Just 'Short' of a Classic
André de Toth, whose first Western Ramrod was, and whom I sometimes rather unkindly call André de Tosh because of the schlock horror and B-movies he directed, was an interesting fellow. Hungarian (his real name was Sâsvári Farkasfalvi Tóthfalusi Tóth Endre Antal Mihály, which probably wasn’t too Hollywood-friendly) he directed five films in pre-War Europe, served as an assistant to Alexander Korda in England and went to Los Angeles in 1942.
André de Toth
Though assigned to B-movies and struggling to make his way, he somehow met and married big Paramount star Veronica Lake. She was to be the female lead of Ramrod, with the character’s name of Connie, actually her own birth name.
Veronica Lake: poker-faced but not Western poker. Should have stuck to noirs.
The movie was to have been directed by John Ford (an interesting might-have-been) but he was taken up with My Darling Clementine and suggested the studio hire de Toth.
De Toth was to write and/or direct twelve Westerns and he loved them. Ramrod and his writing of The Gunfighter for Henry King in 1950 might have been his finest Western achievements, although he did direct some solid oaters with Randolph Scott such as Man in the Saddle in 1951 and Carson City in ’52. All in all, though, he never quite reached the heights of the Western Mount Olympus, which is somewhere, as we know, up in the Rockies.
Ramrod is a very good film but it’s just short of a classic. The movie has two huge advantages. It was written by Luke Short and starred Joel McCrea.
1. Short was one of the greatest of all Western novelists, well above the pulp line, and books like Dead Freight for Piute, Coroner Creek, Gunman’s Chance, Vengeance Valley and Ride the Man Down were all made into quality Western movies. The stories are taut, gripping and authentic, and they contain real characters who think. Ramrod, the book, is a very good read. And the film is an unusually close rendition of the book.
2. Joel McCrea was in 35 cowboy films between 1933 and 1976 and managed to avoid Italian and TV Westerns (with the sole exception of NBC’s Wichita Town 1959 – 60). Union Pacific, Buffalo Bill, the 1946 The Virginian, Four Faces West, Wichita and Ride the High Country, these were top-notch oaters and there were many other good ones too. He was always quiet, decent but determined. In Ramrod he plays Dave Nash, hired to ramrod Veronica Lake’s outfit when she goes it alone to spite Daddy.
McCrea: a great Western hero
Other plus points come from the lovely black & white photography of the Utah locations by Russell Harlan, with noirish tints that suit the plot admirably. Noir Westerns were all the rage; 1947 was the same year as Pursued. And there is rather delightful Adolph Deutsch music, which plays variations on a theme of These Thousand Hills but without the cheesy 50s Hollywood angel choirs in the movie of that name.
I also liked the fact that a strong, independent woman was at the center of the story, not just an add-on as in so many Westerns, even if she comes across as a scheming siren.
So the movie had a lot going for it and indeed, many aficionados do regard it as a classic.
Scorsese likes it
However, it does also have some weaknesses. Veronica Lake, for one. This was her only Western (though she was also in a Juarez Mexico LIP 'B' picture in 1951) and it was abundantly clear that this glacial, neurotic, 1940s Hollywood lady did not suit the genre. Of course, she looks glamorous. Her husband lovingly filmed her in her best light, often in soft focus, with flowing curls framing her face. But as a Western rancher woman she doesn’t convince one bit. She should have stuck to crime noirs with Alan Ladd.
Then, despite the carefully crafted story, De Toth and his scriptwriters play about with it so that the first reel is not easy to follow. A lot of names of people we haven’t met yet are bandied about. Actually, you need to see it twice. Fortunately, this is no hardship.
Why it was called Woman of Fire, I don't know. Woman of ice, maybe
Some of the support acting also is weak. Don DeFore, as the good-bad pal of McCrea, a little like Steve in The Virginian, wasn’t right in the part. It was in fact his only Western movie, probably sensibly. And Donald Crisp was the sheriff. Oxford-educated Englishman Crisp appeared in a number of Westerns and was used by John Ford but didn’t convince in any of them. He did nine back in the silent days as actor or director, that was OK, then was in the unfortunate Cagney/Bogart movie The Oklahoma Kid, as the Judge. After Ramrod, he did Whispering Smith with Alan Ladd and The Man from Laramie with James Stewart and a couple of others. But he wasn’t right either and should have stuck to Easterner parts.
Crisp: an unconvincing tough sheriff
On the other side of the coin, Arleen Whelan is the anti-Lake, the other woman, who really loves Joel, and she is rather good, and there are small parts for a young Lloyd Bridges and good old Ray Teal (he comes to another sticky end), so it’s not all bad.
Certain cinéastes, Martin Scorsese for one, consider Ramrod a masterpiece. Well, it may be. I’m no Scorsese, only a Western buff. All I can say is that I love watching it; it’s very, very good. But it’s just short of great.