Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)
I love when people laugh. I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in. ~ Leo McCarey
In the pantheon of great directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, Leo McCarey tends to get lost in the shuffle. He is best remembered for the 1957 mush-fest An Affair to Remember, but his impressive resume also includes The Awful Truth, Going My Way, and The Bells of St. Mary's. On the surface, McCarey seems like an uncomplicated director of escapist comedies and romances, but in the last few decades, film scholars have noted there was more to McCarey than his more popular films suggest. His 1937 drama Make Way For Tomorrow, which dared to address how society rejects the elderly once they outlive their usefulness, is considered by many his magnum opus. I have to respectfully disagree, for my personal choice for McCarey's finest hour is the Marx Brothers' 1933 comedy Duck Soup, which tanked upon its release, only to find new relevance during the 1960s. Irreverent, surreal, and unabashedly anarchist, Duck Soup lampoons blind adherence to incompetent leaders, petty disputes between nations, and the pointlessness of war. I actually hold the unpopular opinion that Duck Soup is a better antiwar film than Dr. Strangelove.
My point is that McCarey knew how to expose human weaknesses that we never dare allow ourselves to think about, but he did it with such a light hand, it could almost escape our radar. I've come to the conclusion that I find McCarey a finer director than Frank Capra when it comes to stories about America. I know people love Capra, and that's their business, but I find Capra too heavy-handed and preachy. McCarey is more sophisticated and subtle, while still pulling on your heartstrings with no trace of effort. This is evident in his underrated gem of a movie, 1935's Ruggles of Red Gap.
Based on the novel by Harry Leon Wilson, Ruggles of Red Gap tells the story of an English butler named Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton). Ruggles dutifully serves his master, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young of Topper fame) without question or complaint. He comes from a long line of "gentlemen's gentlemen", so he doesn't feel the need to upset the status quo.
That all changes one day when the mightily hungover Earl confesses that he "lost" Ruggles in a card game to obnoxious, nouveau riche American Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles) and his social climbing wife Effie (Mary Boland, the go-to actress for dotty, wealthy matrons). Ruggles is rather horrified at this turn of events, but his inborn sense of stiff upper lip decorum doesn't even allow outward anger or sadness. Instead, Ruggles accepts his fate and accompanies the Flouds back to America, to Red Gap, "the fastest growing town in the West". Naturally he is terribly out of place amidst all the cowboys and their saloons, but, as time progresses, Ruggles discovers all the opportunities America has to offer that we tend to take for granted, and even begins a tentative romance with a neighbor (ZaSu Pitts). It becomes the Americanization of Ruggles, as he begins to assert himself, question what he really wants out of life, and decides to stop being dominated by convention and tradition.
This intelligent but sweet-natured film is one of the great, unsung patriotic comedies, but it wouldn't be a McCarey movie without tackling issues regarding human foibles. The fact that poor Ruggles is blithely used as the stakes in a card game is an ugly reminder of how servants tend to be regarded by everyone else. When Ruggles learns he is to be sent to America, he worriedly asks, "The slave country?" and the Earl complacently reminds him that slavery no longer exists there. If only he and the Flouds knew what slavery really was, then they'd know how unforgivably they're treating Ruggles. Ruggles of Red Gap also isn't above lampooning the nouveau riche, as Effie puts on airs, clumsily tries to climb the social ladder, and mangles French expressions (she pronounces "adieu" as "a-duhr") while Egbert wears his gaudy checked suits with gushing pride.
But I meant what I said when I said this was a grandly patriotic film, and the highlight is a revelatory scene where Ruggles, who has something akin to a spiritual awakening about America. He asks everyone around him what Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, and, to everyone's visible embarrassment, nobody can tell him (uncomfortably true to life). Ruggles proceeds silence everyone by reciting it, its meaning affecting everyone in sight. It is one of the most rousing, show-stopping moments I've ever seen. Apparently, Laughton was so moved by the speech that he held up production. His emotions are evident onscreen, and it will give you a newfound appreciation for a speech we only think we know.
Ruggles is an absolutely wonderful character, made all the better by Laughton's peerless portrayal. I've been ranting and raving lately about how all pre-Brando film acting wasn't stylized, and Laughton in Ruggles of Red Gap is a perfect example. On the surface, Ruggles is stiff and robotically professional, but Laughton's expressive eyes betray his doubts, fears, bemusement, all while maintaining a knowingly detached facial expression (Peter O'Toole had this same gift).
Charles Laughton has become something of a favorite actor of mine; a versatile, respected lead actor for many years, he primarily played villains, most notably the monstrous Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, and a flamboyantly evil Nero in The Sign of the Cross. But he occasionally escaped typecasting, playing the tragic Quasimodo in 1939's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and appeared in not one, but two Deanna Durbin musicals (they apparently got along great). Blessed with a cultured voice and finely-honed talent, Laughton was never considered a "star", most likely due to his lack of leading man looks (the poor guy played Henry VIII more than once) and the fact that he always looked a little older than he was (he was only 36 when Ruggles was released). Still, Ruggles is probably the most lovable character he ever played, and while watching, I couldn't help but wonder if Stephen Fry drew inspiration from Laughton's performance to play Reginald Jeeves on the TV series Jeeves and Wooster.
Laughton beautifully inhabits Ruggles, whose spirit is liberated through the ideas of ambition, dreams, courage, and individuality. The scene where he gets his first taste of alcohol and the chaos that ensues is comedy worthy of the Marx Brothers. Ruggles of Red Gap also reminds us that stereotyping other cultures is not limited to Americans. When Ruggles learns he's going to America, all he can think about is cowboys and Indians constantly shooting at each other. Misconceptions are universal, plain and simple. I also must make positive note of his innocent romance with Pitts, mostly because she isn't the typical ingenue, and actually seems like a good match for him.
It's frustrating that no one can make a high-spirited, good-hearted comedy that doesn't insult your intelligence anymore. Nowadays, good people are idiots, jerks are the protagonists, and lines are delivered in an awkward, tone-deaf manner under the guise of "realism".
McCarey and company made a delightful fable that will make you want to stand and salute.