Belle Starr (1941)

 

 

 

 

Director:     Irving Cummings.

Starring:     Randolph Scott (Sam Starr), Gene Tierney (Miss Belle / Belle Starr), Dana Andrews (Maj. Thomas Crail), Shepperd Strudwick (Ed Shirley), Elizabeth Patterson (Sarah), Chill Wills (Blue Duck), Louise Beavers (Mammy Lou), Olin Howland (Jasper Trench), Paul E. Burns (Sergeant), Joe Sawyer (John Cole), Joe Downing (Jim Cole), Howard C. Hickman (Colonel Thornton), Charles Trowbridge (Colonel Bright), James Flavin (Sergeant), Charles Middleton (Carpetbagger).

The glamorous Gene Tierney just does not make it as the notorious Belle Starr.

 

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Missouri.  An old black farmer is plowing an area and the plow uncovers an old, filthy doll.  The farmer's granddaughter picks up the doll and asks her grandfather about it.  Grandfather looks at it and says that doll was probably once owned by Miss Belle Star who used to live in the old plantation, that is now just ruins.

Flashback.  A man and a boy come to the plantation to see Miss Belle Shirley. His name is Jasper Trench and he is trying to sell a horse to Miss Belle.  The black maid named Mammy Lou tries to chase the man off saying that Miss Belle is sleeping and cannot be disturbed.  Miss Belle comes home driving a buggy and Mammy Lou tries to discourage her from even talking to this no-account rascal.  But Belle wants to see the horse and does talk to Jasper Trench.  She says that Trench stole this horse.  It used to belong to her brother, but they sold the horse.  Then she describes the long line of owners the horse subsequently had until she finishes with Ed Miller and Trench stole it from Ed Miller.  Trench denies that, but Belle ignores him and says she's not going to call the law on him because Ed Miller is just a Yankee anyway.  Belle gets on the horse and then she tells Mammy Lou to give the man his $500 dollars, but in Confederate money.  She now takes off riding the horse fast away from the plantation house, leaving Trench to protest he can't take any more Confederate money of which he has a whole trunk load. 

On her ride she passes by an old hay wagon.  A returning Confederate soldier in the back of the wagon yells after her.  She stops her horse and looks around and sees that it's her brother Andy (or Ed).  The two are very happy to see each other, but Belle is worried that some Yankee might see him.  Andy says they don't have to worry about Yankees now because the war is over.  General Lee surrendered.  This leaves Belle very upset and she says that Missouri will fight on.  Andy says Missouri cannot fight on.  To do so would mean the entire destruction of the state.   Ever defiant, Belle says the war hasn't ended for her. 

In town a carpetbagger from up North describes to people how they are going to run all the rebels out of town.  The blacks are listening intently to what the white man says.  They are very happy and celebrating the defeat of the Confederacy.  They play music and dance in the streets.  Some wealthier blacks show up in a fancy buggy with fancy clothes and colorful umbrellas.  Of course, all this makes Belle very upset.  Yankee Major Thomas Crail of Missouri runs into Belle and talks with her and her brother.  Belle gives a reluctant greeting to their old friend.  Her brother says Thomas will just have to forgive Belle, because she is going to continue fighting the war.  Thomas brushes the whole thing off saying that different people fought on different sides, but they did so because they believed in their cause.  He points over at a wanted sign for a man named Sam Starr.  He says Starr has become an outlaw and if he can catch the man he will have him hanged.  Seeing as how Thomas despises the man, Belle likes the man and defends his actions. 

Andy invites the major over to their house on Saturday for dinner.  On Saturday Thomas shows her that he still carries a locket with her picture in it.  At dinner time Mr. Sam Starr knocks on the door.  He tells Belle that he heard she defended his good name to Major Tom and that Belle is a very beautiful woman.  Belle invites Mr. Starr to dinner and shocks everyone.  After dinner Starr quietly goes with Tom.  Outside Tom pulls his gun and arrests Sam Starr.  But Sam didn't come alone.  He has his whole gang of ex-Confederates with him and they disarm the major.  Sam Starr returns now to the party saying that the major was called away on urgent business. 

Jasper Trench and his boy see the Confederate uniforms and realize the situation is not a good one.  Jasper decides to go tell the Yankee soldiers to come to the Shirley Plantation. 

Starr and Belle seem to hit it off.  He tells her good night but promises to see her again.  He then goes over to his gang and talks to the major for a few moments.  The Confederates are getting ready to leave when here comes a Yankee patrol chasing after the rebs.  The Confederates leave in a hurry.  There is a running battle between the two groups.  Starr is wounded and falls into the corn field.  The Yankees pass right past him without seeing him. 

Mammy Lou consoles Belle about the evening.  A Confederate takes Starr over to the Shirley Plantation to be patched up.  Starr doesn't want to be taken into the plantation because it could get the plantation family into trouble with the Yankees, but Belle insists on seeing to his wound.  Belle's brother comes in and tells her she shouldn't be harboring this man.  Starr is in total agreement with Ed.

And here come the Yankees back from chasing Starr's gang.  The major found a blood soaked rag on the front lawn of the plantation and now wants to know if Belle is harboring a Confederate in the house.  Belle denies it and so does brother Ed, but Thomas demands to search the house.  So now Belle pulls a pistol on the major and she tells him not to come a step closer up the stairs.  It looks like Belle may shoot the major, but again Starr gallantly appears to defuse the situation with some smooth talking.  He tells the major to be careful because Belle just might shoot.  Starr turns himself in more or less.  The major also arrests Ed Shirley.  He also says he is under orders to burn the house of any person harboring a fugitive. 

Jasper Trench starts lighting the drapes on fire in the house.  The major has to forcefully remove Belle from the burning house.

Now Belle decides to join the gang of southern outlaws.  Ex-soldier Blue Duck in a Yankee uniform takes her up into the hills to the hideout.  Mrs. Blue Duck sees a man in a union uniform and takes a shot at him.  A little later Blue Duck makes his identity known and takes Belle up to the hideout. 

Belle smuggles a pistol into Sam Starr in the jail house.  With the pistol and help from many confederates, Starr, Ed and Belle all escape.

Belle wants to be sworn in as a gang member.  Starr says she doesn't even know how to shoot.  But Belle does know how to shoot and she proves it by putting a hole through a leaf.  

Ed wants to go back home.  He tells Belle that she is starting to become a bandit.  She is going to be throwing her life away with this course of action.  But Belle feels righteously indignant about the way the Yankees are treating people like her. 

And so begins a life of banditry.  People flock to be a part of the Starr-Shirley gang.  Starr comes to have a small army.  The paper says the authorities are powerless to do much of anything given the non-cooperation of the southern natives. 

In the hills Starr and his gang get in a skirmish with the government forces.

Belle finally kisses Starr and soon they get married with lots of wedding guests.  Starr tells his guests that he is seeking political office if things keep going this well for him and his wife. 

The three Cole brothers come to join Starr's gang.  Belle doesn't like their looks.  She doesn't trust them.  The fellows rode with Quantrill, the murderous bandit and raider posing as a southern patriot. 

While Belle sleeps, Starr and the Cole brothers go rob a train. 

Ed comes up to see his sister. He warns her that her gang is attracting the scum of the south.  He gives the Cole brothers as an example.  He says they're no good.  Ed even says that they are ruining Missouri.  He asks Belle to come home with him or move to another state.  Belle, however, is staying overly faithful to her husband regardless of what's happening.

The Cole brothers see a stranger on the road.  They shoot Ed off his horse.  Belle hears the shot and comes running to see what happened to Ed.  By a small stream he dies in Belle's arms. 

When Starr gets home, Belle tells him that Ed's dead.  Somebody shot him.  She tells her husband that some of their men are just no good.  Sam says this is war and these are the things that happen in war.  She asks Sam to go with her to Texas.  Sam say he will go with her as soon as he finishes one more job.  He talks about kidnapping the governor of Missouri.  She says it's not freedom, but ransom, the Cole brothers are after.  She gives Sam back his wedding ring and leaves.  She rides to a shack where Mammy Lou is living.  Belle sends Mammy Lou into town to tell the major about the plan to kidnap the governor.

When Mammy Lou gets into town, the place looks deserted.   Then she notices that there are lots of Union soldiers in hiding.  They are just waiting for Sam and Belle to come into town, so they can kill them.  Mammy Lou returns to her shack and tells Belle about what's happening.  She says she has to go warn her husband.  She rides back up into the hills to the hideout.  When she arrives she realizes that the men have already left to go into town.  So Belle is determined to catch up with them. 

Belle comes riding hard.  Jasper Trench sees Belle riding fast and shoots her off her horse.  He goes into town to the bar to celebrate, but the townspeople shun him. 

Starr and Mammy Lou come riding into town, she on a horse and Mammy Lou in her buggy.  Starr goes in to surrender himself to Major Crail.  He wants to see the body to make sure it's Belle.  Starr and Mammy Lou say that the body is not that of Belle Starr.  This way they can prevent Jasper Trench from getting any reward money. 

Alone with the body Starr puts Belle's wedding ring back on her wedding finger. 

And the legend of Belle Starr starts growing. 

 

 

 

The DVD from Loving the Classics was of very poor quality and had many stoppages in it.  The picture quality was also poor.  Oh, well, I persevered through the many problems to get the story of the movie.  The film is very pro-Southern taking a very sympathetic stance toward the problems facing the rebels after the war.  It tells the same old racist lies that constitute the traditional racist view of southern history.  At times it's a bit like the racist Birth of a Nation

The movie is a lot like Gone with the Wind which is also overly sentimental about its heroine. 

The real story of Belle Starr would have been much more interesting, but no.  They chose to make a pro-Southern film in which the main character actually blames the North for all the problems of the South.  Southern racists and many other American racists refuse to take any responsibility for their terrible history of crimes against humanity.  I had little or no sympathy for Belle Starr throughout the movie.  I actually felt justice had been done when she was shot and killed.  We still have the curse of racism going on very strongly in the United States and I'm not cheering for any racist, even one as pretty as Gene Tierney.

The movie is a good one to watch like Birth of a Nation to show the inherent racism that still pervades many Americans' views of American history.

 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 


Historical Background:

Belle Starr was not that bad herself, but she kept hanging out with bad men, aiding and abetting them.

???? -- born Myra Maybelle Shirley in Carthage, Missouri; her father was a respected member of the community.

Belle attended the Carthage Female Academy where she was a bright student. From this good beginning, everything changed with the coming of rough times.

1861-1865 --  Civil War. Missouri ravaged by warring bands of raiders, some pro-South, others pro-North. John Shirley, Belle's father, was economically ruined by the war.

1864 -- her older brother Bud, who joined Quantrill's Raiders, was killed trying to get away from Federal troops who had surrounded the house where he was being fed.

The Shirley family moves to Texas, near Dallas. Bank robber Cole Younger visited the Shirley residence once.

1866 -- she marries outlaw Jim Reed.

1868 -- in Missouri Belle gives birth to her daughter, Pearl.

1869 -- the Reed family heads for California after Jim Reed kills a man to avenge the death of his older brother Scott Reed.

1871 -- Belle gives birth to James Edwin Reed; later they return to Texas, outside Dallas.

1873 -- Jim Reed and his band involved in two cold-blooded murders.

1874 -- Jim Reed shot and killed by former acquaintance, John T. Morris, acting as deputy.

1880 -- Belle marries Sam Starr, three-quarters Cherokee.  She spends many years in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). 

1882 -- Belle and Sam accused of horse stealing.

1883 -- Belle and Sam convicted and sent to prison, both for a year.

1886 -- in a gunfight, Sam Starr and Frank West, old enemies, kill each other.

??? -- Belle marries Bill July (alias Jim Starr).

1889, Feb 2 -- Belle, while horseback riding, murdered from ambush by unknown assailant in Eufaula, Oklahoma.

1889 -- Bill July mortally wounded by a deputy.

 

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