If you check your handguns and your logic at the door, it's a pleasant diversion. But it's not much of a western.

James Plath's picture

Like the gold dust on the floor of the saloon in "Paint Your Wagon," this 1944 Randolph Scott film all but falls through the cracks. It's part musical, part romantic comedy, and part western. In the end, like "Paint Your Wagon," the shoe that fits "Belle of the Yukon" most comfortably is a cowboy boot, rather than tap-dance shoes or oxfords. Sort of. For that, you can credit the flavor of the West—even, in this case, an incredibly tame Old West set in Malemute during the Klondike Gold Rush. But be warned: it's not even as "western" as that Clint Eastwood/Lee Marvin romp. If you're looking for an authentic western, as a "Road" picture style disclaimer warns in the opening frames, you'd better look elsewhere.

For one thing, director William A. Seiter just didn't have it in him. The man who would go on to direct television shows like "The Gale Storm Show" and "The Millionaire" was perhaps best known for his behind-the-camera work on the 1946 version of "Lover Come Back," a romantic comedy which starred Lucille Ball. When it came to westerns, he was a regular dude, which accounts for the inauthentic look and feel of this film. The Canadian Gold Rush lasted just two years, and during that time the miners were so wild and unruly that the North-West Mounted Police was sent in to establish order. Yet, the miners sit patient and polite as ladies at high tea when the daughter of a saloon manager sings a tender song that ends with a kiss to the cheek of her father. In any other western, she would have been shouted off the stage, and shots would have been fired or beer bottles thrown. Here, there's a strange tone that permeates the film.

How odd is "Belle of the Yukon"? Put it this way: in what other movie would you expect to see a young and squeaky-clean Dinah "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet" Shore acting and singing alongside stripper-slash-actress Gypsy Rose Lee? And despite the western convention of the comic sidekick or gibberish-talking Gabby Hayes character that was spoofed so wonderfully in "Blazing Saddles," you get a whole passel of running gags and vaudeville-style routines in this color (yes, color—though the box lists B&W) film.

Scott plays Honest John Calhoun, the owner of a saloon in a Klondike river town that has an unbelievable opulence you'd expect only in places like San Francisco. The stairway to the second floor is grand, with velvet bunting, and the stage sets rival anything you'd see at an established vaudeville house at the turn of the century. And yet, we're to believe that this town, which is as domesticated as a house cat, has no need of anything other than a single Barney Fife lawman and doesn't even have a bank for the miners to deposit their gold dust in until Calhoun suggests they need one.

Calhoun has got a pretty good set-up going until his manager, Pops (Charles Winninger) gets protective of his daughter, Lettie (Shore), and tries to get rid of the piano player (Bob Burns) who wants to tickle her ivories. When Pops wires the Seattle police that he's got this fellow whom he thinks is a wanted man and tells them to come to Malemute to pick him up, it starts a chain of farcical events. It turns out that Pops forgot that Calhoun is also wanted by the Seattle police, as is just about everybody else who's working with him. You see, they've gone straight—we think—and when a boat shows up carrying Belle Devalle (Lee) and her showgirls (not a stripper or risqué singer among them, mind you—this is TAME stuff), things get even more complicated. Belle was dumped by Calhoun, though she still carries a torch for him.

In near-screwball comedy fashion, we watch as three different groups try to get their hands on the miners' gold and skeedaddle out of town before the lynch mob can form, while police from Seattle turn up, as does the rich father of the piano player ("Don't shoot the piano player!"). And through it all, we get a smattering of songs. There's Shore singing "I don't know why I love you, but I do, do, do," and "Like Someone in Love," and Lee leading a Goldwyn Girls number about "Every girl is different, but men are all the same" and trying her best to ape Mae West ("Why don't you . . . browse around my library some night.").

And for those of you who find racial stereotypes offensive, be sure to plug your ears whenever the "Chief" is around and saying things like, "Heap much trouble, Mr. Calhoun."

"He went thataway" is the only conventional line in a western that goes thisaway: a song here, a gag there, a few girls, the politest miners you'll ever run across, and a town full of con men who may or may not be trying to go straight.

Video: "Belle of the Yukon" was filmed in Technicolor, and the picture has the slight graininess you'd expect from early Technicolor films. It's noticeable, but it's not a distraction. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1.

Audio: Nothing fancy here—just an English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono soundtrack with English and French subtitles.

Extras: There are no extras.

Bottom Line: Well, pardners, you'd better check your handguns and your logic at the door if you're to enjoy this film. If you do, it's a pleasant diversion. But it's not much of a western. Yukon comedies like Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope's "Road to Utopia," even with a full pouch of gags, feel more authentic. And it's not all that distinguished as a musical, either.


Film Value