In the classic film Citizen Kane (1941), Susan Foster Kane is handed a career as an “opera singer” on the proverbial silver platter. This tale was loosely based on the real-life relationship between newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. The divergence of reality and fantasy is marked, of course, in that while Miss Davies reached legitimate stardom based on genuine talent, particularly in comedies on screen, the character of Susan Foster Kane never became an opera star.
However, the real-life story of another mistress launched to stardom by the wealth and power of her lover follows the plot line of Kane to the letter, including the full-throttled attempt to promote a completely talentless “actress” to the heights of the Hollywood firmament. This is the tale of Czechoslovakian Olympic figure skater turned Queen of the Republic Lot, Miss Vera Hruba Ralston.
Miss Hruba (the Ralston came later in an attempt to Americanize her name) and her mother sailed to the United States to escape Hitler and his henchmen after gaining some notoriety as an Olympic figure skater in the late 1930s. In fact, it was on skates that Vera first came to the attention of Republic Studio mogul Herbert J. Yates. After being featured in two lackluster skating reviews, Mr. Yates determined that while Miss Hruba was no Sonja Henie, she had, in his misguided estimation, the makings of an exotic screen goddess. After all, didn’t the likes of Garbo and Lamar have thick foreign accents?
Despite having shoulders broad enough to be a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, eyes perilously close together and incredibly heavy facial features, Miss Ralston was given every advantage that hair dye, makeup, flattering lighting and camera angles which the “poverty row” studio could provide. The result was less than inspiring.
Even in her first major vehicle, it is patently obvious that Vera was being given the “star treatment” at Republic, whose standard fare was Gimcrack westerns and serials. This special treatment began with the opening credits of the comparatively “big budget” horror epic, The Lady and the Monster (1944), when Vera’s name appears above the title. We see Republic’s new star for the first time a good two minutes into the action, beautifully costumed in a long white evening gown at the top of the grand staircase on the vast, dark castle set. Unfortunately, the second Miss Ralston opens her heavy lips, it is obvious that she cannot act her way out of a paper bag. Things did not improve with time.
Despite being cast in one overblown Republic production after another and appearing with several excellent leading men including Fred MacMurray and John Wayne, the personable and intelligent Miss Ralston still came across as forcefully chipper but leaden on screen. Out of twenty-seven top-flight (for Republic) productions, only two of Vera’s pictures turned a profit and these co-starred the studio’s biggest box office draw, John Wayne. Fearing for his own career, Mr. Wayne refused to be in any more Ralston pictures, and many at Republic cited Vera as the reason the western star ultimately left the studio for greener pastures.
Herbert J. Yates’ faith that his mistress was not only a more than competent actress but also a star never wavered despite all evidence to the contrary. Indeed, his personal obsession with the much younger woman increased over time. Unfortunately, Mr. Yates’s stockholders didn’t agree because they threatened to force him out if he didn’t stop sinking large amounts of studio profits into his girlfriend’s dismal career. Miss Ralston retired from the screen in 1958 on the heels of the studio’s impending bankruptcy.
After he left his wife and children for his mistress, Vera agreed to move in with the mogul only if her mother could come along, and Ralston and Yates eventually married in 1952. Apparently, Vera’s devotion to Herbert was not just career-based, as she remained with the former mogul until his death in 1966. But even when viewed through the often-forgiving lens of nostalgia and the passage of time, Miss Ralston maintains the well-deserved reputation for being one of the worst actresses ever to appear on screen.