Lindsey Tries to Appreciate Westerns: Belle of the Yukon (1944)

“If it’s Blood you want,
and Cold you want,
And the Call of the Klondike Night;
If it’s Mud you want,
and Gold you want,
Or what Robert Service would write…
You’re in the wrong Theatre, brother.”

After credits roll and a song is sung, this poem sets the tone for 1944’s Belle of the Yukon, a Western musical-comedy.

(Image via Doctor Macro)
(Image via Doctor Macro)

(To clarify, this is not a traditional Western in the sense that it does not take place in the “wild” American west; it takes place in Western Canada, our friendly neighbor to the north. I still consider it a Western because it’s categorized as such on Netflix, and because it does take place in a frontier/Gold Rush town.)

The film follows John “Gentleman Jack” Calhoun (Randolph Scott), a former con man who has opened a dance hall in the Yukon town of Malamute after running North to hide from the law.

John deserted his ladyfriend Belle (Gypsy Rose Lee) when he decided to head out on the lam, but now she’s come to Malamute, too. Belle works in a traveling show troupe that’s come to town to perform.

When Belle discovers that her ex is in town and that he has reformed his criminal ways, she finds his new-and-improved persona to be extremely attractive. Naturally, she wishes to reunite with him, but she’s got some competition: Lettie Candless (Dinah Shore) is also going after John.

William A. Seiter (You Were Never Lovelier) directs Belle of the Yukon, which was written by James Edward Grant (McLintock!) from a story by Houston Branch.

(Image via Doctor Macro)
(Image via Doctor Macro)

Though light on plot, this is an incredibly fun musical — and it is, first and foremost, a musical rather than a Western. Like that opening poem warned us, if it’s Gold Rush action you want, look elsewhere.

This holds true not only for the film — in which song, dance and romance reign — but also for the town of Malamute, where the residents seem more wrapped up in their own fun and personal dramas than on finding adventure. There’s a little bit of action to be had here (a kidnapping, a drunken scuffle, an anticlimactic bank robbery), but not much. Even when the story takes on a criminal edge, an air of light comedy remains.

Gypsy Rose Lee (Image via Doctor Macro)
Gypsy Rose Lee (Image via Doctor Macro)

Knowing that this was a technicolor musical, my expectations were fairly high going in — not that I expected it to be a brilliant film, but I was sure I’d be discovering an highly watchable piece of fluff. I love musicals in general, and one of the only Westerns I loved before beginning this project is a musical: George Sidney’s The Harvey Girls (1946). While Belle of the Yukon doesn’t quite match the charm of The Harvey Girls, I did enjoy it just as much as I expected to.

Exciting songs, bright visuals and delightful romantic comedy make up for what Belle of the Yukon lacks in action and true plot/character development. Between musical numbers the film lags a bit, but not so much as to kill the viewer’s enjoyment of the film when watching it solely for the purpose of light entertainment. The performances are well-suited to the film’s breezy mood and trivial plot, making for a delightful but in no way brilliant little watch.

Did it boost my appreciation of the Western genre?: YES – I love a good musical, and this film is a lot of fun, though it isn’t the best musical or Western I’ve seen. It falls under the category of “easy viewing” and I enjoyed it, so it can be added to the list of Westerns I wouldn’t mind watching again.
The score: 3.5/5

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