Ramrod—Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Don DeFore, Donald Crisp, Charles Ruggles, Preston Foster, Arleen Whelan, Ian MacDonald, Ray Teal, Lloyd Bridges, Wally Cassell, Nestor Paiva (1947; Dir: Andre de Toth)
“Men are so easy!… A little lace, a pair of lips, a touch, and they kill for you!” Despite the lurid line on the poster (which nobody says in the film), this is a very good western.
This was the first of eleven westerns directed by one-eyed Hungarian-born Andre de Toth, and it was one of his two best. Star Joel McCrea was moving into the phase of his career during which he would, as Randolph Scott had done, choose to make mostly westerns. He and Veronica Lake (now Mrs. De Toth) had starred early in the decade in Preston Sturges’ excellent Sullivan’s Travels, and now, as her career waned, they reunited in a very good western directed by her husband. It was based on a story by Luke Short, usually a good sign for a western, especially in the late 1940s.
There’s a lot of backstory as the movie starts, and a large cast of characters with complicated relationships. The ramrod of the title is Dave Nash (Joel McCrea), who is coming back to himself after an extended period of heavy drinking. His wife died giving birth to a son, and the son died in a cabin fire, triggering Nash’s descent into alcoholism. Three weeks before the film begins, sympathetic sheriff Jim Crew (Donald Crisp) had gotten him a job with Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald), who plans to bring sheep into the area and break up the cattle ranchers’ monopoly on the valley’s free range.
The cattle ranchers are led by the fierce Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), and they include Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles). He and his strong-willed daughter Connie (Veronica Lake) are on the outs; he wants her to marry Frank Ivey, and she’s engaged to Walt Shipley instead. She has moved out of her father’s ranch house and into the local hotel. As the movie starts, Shipley is about to take the stage out of town to buy sheep, and Ivey has vowed to stop him.
It’s night as the stage is about to leave; Dave is in front of the hotel to back up his boss with his gun as the occasion presents itself. But Walt can’t stand up to Ivey, and he folds. He disappears from town quietly, leaving his Circle 66 ranch to Connie. Red Cates (a young Lloyd Bridges), one of Ivey’s riders, prods Dave in a bar; they fight, and Dave wins and almost comes to blows with Frank Ivey, too. Connie plans to run Shipley’s ranch and hires Dave as her foreman (or “ramrod”), figuring he’s one of the few who’ll stand up to Ivey.
In turn, Dave hires four or five more riders, beginning with his long-time friend Bill Schell (Don DeFore). Schell has a long-term grudge against Ivey, and few scruples about staying on the right side of the law. He brings in the other riders, who all have issues with Ivey. When Ivey and his men burn down the former Shipley ranch house and buildings while Connie is retrieving things from her father’s house, Dave moves her into a nearby stone line cabin used by Ivey. When they file for title to the line cabin, Ivey and his men show up there, and Ivey orders Virg (Wally Cassell) to beat Curley (Nestor Paiva), who is there to give Connie protection. The camera work is tight on Virg’s face, managing to convey the brutality of the beating without showing the actual blows.
Connie takes what’s left of Curley into town, where he is cared for by Rose Leland (Arleen Whelan), the local dressmaker. She and Dave have a relationship of sorts, but now there are questions by some, including Ben Dickason, about the nature of Dave’s relationship with Connie. Dave insists on allowing Jim Crew to follow the law as they plan the next step after Curley’s beating. However, Bill Schell finds Ivey’s ramrod Ed Burma (Ray Teal, in an early role although he was not young even then) in a livery stable. Schell prods him into a fight and guns him down.
Connie senses Dave’s reluctance to do anything downright dishonest, so she approaches Bill Schell to stampede her herd and blame it on Ivey. As Sheriff Jim Crew goes to arrest Ivey, Ivey shoots him down. When he hears about it, Dave finds Virg and kills him in a gunfight, taking a bad wound to the shoulder himself. The dying Virg tells him it was Ivey himself who killed the sheriff, not Virg. The doc fixes Dave up at Rose’s, but Bill has to get him out of town before Ivey finds him in such helpless condition. Curley finally dies from the effects of his beating.
Bill hides Dave in a mine in the hills, but Connie rides there to take them supplies. Ivey’s men follow her. Dave is healing, but not yet enough, and Bill puts him on Connie’s horse and sends him one direction. He takes Dave’s horse and heads higher into the mountains, where Ivey and two other men track him. Ivey kills Schell with two shotgun blasts to the back. As Dave makes it back to town, Ben Dickason tells him how Schell was killed. With his arm still in a sling, Dave takes a shotgun into the street to call Ivey out. Ivey still thinks of Dave as a drunk and taunts him about how close he’ll have to get to make the shotgun work. He does. The question then remains: Will Dave take up with Connie, who now has the way clear to her own ranching empire, or is he still more interested in Rose?
Joel McCrea is excellent as the reforming alcoholic Dave, and Veronica Lake has a very strong role as the scheming Connie. At first she’s pushed into using whatever she can, but we can see that she comes to relish using all the tools at her disposal. This was her only western, but she’s good in it. Use of her as a femme fatale nudges this into the noir western category. Don DeFore is very good as the genial, good-with-a-gun but not terribly scrupulous Bill Schell, and a lot of the smaller roles are well played, too. Preston Foster is a standard despicable villain as Frank Ivey. Charles Ruggles, often a genial or comedic father figure (see Ruggles of Red Gap, for example), is still genial but not commanding as Connie’s father. Arleen Whelan is pretty good but not great as Rose the dressmaker, although it’s kind of a thankless role, since she’s mostly playing the counterpoint to Lake’s Connie. This and Kidnapped (her first starring role) were the high points of her career.
This complex western cost more than $1 million to make in 1947, and it didn’t make that back at the time. However, modern audiences tend to like it better than those of 1947. It’ll make you wonder why you haven’t heard more about it. It’s available on Blu-Ray since 2012.
A still of the sultry Veronica Lake in her role as Connie Dickason. You can see why the Spanish title was La Mujer de Fuego (“Woman of Fire”).
Although there’s a lot going on, the story is economically told in 95 minutes. The dialogue is well-written, crisp and intelligent. There is both good camera work and excellent western scenery, since the film was shot in southern Utah in and around Zion National Park. Cinematography is in black and white by Russell Harlan, who also shot Red River, The Big Sky and Rio Bravo for Howard Hawks, not to mention Lust for Life and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Joel McCrea was in several strong westerns about this time in the late 1940s, including Colorado Territory, Four Faces West, Stars in My Crown and The Outriders. Andre de Toth went on to make a series of westerns, many of them starring Randolph Scott, until he burned out on them in the mid-1950s. Several of them, such as The Bounty Hunter, Riding Shotgun and Carson City, are well worth watching. His last western was Day of the Outlaw in 1959, with Robert Ryan and Burl Ives. His first (this one) and his last were his best. If you like his work, look for his well-known 3-D horror classic, House of Wax with Vincent Price.