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Vera Hruba Ralston.VERA HRUBA RALSTON

The Queen of Republic was born Vera Hruba (pronounced Rue Buh) one June 12 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Vera told me, “I was born in 1923, so I was 17 when I made my first movie, ‘Ice Capades’. (‘41)”

Beginning as an ice skater at home, “I came in second to Sonja Henie in the 1936 Winter Olympics in Berlin. Sonja was so elegant and graceful, I admired her so much. She was an excellent skater; I have great respect for her. People don’t realize how hard and dangerous, skating can be. I suffered several broken bones, ankles. There are long hours to it, practicing. It is a part of my life that is gone forever.” As for recreational skating, “Never. I was a perfectionist, and would only do it that way. I haven’t skated since 1952.”

As for today’s skaters, “I never miss watching the winter Olympics. Those girls are so talented, the techniques are so improved. What I did once they could do twice; if I did it twice they do it three times.”

As to how she came to America, Vera explains, “My mother and I came over first, to escape the Nazis. My brother Rudy came later and went into the war. My father was the last to come. I was the champion skater of Czechoslovakia and later the world. I was part of the Ice Capades and we toured America. When we came to California, Republic saw the show and loved it. They put everyone under contract and made ‘Ice Capades’, which was so successful they made a follow up, ‘Ice Capades Revue’, the  following year. I always wanted to be an actress, ever since I was a little girl. It was my dream. I would see the American pictures, people like Jean Harlow, and always wanted to be one of them.” Ironically, she had a favorite desire. “When we were coming to Hollywood, I was asked if there was a movie star I’d like to meet, and I said, ‘Of course, John Wayne!’ I never dreamed I’d actually meet him, and star with him in two pictures. Republic gave me a screen test to see if I could act. They thought I might have talent, and the test went very well, because I was signed to a contract. I made several ‘ice pictures.’ I was in ‘Lake Placid Serenade’ (‘44) and ‘Murder In the Music Hall’ (‘46) but I consider my first real movie ‘Lady and the Monster’ with Richard Arlen, followed by ‘Storm Over Lisbon’ (both ‘44) with Robert Livingston.”

Vera’s name was lengthened to Vera Hruba Ralston (taken from the name of the popular breakfast cereal) for these latter two films, “Because no one could pronounce my name, which is Rube Uh! (Laughs)”

John Wayne and Vera Ralston in "Dakota" ('45).Vera’s first western was, ironically, with John Wayne, “Dakota”. “It was recently colorized, and I frankly like it better in color. It gives you more with the costumes and the scenery...it is nicer. It makes me think of ‘Fighting Kentuckian’, the second picture I made with Duke, which is what everybody called him. He told me he loved the color of the costume I was wearing. He wanted his wife to get a dress of this same color, which, unfortunately, you didn’t see in the film because it was in black and white. (Laughs) I knew John Wayne very well. He was a close family friend.”

“I enjoyed locations, and wearing the costumes, and especially those hats. Hats make you look good. John Wayne was a very big star when we made ‘Dakota” and it was my third acting picture. He was so kind; he showed me, helped me…he helped any youngsters getting started. He was so patient with me.”

When asked about Trucolor, she emphatically states, “That was Republic’s color; they made it, and I never liked it too well. It was too sharp; it wasn’t true. The greens were too green. (Laughs).”

Asked about Walter Brennan with whom she co-starred in “Dakota” and “Surrender”, “A delightful man; he played the captain in ‘Dakota’ and didn’t know what to do with the character. Then he told me, ‘Don’t get scared, but I’m gonna take out my uppers.’ (Laughs) He wasn’t as old as he looked like he was. Years later, he had to have an operation, and came to the hospital in Santa Barbara for it. So, I visited him in the hospital every day; I brought him food and we’d reminisce about the old days. An interesting thing was that when we started ‘Dakota’ the war was going on. While we were doing it, the war was over. We went to John Wayne’s house to celebrate—Walter Brennan and the rest of the cast—we were at John Wayne’s house—I’ll never forget that!”

“Dakota” was directed by Joseph Kane, “Who directed me 11 times. He was one of my favorite directors, a nice man, with a very lovely family. His wife and children. His daughter Louise, who was 8 at the time, played me as a child in ‘Wyoming’. Joe Kane was a very charming man. He loved horses more than people. I enjoyed working with him. He did pay more attention to the action scenes than to the actors’ scenes, and I didn’t appreciate that part. (Laughs) However, when we later did ‘Fair Wind to Java’ (‘53), he directed me more strictly. I had to have dark hair, dark makeup. When I’d quit work for the day, I’d take a bath immediately, and the water would be black. (Laughs) I had fun doing it, but it was so hot out there, 105 degrees, and it was very difficult to do. Incidentally, although he isn’t credited, John Ford did the location scenes in that, the Java scenes. I had hoped to work with John Ford one day, but I never did. He went to Java with the crew.”

Vera Ralston, Sterling Hayden and David Brian starred in Republic's "Timberjack" ('55).

Asked about locations in Hawaii, and their being nixed because of her upcoming wedding to studio head Herbert J. Yates, “I think it was more due to economics than to delaying our marriage. (Laughs). Republic was always tight with a buck.”

As for Paradise Cove in “Fair Wind to Java”, “This was at Republic—we had our own. There is real Paradise Cove, in Malibu. We worked two weeks in Malibu in the early mornings, and there was a mishap. Fred MacMurray, Victor McLaglen and I were in a canoe that turned over. We three had to swim to shore. Thank goodness we all could swim. (Laughs) It was a hard picture for Fred, because his wife was dying of cancer—and twice he had to leave the set to go home. Fred and Victor were delightful to work with. Victor was a very funny man. A gentleman. Fred was a charming, charming man. In fact, I was very fortunate in my career to work with all nice, kind people. And John Wayne was the nicest of them all. I get along with crews and actors—life is too short to argue.”

Title Card for "Plainsman and the Lady" with William Elliott and Vera Ralston.

As for Ward Bond, “We got along very well, we were close friends. He’d tell jokes; he was very funny. In pictures he played serious parts, but he was very funny offscreen. I asked him how he could do that—be funny in real life; be so mean and serious in pictures, and he told me ‘That’s acting!’ (Laughs)”

Horses and horse stories are always part of a western actress’ memory. “I like outside, I love animals and I love horses, but I am not too keen about being on a horse! I fell off once and never got over it. But I did ride horses, in fact, I often did the doubling for myself in pictures. That is, until one day, the insurance people came up to me and put a stop to it. When they have you on a horse, you are sitting on the horse. Then the director calls action, a bell rings and the horse gets nervous. And that made me nervous—after I had fallen off. (Laughs)”

Early reviews mention Vera’s woodenness and less-than-ideal command of the English language. Although her English and her acting soon improved, she never lost her Czech accent. “It was,” she said, “something I just couldn’t lose, no matter how hard I tried.”

After 15 years in films, Vera retired, “When Republic went out of business, and became a rental studio. Republic was a small studio and it was all like family. Everybody knew each other. There were very few outsiders in your pictures. It was usually the same people, all together. John Wayne was so fond of Herbert Yates—they were very good friends—that Wayne would keep returning to the studio, after he was a big, big star.”

Title Card from "Wyoming" starring Bill Elliott and Vera Ralston.

As for Vera’s family, “My brother (producer Rudy Ralston) died years ago. I lost Herbert Yates in ‘66.” (at age 85) Ralston inherited half of Yates’ estimated $10 million estate and later moved full time to the oceanfront house they had bought in the mid-‘50s in the Hope Ranch section of Santa Barbara. “Yates authorized the screen test for me; I later met him, then married him in ‘52. He was a fine man.”

As for memorabilia, “I kept some—costumes, 16mm films, but some of it I donated to this museum and that museum—after all, what can you do with it? They are all so hard to preserve.” As for watching her old films? “I do see them. I didn’t watch rushes, because you are never satisfied—you wished you’d done it this way or that way. But, those days are gone. I had a good time!”

(Unfortunately, Vera died on Feb. 9, 2003, while Michael Fitzgerald was conducting this interview piecemeal and didn’t get around to telling him about Bill Elliott, Sterling Hayden, John Carroll and a few others.—ed.)

Anyone who's seen "Jubilee Trail" knows it didn't quite live up to its claim of "The greatest American drama since 'Gone With the Wind'."

Vera’s Western Filmography


Movies: Dakota (‘45 Republic)—John Wayne; Plainsman and the Lady (‘46 Republic)—William Elliott; Wyoming (‘47 Republic)—William Elliott; Fighting Kentuckian (‘49 Republic)—John Wayne; Surrender (‘50 Republic)—John Carroll; Belle Le Grand (‘51 Republic)—John Carroll; A Perilous Journey (‘53 Republic)—David Brian; Jubilee Trail (‘54 Republic)—Forrest Tucker; Timberjack (‘55 Republic)—Sterling Hayden; Spoilers of the Forest (‘57 Republic)—Rod Cameron; Gunfire At Indian Gap (‘58 Republic)—Anthony George.

 

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