Outlaws of the female persuasion
Myra Maybelle Starr, glamorously portrayed below, 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), below too, 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 historical nonsense than usual but that’s never stopped us enjoying a fun Western, has it?
By the late 40s Fox were making some seriously good little black & white Westerns but this one wasn’t quite that brilliant. Never mind.
Belle Starr’s Daughter is really pretty basic (its budget must have been minimal) and it resembles some of those 30s programmers aimed at kids, with rudimentary sets, melodramatic music, so-so photography and dodgy writing. But it was directed by Lesley Selander, so that was good – he was an extremely experienced helmsman of oaters, and very good at the action scenes. And as I say, cheapie or no, it was a lot of fun.
Tall and rugged Canadian-born Cameron had come to Hollywood and started in Westerns in the late 30s with small parts, getting lead parts in them from 1944 on. In ’45 he did two for Universal with Yvonne De Carlo – and, to be brutally frank (and when is your Jeff anything less?) they were pretty bad too – but they were popular, so what do I know? By 1948 Rod was well established in the saddle and as well as Belle Starr at Fox he did another Universal picture with De Carlo, River Lady, and the enjoyable Panhandle, also with Selander, at Allied Artists, as well as The Plunderers under Joe Kane at Republic. Strike it Rich at AA was an oilman comedy but if you want to count that as an oater (it wasn’t really), that one was with Selander too!
Though he often headlined the cast, Rod was also perfectly 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, Dan Duyrea or, as in this case, George Montgomery. Montgomery plays the lawman, Marshal Tom Jackson, who hunts the outlaws down.
Montgomery was never really likely to set the prairies on fire, or indeed win an Oscar, but he was a solid Western vet who appeared in no fewer than 61 big-screen Westerns between 1935 and 1972, not to mention all those TV shows, notably of course Cimarron City, so respect, George. At 6′ 3″ (1.91 m), George was no midget, for sure, but alongside 6′ 5″ (1.96 m) and beefy Rod, he looked slightly less imposing maybe.
The screenplay of Belle Starr’s Daughter was written by the famous WR Burnett, one of the most influential Western writers of them all, so it should have been much, much better than the frankly 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, also in ’48, 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!” But you know, we just smile fondly. There’s a thin (maybe actually non-existent) line between affectionate quotation and downright cliché in the Western movie.
Isabell Jewell plays Belle Starr and she had form: she’d also been Belle in RKO’s Badman’s Territory 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…
The beautiful Ruth Roman, 25, is her daughter Rose. Ms Roman was still quite 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, no less, in Dallas and Randolph Scott (gasp) in Colt .45 in 1950, and then, as if that wasn’t enough, 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 liked 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. But anyway, where were we?
We have some good character actors in the plot. Wallace Ford, always enjoyable, 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. The always entertaining Charles Kemper 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 the excellent 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. So that’s a pretty good line-up.
We are not in Oklahoma as we might expect 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. Sigh.
There is one of those ‘I’ll be waiting for you when you get out of jail’ endings that we may just have seen one or two (million) times before..
It’s all pretty standard material, to be honest, and all the actors, as well as the director and writer and the studio were capable of much better. But it rattles along, is quite amusing and stands up well as a lesser offering in that remarkable Western year of 1948.
Well, e-pards, Season 1 of Jeff Arnold’ West’s show 1948 draws to a close. Just one more episode. Naturally, we’ll end on a high. Then you’ll have to wait till the fall for Season 2. That’s what Netflix does.