skip navigation
Starring Gene Tierney
Remind Me
,Belle Starr

Belle Starr

The success of MGM's Gone with the Wind (1939) spawned many copycats, among them 20th Century Fox's Belle Starr (1941), a highly romanticized Technicolor biopic of the flamboyant Old West outlaw queen. Born Myra Belle Shirley in Carthage, Missouri, in 1848, the classically educated school girl aided the Confederacy during the Civil War by reporting the positions of Union troops. A childhood friend of Cole Younger, later partner in crime to Jesse James, she attained outlaw status with the death of her first husband, Jim Reed, a failed farmer who had turned to banditry and was gunned down while in flight from a sheriff's deputy. Taking up with a Cherokee rustler and bootlegger named Samuel Starr, she adopted his surname and made herself useful fencing stolen goods and providing sanctuary for outlaws on the run from the law. In and out of the Fort Smith, Arkansas courtroom of "Hanging" Judge Isaac Parker, Belle Starr spent time in a Michigan prison before being murdered in Oklahoma's Choctaw Nation on February 3, 1889, just days shy of her 41st birthday.

20th Century Fox executives had learned of the exploits of the celebrated bandit queen via an article by Cameron Rogers, son in law of humorist Irvin S. Cobb. First published in the Pictorial Review in February 1927, "Belle Starr, the Gadfly of the South" was later included in Cameron's book Gallant Ladies. Buying an option on the story, Fox assigned a number of writers to work with Rogers on a screenplay treatment, among them Harvey F. Thew (credited with the adaptation of William Wellman's The Public Enemy, 1931), John L. Balderston (of Dracula [1931] fame) and Sonya Levien (who later shared a screenplay credit for Oklahoma!, 1955). A June 1941 item in The Hollywood Reporter leaked word of "a hushed-up battle over the original story credit" for Belle Starr; the story credit in the finished film would eventually go to Rogers and Niven Busch, who had shared with Jo Swerling credit for writing William Wyler's The Westerner (1940), starring Gary Cooper.

Initially, Belle Starr had been placed in the capable hands of utility director Roy Del Ruth, who had just wrapped the ghost comedy Topper Returns (1941) for producer Hal Roach. Actress-singer Alice Faye had been slotted to fill Belle Starr's boots until the studio brass reassigned her to The Great American Broadcast (1941) and Del Ruth went on to helm the Nelson Eddy musical The Chocolate Soldier (1941) at MGM. At one point, Belle Starr was offered to Barbara Stanwyck, who had made an impression as a frontier post mistress in Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific (1939) at Paramount. When Stanwyck passed, a host of actresses were considered to replace her, among them Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Ann Sheridan, Paulette Goddard and Carol Landis, before the role was given to Gene Tierney. The daughter of a New York stock broker, Tierney had been discovered on Broadway by Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck and she was not yet 20 when she made her film debut for the studio in Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James (1940).

Tierney had three films under her belt by the time she signed on to play Belle Starr but she was still a minor and her career shepherded by her estranged father and mother. Her self-confidence undermined by her parents' rapidly dissolving marriage and their emotional stranglehold on her, Tierney suffered from a host of anxiety-related gastrointestinal ailments. During production of Belle Starr, she also developed a debilitating ocular complaint that caused both her eyes to swell shut. Thought initially to be an allergic reaction, the condition was eventually diagnosed as stress-related angioedema. With Tierney literally out of the picture, director Irving Cummings was forced to shoot around her, favoring scenes involving costars Dana Andrews and Randolph Scott. On loan to Fox, Scott waived his contractual right for payment even on days that he was not on call, which helped Zanuck keep expenses down while the production awaited the return of Tierney. Scott's kindness towards his costar prevented the role of Belle Starr from being reassigned and likely saved Tierney's career.

During her convalescence, Tierney sought refuge in the arms of boyfriend Oleg Cassini, the Paris-born son of an Italian countess, then employed by the Paramount costume department as an assistant to Edith Head. Tierney's parents opposed the relationship, suspecting that the foreigner was attempting to siphon off their underage daughter's Hollywood earnings. With the understanding that marriage would bestow upon her the legal status of an adult, Tierney eloped with Cassini in Las Vegas on June 1, 1941. (The couple flew out of Los Angeles under assumed names, with Tierney buying her ticket using the alias "Belle Starr.") The controversial marriage worsened Tierney's relationship with her parents while alarming Hollywood executives to the degree that Cassini was fired by Paramount. Tierney returned to Fox for additional scenes and reshoots of Belle Starr in mid-June and, until their 1952 divorce, retained Cassini as her exclusive costume designer - a collaboration that included such films as Edmund Goulding's The Razor's Edge (1946), Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Otto Preminger's Whirpool (1949) and Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950).

Producer: Kenneth Macgowan
Director: Irving Cummings
Story: Cameron Rogers, Niven Busch
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti
Music: Alfred Newman
Photography: Ernest Palmer, Ray Rennahan
Editor: Robert L. Simpson
Cast: Gene Tierney (Belle Starr), Randolph Scott (Sam Starr), Dana Andrews (Major Thomas Crail), Shepperd Strudwick (Ed Shirley), Elizabeth Patterson (Sarah), Chill Wills (Blue Duck), Louise Beavers (Mammy Lou), Olin Howland (Jasper), Joe Sawyer (John Cole), Joe Downing (Jim Cole), Charles Middleton (Carpetbagger), George Reed (Old Jake), Matthew "Stymie" Beard (Young Jake), Clarence Muse (Bootblack), Elena Verdugo (Young Girl).

by Richard Harland Smith

Randolph Scott: A Film Biography by Jefferson Brim Crow (Empire Pub., 1994)
Gene Tierney: A Biography by Michelle Vogel (McFarland & Company, 2005)
Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, The Facts and the Legends by Glenn Shirley (University of Oklahoma Press, 1990)



Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Saturday Morning Matinees in June
Movies, Cartoons, Shorts

Inspired by weekend family programming in movie theaters across the country from the 1930s into the 1950s, TCM is offering similar...more

TCM Shopping
  • Night and the City (Criterion Collection)
  • Two-bit hustler Harry Fabian (Kiss of Death's... more info
  • $22.95
  • Regularly $29.95
  • Add to cart
  • Where the Sidewalk Ends
  • Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews. A gritty noir... more info
  • $11.21
  • Regularly $14.98
  • Add to cart