THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

TOP 21 FAVORITE WESTERNS -- RAMROD

      


# 15

RAMROD (Sherman/UA, 1947)

Sometimes the hand-coloring of movie posters got out of hand -- especially since this is a beautifully filmed black-and-white movie.


"From now on, I'm going to make a life of my own.  And being a woman, I won't have to use guns." -- Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake)


DIRECTOR:  Andre deToth; PRODUCER: Harry Sherman;  WRITERS: Jack Moffit, Graham Baker and Cecile Kramer from a novel by Luke Short; CAMERA: Russell Harlan

CAST:  Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Don DeFore, Arleen Whelan, Preston Foster, Charlie Ruggles, Lloyd Bridges, Ian McDonald, Jeff Corey, Donald Crisp, Hal Taliaferro (Wally Wales); Ray Teal, Sarah Padden, Nestor Pavia, Wally Casell, Trevor Bardette

Luke Short ((l908-1975) was one of our finest Western novelists, especially adept at plotting complex range war stories such as Ramrod, Blood on the Moon, Ride the Man Down, Coroner Creek, and Vengeance ValleyAll were filmed, and the first four are excellent movies, but RAMROD is the best of the lot.

In RAMROD a willful, ambitious woman (Lake) stirs up a range war by attempting to introduce sheep into cattle country and thereby coming into conflict with two land barons, her father (Ruggles) and her would-be suitor (Foster).  McCrea is her ramrod (foreman), a saddle-bum attempting to recover from alcoholism brought on by two heartbreaking tragedies in his personal life.

The plot summary makes it sound as though this is a fairly standard Western -- but it isn't.  It breaks new ground in a number of ways.  To begin with, the driving force in the range feud and the story plot is a woman -- Connie Dickason (Lake).  Later that would not have been all that unusual, but it was so in 1947.

The photography has to be mentioned, also.  This is a moody, psychological film and it is fitting that Russell Harlan's shadowy and atmospheric photography enhances and supports the effect that director Andre deToth was attempting to create.  Short's story, deToth's direction, and Harlan's camera combine to make RAMROD one of the first noir Westerns, which also differentiates it from the standard Western movie fare of the day.




Another significant fact about RAMROD is that location shooting took place in beautiful and majestic Zion National Park in Utah.  That was important in giving the film a look out of the ordinary because not that many movies have been made there and it lacks the familiarity of Monument Valley or Death Valley or the Dakota Badlands or Lone Pine and other commonly used locations.  One would think that a lot of movies might be shot there since it possesses such impressive scenery.  The lack of movies being filmed there might have something to do with the fact that its narrow valleys are rather confining and do not lend themselves to the kinds of panoramic shots that we see in the movies filmed in the locations mentioned above.

However, IN OLD ARIZONA (Fox, 1929), the first outdoor "talkie," was not filmed in Arizona, but in Zion.  A couple of other notable Westerns had some scenes shot there as well -- BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (Fox, 1969) and JEREMIAH JOHNSON (WB, 1972).


Could you picture this actress in a Western?
Another unusual aspect of RAMROD is its offbeat casting.  Who would have ever thought of casting Veronica Lake in a Western?  Well, apparently the director, Andre deToth, since he was married to the actress at the time.  And who would have guessed that she would be as good as she was in the role?  Maybe deToth?

And we get a different Charlie Ruggles, too.  His is a straight dramatic role with none of the endearing and befuddled humor that we had come to expect from him.

Don DeFore was nearly always cast as the star's likable wisecracking buddy who never gets the girl.  Here he plays a similar role, but with an important difference: it is a Western (his only one) and beneath that sunny wisecracking exterior beats the heart of a killer.  Who would have thought he could have pulled that off -- especially when five years later he would become best-known as Ozzie's neighbor and wisecracking buddy, Thorny, on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet?  And then later, in 1961, he became George Baxter, the affable man of the house in support of Shirley Booth in yet another sitcom, Hazel.

Thorny and George Baxter were still in the future when RAMROD was filmed, so it would not have been as surprising to the audiences of that day as it would be later to see him in that role, but it must have been surprising even then just how good he was in an important role in a Western movie.  


Could you picture this actor as a gunslinger?


Of course there was nothing offbeat or surprising about casting Joel McCrea in the title role.


McCrea made his first film appearance in 1924 and was given his first lead role in THE SILVER HORDE (RKO, 1929), an outdoor adventure yarn set in Alaska.  For the next fifteen years the versatile actor went on to star mostly in comedies and melodramas, but also an occasional Western.  But beginning with BUFFALO BILL (Fox, 1944), McCrea would star almost exclusively in Western films.

At the time of the filming of RAMROD, McCrea was in his early forties.

In a 1978 interview, McCrea was quoted as saying: "I liked doing comedies, but as I got older I was better suited to do Westerns. Because I think it becomes unattractive for an older fellow trying to look young, falling in love with attractive girls in those kinds of situations...Anyway, I always felt so much more comfortable in the Western. The minute I got a horse and a hat and a pair of boots on, I felt easier. I didn't feel like I was an actor anymore. I felt like I was the guy out there doing it."

After RAMROD McCrea starred in many entertaining Westerns, with at least three falling into the classic or near classic category:  FOUR FACES WEST  (Sherman/UA,1948); COLORADO TERRITORY (WB, 1949); and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (MGM, 1962).

In 1976, the seventy-year-old McCrea appeared in one final film, starring in yet another Western, MUSTANG COUNTRY (1976).  That would be it.  After an acting career that had lasted more than a half century, he retired.

 Hal Taliaferro was an authentic westerner who was born in Wyoming and grew up on a Montana ranch.  Beginning in the silent era and continuing into the early sound-era, he starred in cheaply-made independently-produced B-Westerns under the name of Wally Wales.


B-Western cowboy Wally Wales (Hal Taliaferro)
After Taliaferro's B-Western starring days ended he became one of the busiest character actors in the business, appearing in hundreds of films, primarily B-Westerns and serials, mostly at Republic, nearly always as a villain.  And in his Western roles he always looked and sounded like what he was, a man of the West.

In the history of Western movies, Harry "Pop" Sherman was one of the more interesting producers.  Throughout most of his career he was able to independently produce films, that were then released and distributed by major studios.

He is best-known for creating the production company that in 1935 began filming the Hopalong Cassidy B-Western series, starring William Boyd.  During those years, however, he produced a number of one-shot B-Western specials that were always well-made and entertaining.  In the mid-'40's, he turned over production of the Hoppy series to William Boyd and ventured into A-Western territory when he produced BUFFALO BILL (1944) for Fox.  What followed was even better, two superior Westerns made by his production company: RAMROD (1947) and FOUR FACES WEST (1948).  Joel McCrea starred in all three.


Andre deToth began directing films in his native Hungary.  His first American film was released in 1943.  RAMROD was his first Western and it was also his first film to garner widespread notice.  During the rest of his career he often returned to the genre, especially in six entertaining films starring Randolph Scott,  beginning with MAN IN THE SADDLE (Columbia, 1951).


REVIEWS:

"McCrea gives a fine performance in the title role in this superior Western...but it is Lake...who most impresses....deToth's strong sense of evil informs the film from its bewildered ending to the end, intensifying our sense of the characters not being in control of themselves." -- Phil Hardy in The Western

"[Producer] Sherman's standards were high, and at least two of his most ambitious films, RAMROD...and FOUR FACES WEST...both starring Joel McCrea, were unusually appealing, dramatically strong, intelligently written, and if not major artistic or box-office landmarks, then certainly among the most satisfying Westerns of the period." -- William K. Everson in A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"...tense, complex, fast and excellently plotted little classic....It's excellent -- and still highly entertaining; it's hardly dated at all....in some ways the most 'classic' of all ranchland Westerns; a splendid little Luke Short film, consistently rewarding." -- Brian Garfield in Western Film: A Complete Guide




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