BELLE STARR. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Randolph Scott, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, John Shepperd, Chill Wills, Louise Beavers. Director: Irving Cummings.

   This was the first sound film to pretend to tell the story of the notorious western outlaw named Belle Starr, and by all accounts, they messed it up pretty badly. Some of the names are the same, and an incident or two, perhaps, but that’s about all.

   As I understand it, Belle Starr was not even all that notorious in her lifetime. It was not until the time of her unsolved murder in 1889 that dime novels picked up her story, leading to a novel about her by Richard K. Fox, Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, published in 1889. Not too incidentally, Fox was also the publisher of the National Police Gazette, which had also been touting her exploits.

   In any case, the movie is entertaining enough, but from the opening scene, you know the intent was primarily to create a legend, be it based only on Technicolor and imagination. The movie begins with an old black man plowing a rocky field aside a burned out mansion telling his grandson the story of the woman who once lived there, and it ends with one black man telling another that Belle Starr will never die, because she is a legend.

   Belle Shirley is played by a young Gene Tierney, who is very pretty but not as beautiful on screen as she grew to be. Even so she is better looking than the real Belle Starr by a multiplicative factor of 100 or more. The story takes place in Missouri, but Tierney’s southern accent and mansion makes it seem as though the film was set in Georgia. (Cue for “Tara’s Theme.”)

   Miss Belle, as portrayed in the movie at least, is a Southerner through and through, even after the war is over, and when she meets Captain Sam Starr, a rebel turned bandit still fighting the Yankee troops and carpetbaggers busily taking over the state, she gives him shelter, at the cost of her home being burned (Dana Andrews’ character, Union major Thomas Crail, a former sweetheart, comes into play here), and she and her brother end up being declared outlaws.

   Captain Starr is played by Randolph Scott, as upright and soft-spoken then as he was in later films. Eventually he and Belle marry, she taking up his cause as thoroughly as he. Until, that is, she realizes that perhaps he is taking his killing and marauding too far.

   From this point on, though, you’ll have to watch the film yourself. It’s likable enough. You just have to realize that it’s made up of whole cloth only, planting the seeds for the legend that grew from there.