29 August 2016

Ruggles of Red Gap: A Perfect Little Movie

I love this film, and never get tired of watching it. In part this is because of the many delicious performances, from Charles Laughton in the title role on down to the supporting cast of nameless French waiters and assorted cowboys. And beneath the delightful comic surface, it’s also an uplifting story about the golden promise of America, a promise that was fulfilled for Laughton himself, as for so many others. What I love about this movie is its unquestioning love of American values; the story is simple, but it aims to demonstrate just what our concept of equality means to one individual. It’s not just hilarious; it’s inspiring.
This was Laughton’s first major comic role, after a run of serious and downright grim portrayals from Nero in The Sign of the Cross through Henry VIII to the controlling father in The Barretts of Wimpole Street to Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. All of these were critically acclaimed and successful, but Laughton was to expand his horizons even more.
Ruggles of Red Gap was adapted from a series of popular stories about the gradual civilization of a western town in the 1890’s, by Harry Leon Wilson. The scene opens in Paris. Laughton is Marmaduke Ruggles, an extremely proper valet to the English Earl of Burnstead  (marvelous Roland Young), descendant of a long line of manservants. To his chagrin, Ruggles is “lost” in a poker game to Egbert Floud, a visiting American millionaire, and his indomitable spouse, Effie, played by Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland (one of the great screen pairings of all time).
Charlie Ruggles, Charles Laughton, Mary Boland

The performances make every moment of this movie absolutely priceless. Ruggles’ farewell to his master, who he has served since they were both very young, is just the first of many incomparable scenes. (Roland Young’s stiff upper lip is a masterpiece in itself.)  On his entry into the Floud household Ruggles is instructed by Effie to help her husband obtain an entirely new — and classy — wardrobe, which turns out to be a bit more difficult than it seems. Egbert, however, is friendly — too friendly, in Effie’s opinion.
With considerable trepidation, Ruggles accompanies the Flouds back to America. They get off the train in Red Gap, Washington, to be greeted by Effie’s mother, known to all as Ma Pettingill (Maud Eberne), and brother-in-law and sister, Mr. and Mrs. Belknap-Jackson (Lucien Littlefield and Leota Lorraine). It turns out that Ma Pettingill, though a down to earth, unpretentious woman, is the real source of the family fortune, as she owns enormous timber, oil, and mining interests (Ma Pettingill was the main character of the stories). Her daughters, however, have both turned into snobbish social climbers, and Effie’s acquisition of Ruggles is part of her plan to solidify her social status.
Unfortunately for Effie, Egbert has a habit of bestowing humorous nicknames on his friends and acquaintances, and has taken to introducing Ruggles as “Colonel.” And soon after their arrival, the local newspaper editor takes this seriously, and writes up a piece stating that Col. Marmaduke Ruggles, late of the British Army, is visiting his friends Mr. and Mrs. Floud. Effie is infuriated but helpless, and Ruggles is taken to the bosom of Red Gap society, so to speak, and welcomed everywhere.

Roland Young and Leila Hyams
The honest friendliness and egalitarianism of his new friends has a powerful effect on Ruggles. The possibility that he was not born to be a servant dawns on him; since everyone treats him as an equal, perhaps his role in life is not predetermined after all. Egbert takes him to an easygoing hangout run by a beautiful, independent woman, Nell Kenner (Leila Hyams), where the locals congregate to drink beer and dance. There he meets an attractive widow, Mrs. Judson (Zasu Pitts), who helps Nell with the serving when she’s busy, and they strike up an interesting friendship. 
The plot takes various twists and turns -- Belknap-Jackson becomes extremely hostile to Ruggles, and is intent on keeping him in his place, while everyone else in Red Gap is happy to include him in the life of the town. With the help of his new friends, he decides to open his own restaurant — The Angle-American Grill. But his plans are almost thwarted when the Earl, finding that he cannot do without Ruggles, arrives in Red Gap in person to retrieve him. 
But the Earl is sidetracked when he falls head-over-heels in love with Nell Kenner; by the end, Belknap-Jackson is thwarted, and Ruggles has found his place as an independent man.
Every performance is a gem in this movie. Laughton, of course, is the heart of the film, and his Ruggles is alive and whole. It really is amazing that he, with his unprepossessing looks — his face in repose is as smooth and full as an egg  — and decidedly un-athletic figure, can use these seemingly clumsy tools to communicate so thoroughly every thought and feeling of a fellow human being. Charlie Ruggles’ Egbert Floud, mustachioed, loud, enthusiastic, gruff-voiced, and naturally cheerful, is another memorable creation from an actor who is not accorded nearly the respect he deserves — think of the Major in Trouble in Paradise, Susan’s uncle Horace Applegate in Bringing Up Baby, the stuffy Philo Swift in No Time for Comedy, the girl-crazy Russian servant in Balalaika — and so many more. The same can be said for glorious Mary Boland, whose Effie Floud is simply hilarious — though all the while being a strong, determined, and extremely lovely woman, who wears one beautiful 90’s gown after another with perfect savoir faire. Zasu Pitts is sweet as the little widow Ruggles falls in love with, Leila Hyams perfectly charming as Nell, and Roland Young peerless as Lord Burnstead.
The beauty of a high-powered cast like this is that the actors interact with each other on an equal footing; none of the characters are slighted to emphasize the star role. They all have their moments, and their reactions to each other are what propel the emotional progress of the story.
Incredible as it may seem today, in 1936 there actually was some controversy over this good-hearted, enjoyable movie. Laughton, who loved living in the United States and eventually became a citizen, suggested that a scene where Ruggles recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address be added to show his growing understanding of American values. The scene was included — causing the film to be banned in Germany, which was ruled at that time, of course, by the Nazis. If a man can be judged by his enemies, can the same be said of a film? If so, that’s one more indication of the quality of this gem of a movie.

(Ruggles of Red Gap will be shown on Turner Classic Movies on September 19 at 9:45 p.m.)

Ben Mankiewicz intro on TCM

The opening scenes: