Wild Women of the West: Vera Ralston cowgirl magazine

The most influential woman at Republic Pictures from the early 1940s to the studio’s demise in the early 1960s, was Vera Hruba.  Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on July 12, 1919, the blonde beauty caught Republic Picture’s president Herbert Yates’ attention in 1939 when she toured the United States with an ice-skating show called Ice Vanities

 Vera was an exceptional ice skater, having placed 17th in the 1936 Olympics behind figure skater Sonja Henie.  Yates was captivated with Vera’s talent and looks and believed she could be as successful as Ms. Henie who was one of the leading stars at 20th Century Fox.  He cast Vera, and the entire company of the Ice Vanities, in a musical film entitled The Ice Capades.  Critics called the picture “sheer enchantment on ice.”  Vera was mentioned along with five other skaters as “spectacular”.  Yates couldn’t have agreed more and in 1943 signed her to a long-term contract with the studio and added Ralston to her name.  He added Ralston, a name borrowed from the cereal, because Hruba was difficult for moviegoers to pronounce.

The first movie Vera Hruba Ralston appeared as a star, minus the skates, was Republic Pictures’ 1941 horror film The Lady and the Monster.  Her costars were Erich von Stroheim and Richard Arlen.  Billed as “a picture from out of this world” the plot involves a millionaire whose brain is preserved after his death, and telepathically begins to take control of those around him.  Von Stroheim portrays the diabolical Dr. Mueller who retrieves the brain of a financial genius who crashed to his death in an airplane mishap near the laboratory.  The doctor carries out a fiendish plot to put the super brain to work for him.  Richard Arlen plays the doctor’s assistant who falls in love with the doctor’s ward, Vera Ralston.  The film reviewer for the Havre Daily News referred to Ralston’s debut as a dramatic actress as “the find of the season.” 

Most did not agree with the critics who found the foreign ingénue to be a promising star.  Many complained that her performance was wooden and that her accent was too thick.  Yates ignored every voice but his own and quickly reteamed von Stroheim and Arlen with his discovery in another feature entitled Storm Over Lisbon.  In this spy thriller Ralston played an allied operative in Lisbon and Arlen an American newspaper man who she helps get out of Portugal with important information.  Audiences found Ralston attractive, but struggled to understand what she was saying. 

Yates hired acting instructors and speech coaches for Ralston.  While her English and her acting soon improved she could not lose her strong Czech accent.  Yates felt that ticket buyers would eventually see how compelling the stunning blonde’s talent truly was and learn to embrace her way of talking in much the same way they did Marlene Dietrich.  In order to help Ralston, gain a broader acceptance he paired her with an actor that had mass appeal – John Wayne.

The Western starring Wayne and Ralston was Dakota.  Wayne and Ralston portray newlyweds who plan to use their nest egg to buy property at a location where a railroad town is rumored to be built.  Before the pair has a chance to make a start for themselves, they are robbed of their money and Wayne sets out to find the crooks and retrieve what’s his. 

Wayne was hesitant to work with Ralston.  None of the pictures she had made for Republic had done well.  Yates enticed Wayne into making Dakota with the promise of a percentage of the revenue from the next movie he was slated to do for the studio.  The film was Wake of the Red Witch and Wayne made a substantial amount from the percentage Yates agreed to give him.  It was enough to fund a production company of his own.

Widely released on Christmas Day in 1945, audiences were pleased with the fast-moving film.  The movie critic at the Tallahassee Democrat called Dakota a “rip-snorting, fast-shooting, western drama packed with action.”  The November 1945 edition of Variety wasn’t as enthused with the picture as the ticket buyers seemed to be.  “Republic has dressed up a familiar land-grab story with sufficient production to give the outdoor epic more than formula values,” the article about the movie read.  “The action isn’t always robust, but there are a number of knock-down fights to help carry it along.  Wayne runs through his assignment under Joseph Kane’s direction with his customary nonchalance.  Vera Hruba Ralston, femme lead, comes through a river dunking, fire, and fights with every hair in place and not a single wrinkle…  Dakota has draw value in the John Wayne name to aid the action market and returns will prove okay.”

Returns were better than okay.  Dakota was hugely profitable.  In terms of box office sales, it would be the most profitable film Vera Hruba Ralston would ever make.

Ralston’s next project was one written specifically with her in mindIn Murder in the Music Hall she played Lila Leighton, a lovely ice ballerina, who meets Carl Lang, an ice-show producer who offers her the starring role in his new Music Hall Ice Show.  She refuses and shortly thereafter the producer is found dead.  Ralston’s character is implicated in the killing of the producer and the only hope of clearing her name is to find the murderer herself.

Audiences were impressed with the ice-skating routines, but found the mystery commonplace and noted that “Murder in the Music Hall isn’t nearly as good a mystery as it is a skating spectacle.” 

In the westerns The Plainsman and the Lady and Wyoming, Ralston appeared opposite popular cowboy star Bill Elliott.  Her performance in both films was praised as “being better than usual”.  By 1947 Ralston was being referred to in trade publications as the Queen of Republic Pictures.  She was known for being in big budget films that could potentially yield big returns.  Herbert Yates’ preoccupation with making sure Ralston’s career at Republic Pictures was secure extended beyond the studio.  He hosted lavish parties in her honor to celebrate her talent and to demonstrate his commitment to the actress.  Ralston was flattered by the attention.  At some point the relationship between Ralston and Yates evolved into a romantic one.  Yates separated from his wife, Petra in 1948.  From that point on Yates and Ralston were inseparable. 

Between November 1947 and November 1948, Ralston made four blockbuster films, all of which received poor reviews.  In an effort to restore the reputation the actress had at the studio for being a bankable star, Yates reteamed her with John Wayne in the film The Fighting Kentuckian.  Directed by George Waggner and coproduced by Wayne, the film was set in Alabama in 1818.  Wayne portrayed a bluff trooper romancing an upper-class French woman, played by Ralston, who is exiled to the hills. 

Critics disliked the film.  According to the October 20, 1949 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “No picture has the right to be this bad or punishing,” a reviewer with the newspaper noted in his column.  “Somewhere there are probably people who will be able to explain what the movie is about, but don’t bet on it.  Double acrostics are much less complicated, and certainly a lot more exciting. 

“Apparently it has something to do with the settling in Alabama of a band of Napoleonic exiles and how a gang of real estate thieves switched the boundary lines on them and waited until the land was developed and cultivated, whereupon they intended to move in and grab it.  But the heavies reckoned without John Wayne and a regiment of coonskin-capped, Kentucky riflemen, who were passing through on their way home from the war of 1812 and pitching in with the foreigners because by that time John Wayne has had a good look at the French general’s lovely daughter.

“Of course, this could quite possibly be an entirely erroneous synopsis.  But then nobody will ever know whether it is or not, particularly so after seeing the movie.”

Wayne placed the blame for the poor critical response to the movie solely on costar Vera Ralston.  “Yates made me use Vera,” Wayne told colleagues years later.  “I’ve always been mad at Yates about this, because we lost the change to have a damn fine movie.” 

Undaunted by the comments from reviewers and industry leaders alike, Yates continued to promote Ralston and cast her as the lead in ambitious films Republic Pictures produced.  On October 16, 1950, the Los Angeles Times announced that Yates’ mistress would next be seen in the movie Surrender.  “James Edward Grant’s story of Surrender is laid in the fabulous West of the bust-and-bustle period,” the article announced.  “The shooting is reserved for the last couple of reels.  The first part has to do with the naughty machinations of Vera Ralston, whose come-hither eyes lure every man within bird’s-eye view of her.

“Miss Ralston weds an older man, an elegant thief, and leaves him to wither in jail while she skips out – only to get other men into scrapes in a town near the Mexican border.  But gambling house owner John Carroll is tough, and he tosses her about brutally, even though he is in love with her.  However, in the end, she proves his ruin too. 

“Vera Ralston is a remarkable convincing siren, so that you can easily believe in her conquests.”

Although costars John Carroll and Walter Brennen were cited for their standout performances it wasn’t enough to earn the film a great deal of money.

None of the four films Vera Ralston made between January 1951 and March 1953 performed well at the box office.  Yates helped take the actress’s mind off the box office woes during this time with a trip to the county clerk’s office to obtain a marriage license.  The seventy-two-year-old Yates and thirty-one-year-old Ralston wed on March 16, 1952.  It was Ralston’s first marriage and Yates’ second.  The pair were too busy to honeymoon after the wedding and chose to get away to celebrate their nuptials once Ralston finished filming the action adventure movie Fair Wind to Java opposite Fred MacMurray.

Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons caught up with the new bride shortly after she and Yates returned from a trip to Europe.  Parsons asked Ralston about her life with the studio president, her work, and her future endeavors.

“One of the few completely honest persons in our town is Vera Ralston, in private life Mrs. Herbert J. Yates,” Parsons began her article about the actress.  “Born in Czechoslovakia, she says she walked out of Prague as Hitler walked in.

“When Vera walked into my house, I’d never have known her.  Her blonde hair is now jet black.  She had been blonde ever since she arrived in Hollywood after appearing as a skater at the Olympic Games. 

“And when I asked her how come a brunette she said: ‘I read the script of Fair Wind to Java and wanted to play the half-cast slave girl.  Herb said, ‘If you want the part, you’ll have to have dark hair because the girl in the story is part Javanese.  I tried dozens of wigs, but I get pretty rough treatment from Fred MacMurray in the picture and the wigs would slip off.  Besides, they looked phony.  So, Herb said, ‘Unless you dye your hair, I can’t let you have the role.  After I dyed my hair, I cried my eyes out, then when he saw me, he said, ‘I like it,’ so I kept it dark for my next picture Perilous Voyage.  Now he wants me to stay a brunette, which is a complete new departure since I was born a blonde.’

“Vera has a good philosophy on life.  She never asks anyone to deny anything that’s written about her, but she said she was surprised to read one of the columnists who said that she and Herb had left the Venice film festival in a huff.  ‘You know what really happened,’ she said, ‘we left to avoid a bad rainstorm because I was wearing one of the queen’s dresses.’

“‘The queen’s dresses,’ I repeated, ‘what do you mean?’

“Vera laughed and said, ‘Ex-King Farouk couldn’t pay for five gorgeous gowns he bought for Narriman, so they went up for sale.  I saw them in Venice and went out of my mind about them.  Besides, I needed an evening dress for the festival.  We had left for Venice an hour after I finished my picture and I hadn’t had time to shop.

“‘Well, the king begged the couturier not to sell them, but he had to have his money, so he offered to sell all five of them at 20 percent off.  I bought all of them, and they’re simply beautiful.  It seems that I’m always leaving town five minutes after I finish a picture.  I went on my honeymoon the day after I made my last scene in Fair Wind to Java, with no time for shopping for our European trip.  Perilous Voyage was finished three days before Christmas and we went to New York for the holidays,’ she says.

“Vera said that being married to a studio owner has made no difference in her career – she’s always worked hard ‘because I had a lot to learn.’  She’s eager about Fair Wind to Java because she has her first good character part.”

Fair Wind to Java was panned by critics.  Costar Fred MacMurray agreed with the poor reviews.  Later in his career he would refer to the film as the worst he ever made.  The balance of the motion pictures Ralston appeared in for Republic Studios received the same dismal response from reviewers.

At times the stress of making one bad picture after another affected the Yates’ marriage.  Ralston would become despondent and want to give up, but Yates would insist she carry on.  The couple separated in May 1961.  It had been three years since Ralston’s last picture and Yates was no longer a part of Republic Pictures.  Their lives had changed dramatically.  The Yates’ reconciled their differences the day they appeared in Superior Court in Santa Monica to argue Ralston’s plea for $5,500 monthly temporary alimony.  After they emerged from a conference Ralston said of her eighty-two-year-old film executive husband, ‘I love him and he loves me.’  The two decided then to take a second honeymoon to Italy.

Herbert Yates died on February 3, 1966.  Vera Ralston died on February 9, 2003.  She had been battling cancer and passed away at her home in Santa Barbara.

She began her career in motion pictures as Republic’s answer to 20th Century Fox’s Olympic gold medalist-turned actress, Sonja Henie, and ended up the Queen of the Bs for a Poverty Row Studio. Vera Ralston was seventy-nine when she passed away.  She was laid to rest at the Santa Barbara Cemetery in Montecito, California.  The headstone on her grave reads, ‘A Champion in the Beginning.  A Champion in the End.’