINGS ON HER FINGERS -- it's a fairly unusual role for Tierney. Belle becomes a wild woman, a vengeful crack shot who is comfortable living a rugged outlaw life in the service of the cause she believes in, the South. As Moira Finnie aptly noted in the comments for RINGS ON HER FINGERS, BELLE STARR is "a distinctly aggressive role for her [Tierney] with echoes of Scarlett O'Hara."

Randolph Scott and Dana Andrews are the men in Tierney's life. Andrews unfortunately doesn't get to do much more than look pained in his role as a Northern major who once loved Belle, but Scott imbues the Rebel Sam Starr with rascally charm and subtly but convincingly portrays Sam's gradual slide into becoming more outlaw than soldier. John Shepperd, who was later known as Shepperd Strudwick, plays Belle's devoted brother; Shepperd also appeared with Tierney in RINGS ON HER FINGERS. The supporting cast includes Chill Wills, Elizabeth Patterson, and Louise Beavers.

The film is a bit of a curiosity from an historical perspective, in terms of its treatment of African-Americans. There are some terms and attitudes which I found uncomfortable as a modern viewer, even acknowledging that the film is portraying the vastly different post Civil War era of nearly a century and a half ago, and that the film is structured to engender a certain sympathy for its Southern heroine. It's one of those interesting questions -- what about the film reflects the filmmakers' attempts to portray the Civil War era vs. what attitudes in the film are reflective of the year it was made, 1941.

All in all, the film isn't an especially good one, but it's entertaining enough, particularly if one enjoys the cast. The vivid Fox Technicolor, which highlights Tierney's remarkable beauty, is a definite plus.

The main theme music for BELLE STARR is Alfred Newman's "Ann Rutledge Theme," which somewhat ironically was composed for John Ford's YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939). It seems a bit of a strange choice to use in scoring a movie about a Rebel heroine! The music was also later used memorably in Ford's THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). The busy Newman had a habit of recycling his themes; for instance, the theme for STREET SCENE (1931) was used again in I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941), CRY OF THE CITY (1948), and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953), among others, while his BRIGHAM YOUNG (1940) music reappeared in YELLOW SKY (1948) and RAWHIDE (1951).

The movie was directed by Irving Cummings, whose three-decade directing career included a number of Betty Grable films; Cummings also acted in silent movies. The film runs 87 minutes.

BELLE STARR is not yet available on video or DVD, but it can be seen on cable periodically on Fox Movie Channel.


Blogger Moira Finnie said...

Hi Laura,
I should have warned you about the incipient racism in a movie such as Belle Starr, which romanticizes the Old South, and the real Belle, who was NOT a fair flower of southern womanhood, but a very tough cookie.

I primarily watched it because, though she may seem to be glacially unaware of her characters' subtexts, Tierney interests me, whether she's playing vixens or virgins or something in between and more complex. Coming very early in her career at Fox, this one is not one of the more complex films, though, as you pointed out, Randolph Scott is enjoyable (as usual). I primarily enjoyed the cinematography of Ernest Palmer and his color special asst., Ray Rennahan in this movie, which included some beautifully shot scenes, (in particular the last time we see Belle).

I often think that films of this ilk should come with a printed disclaimer at the beginning, explaining that racial attitudes and characterizations from the period of popular entertainment were very different back in the studio era. It would be a good forewarning to parents especially, who might want to discuss such issues with younger viewers before or during the film. The one good thing about these movies is that they led to the employment of African American performers--making them visible and, despite the script, important.

Though black actors such as Louise Beavers playing stereotypes received some heat from understandably concerned organizations trying to upgrade the depiction the Negro on film at that time, there was a subversive element to the mere presence of a Black man or woman in a story. Besides, as the comparatively well paid Hattie McDaniel once explained, when confronted by those who objected to her roles as demeaning, "I'd rather play a maid than be one."

I was oddly touched at the end of this movie by actor Clinton Rosemund as the older black man on the bench who helps to perpetuate the myth of Belle Starr by telling her tale to a youngster. Belle was hardly a sympathetic, progressive or sterling character, but that in itself made her more intriguing as a female figure, who could be played by an actress who was clearly marked for stardom. I think that it was in many ways a crude and clumsy movie, but intriguing because of this aspect of conscious myth-making.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for adding your perceptive comments, Moira, I enjoyed them very much.

There's nothing quite like the way Fox used Technicolor! My daughter has been fortunate to study under Drew Casper from USC's Cinema School over the last couple years, and I was able to sit in on a session where he waxed eloquent on that topic ("the cyan! the canary yellow!"). The movie would be worth seeing if only to look at, and I enjoyed it quite a bit more than that, despite its flaws.

Re the film and myth-making, it occurs to me that this film shares its theme music with another movie which focused on this very topic of Western myth-making, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. Funny coincidence! From BELLE STARR we get that legend is "the best part of the truth," and from LIBERTY VALANCE we get "When legend becomes fact, print the legend." This would be an interesting double bill!

Best wishes,

1:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Gene Tierney doesn't do it for me...she is no Vivan Leigh and boy can she ham it up. with that phony, southern accent. The only good thing about this movie was the Technicolor.

7:15 AM  

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