"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Belle Starr’s Daughter (Fox, 1948)


Outlaws of the female persuasion




 
 
Myra Maybelle Starr (left), usually known as Belle, 1848 – 89, was a colorful character whom Hollywood loved to feature. She was an associate of the James-Younger gang and was known as Queen of the Oklahoma Outlaws. Rose Dunn (1878 – 1955), known as Rose of Cimarron, was another movie favorite. As a teenager, she was romantically involved with outlaw George ‘Bittercreek’ Newcomb, one of the Dalton/Doolin gang. Fox’s 1948 picture Belle Starr’s Daughter combines the stories, making Belle Rose’s mother and featuring as bad guy ‘Bittercreek Yauntis’ Rod Cameron. It was even more of a farrago than usual.

By the early 50s Fox were making some seriously good little black & white B-Westerns but in 1948 they hadn’t quite got there yet. Belle Starr’s Daughter is really pretty ropy and is resembles some of those 30s programmers aimed at kids, with cheap sets, corny music, so-so photography and dodgy writing. It was directed by Lesley Selander, so at least that was good – he was an extremely experienced helmsman of oaters, and very good at the action scenes.
 
Selander
 
Cameron had started in Westerns in the late 30s with small parts and got lead parts in them from 1944 on. In ’45 he did two for Universal with Yvonne De Carlo - and very bad they were too but they were popular. By 1948 he was well established in the saddle and as well as Belle Starr he did another with De Carlo, and the enjoyable Panhandle and The Plunderers. ’48 was of course a great year for the genre, with truly great Westerns such as Red River, Fort Apache and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre coming out, as well as lesser but still seriously classy oaters such as Blood on the Moon, Yellow Sky, or Coroner Creek, but cheap black & white B-Westerns with few pretensions carried on as well – there were dozens and dozens of them.

Rod Cameron often headlined the cast in B-Westerns but he was also often content to play second or even third fiddle. De Carlo topped the billing in the pictures they did together and Cameron also co-starred with the likes of Rory Calhoun or, as in this case, George Montgomery. Montgomery plays the lawman, Marshal Tom Jackson, who hunts the outlaws down. Montgomery was always on the bland side, I thought, a rather wishy-washy Western lead, but that gave Rod the chance to shine more. Cameron’s large frame and imposing presence was quite impressive.

The screenplay was written by WR Burnett (right), one of the most influential film writers of them all, so should have been much, much better than the silly story he turned out for this picture. Burnett had hit the big time with Little Caesar but Westernwise he was involved in the likes of the 1932 Law and Order, The Westerner, Dark Command, San Antonio and Yellow Sky. It was an impressive list. You wouldn’t know it, though, judging by Belle Starr’s Daughter. There's even a line, "Head for the hills!"

Isabell Jewell plays Belle Starr and she’d also been Belle in RKO’s Badman’sTerritory two years before. Starr’s actual death is shrouded in mystery; she was murdered, shot in the back with a shotgun, and there are various theories as to who did it or why, but no one knows for sure. So it could have been Rod Cameron, I suppose…
 
Ruth Roman, 25, is her daughter Rose (the real Rose Dunn, left). Beautiful Roman (below) was still pretty well unknown, and Westernwise she’d only had small parts in a Roy Rogers oater and a Ken Maynard one. She would get her big break the year after Belle Starr’s Daughter as wife of boxer Kirk Douglas, and, on the range, would get to lead opposite Gary Cooper in Dallas and Randolph Scott in Colt .45 in 1950, and then opposite James Stewart in The Far Country in 1954. But in ’48 all those roles were yet to come. She does OK as Rose, and is in the tradition of girl-with-a-low-slung-gunbelt and pants that the period was fond of, though she isn’t given much in the script to allow her to shine. But I always rather fancied Ruth Roman in Westerns so I was pleased to see her here in an early part, when her grace is already more than evident. I think she was one of the great screen beauties of the era. If you can bear to watch a non-Western, see her in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.
 
The beautiful Ruth Roman

We have some enjoyable character actors in the plot. Wallace Ford, always entertaining, is Belle’s rather timid (and alcoholic) henchman. It’s amusing when he is in profile with Cameron, Rod being about double Wallace’s height. Charles Kemper (right) is Montgomery’s plump deputy, almost a comic-relief sidekick, J Farrell MacDonald is the doc, Chris-Pin Martin is a restaurateur (he was so often a café owner or barman) and Jack Lambert is one of the vicious villains. Kenneth MacDonald is Belle’s brother, also gunned down by Rod. You can spot Harry Harvey in a bit part. There’s even Henry Hull as Montgomery’s predecessor as marshal, shot to death in the first reel – in fact in the first two minutes of the movie, so he doesn't have time to start overacting.
 
Wallace and Rod in the saloon
 
We are not in Oklahoma but in the town of Antioch, New Mexico Territory (which they all pronounce Annie-ock) in the 1880s. Belle Starr, out on Cherokee Flats, has come to an uneasy truce with the town. They have agreed a stand-off. But Bittercreek and his sidekick Yuma (William Phipps) break the truce by shooting Marshal Hull and all hell is let loose.

Pocket pistols play an important part in the plot, though sadly they are not proper derringers.
 
Principals Montgomery, Roman, Cameron
 
There is one of those corny ‘I’ll be waiting for you when you get out of jail’ endings.

It’s all pretty low-grade stuff, to be honest, and all the actors, and the director and writer and the studio were capable of much better. I was tempted to award it only a one Jeff Arnold revolver rating. Thank goodness for the supporting cast; it just made it to two.



 

2 comments:

  1. Very nice and fair minded write up Jeff,although I think I enjoyed the
    film a bit more than you did.
    I sure wish George Montgomery worked with Selander more than just the two
    pictures that they did together.

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    Replies
    1. Although I like Rod (and Ruth) I do tend to be a bit down on G. Montgomery Westerns, perhaps unfairly.
      Jeff

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