#525) Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)
OR “Gentleman’s Gentleman’s Agreement”
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson. Adaptation by Humphrey Pearson. Based on the novel by Harry Leon Wilson.
Class of 2014
No trailer, but here’s a recommendation from Peter Bogdanovich, and isn’t that just as good?
The Plot: While on holiday in Paris, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young) reveals to his loyal valet Ruggles (Charles Laughton) that he placed Ruggles as collateral in a poker game with nouveau riche Americans Egbert and Effie Floud (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland), and lost. While initially upset by this news, Ruggles accepts his new position as the Flouds’ servant, and journeys back with them to their home in Red Gap, Washington. After a miscommunication picked up by a local journalist, Ruggles is presumed to be a famous British colonel staying as the Flouds’ houseguest, and he becomes a local celebrity. Despite the mistaken identity, Ruggles begins to enjoy America, and wonders if he could make it on his own in this new world.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises director McCarey, and commends Laughton for “pull[ing] off comedy perfectly.”
But Does It Really?: While I question the placement of “Ruggles” on a list of quintessential American film, I did enjoy the film. Overall, “Ruggles” is a fun, harmless bit of entertainment, centered around Laughton’s outstanding comic performance, and aided by an ensemble of reliable studio players. While I can think of another, more iconic 1935 Charles Laughton film that still hasn’t made the NFR cut, “Ruggles” is a pleasant movie from the studio era that is still worth a watch over 85 years later.
Everybody Gets One: Shortly after editing “Ruggles”, Edward Dmytryk got his first directing gig with the low-budget Western “The Hawk”. His career was sidelined in the early ’50s when he became one of HUAC’s “Hollywood Ten”, but he eventually named names and his directing career resumed. Dmytryk is probably best remembered for directing the Humphrey Bogart courtroom drama “The Caine Mutiny“.
Wow, That’s Dated: Besides an opening shoutout to the shortlived National Recovery Administration, this film has the kind of casual racism towards Native, African and Asian-Americans we’ve come to expect from films of the era. Okay, so it’s not 100% harmless and enjoyable.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Ruggles of Red Gap” is one of the rare Best Picture Oscar nominees to only be nominated for Best Picture. “Ruggles” ultimately lost to “Mutiny on the Bounty”, for which Charles Laughton received a Best Actor nod.
- Paramount bought the film rights of “Ruggles” specifically for Charles Laughton, who in turn recommended Leo McCarey to direct based on his recent successful string of comedies such as “Duck Soup“. Production was delayed so that Laughton could play Mr. Micawber in MGM’s “David Copperfield”, though he was dismissed after two days of filming (some say at Laughton’s insistence, some say at the studio’s insistence). Despite Laughton’s early return to Paramount, “Ruggles” was still delayed because Laughton returned with a completely shaved head (Micawber is described as hairless in the Dickens novel). Paramount made MGM pay for delays while they waited for Laughton’s hair to grow back.
- Oh man, Laughton’s great in this. He does such a wonderful job playing it totally deadpan, mixed with some occasional character growth to keep the bit from going stale. The opening sequence between Ruggles and Lord Burnstead is a master class in comic timing. This all being said, speak up Laughton! I can’t hear you half the time!
- Charlie Ruggles is very good in this movie too, but that must have been a confusing time on this set. You couldn’t call for “Charlie” or “Ruggles” without both him and Laughton showing up. Attention must also be paid to Mary Boland, excellent as Egbert’s put-upon wife, and Maude Eburne as Effie’s fun-loving “Ma”.
- It’s nice seeing Zasu Pitts in a talkie. Most of Pitts’ NFR representation is for her silent work as an ingenue, and in “Ruggles” we see the beginnings of the dependable second banana she played for the remainder of her career. And she gets to play the awkward love interest! She’s still got it!
- Perhaps the film’s most memorable scene: Ruggles, as part of his new knowledge of America, reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a roomful of visibly moved bar patrons. It’s a speech about the inalienable rights and equality of all Americans, and the hope that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” So, ya know, fantasy.
- When Ruggles announces he wants to open a restaurant, Egbert suggests that it be called “A horse’s something”, which is immediately shot down. I’ll try not to be offended.
- Roland Young is giving Laughton a run for his money in the mumbly Brit department: I can’t understand him either! He’s throwing away every line! Young was still a few years away from perhaps his best known movie character; Cosmo Topper in a series of MGM comedies.
- Overall, I liked “Ruggles” and its harmless look at the American dream, with an immigrant being welcomed with open arms and successfully opening their own business. Different times indeed.
- The 1935 “Ruggles” was itself the third film adaptation of the 1915 novel (and the first with sound). A fourth remake followed in 1950, renamed “Fancy Pants” and starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, the latter who apparently decided immediately afterwards “Let’s try television.”
- Charles Laughton considered “Ruggles” one of his favorites of his own movies, and called the Gettysburg Address sequence “one of the most moving things that ever happened to me”. Laughton recited the address on numerous occasions after “Ruggles”, including on an Abbott & Costello hosted episode of “The Colgate Comedy Hour”. I’m assuming “Comedy” had the night off.
- Leo McCarey’s best work as director was still ahead of him, including fellow NFR entries “The Awful Truth”, “Make Way for Tomorrow“, and “Going My Way”.
- “Ruggles of Red Gap” gets the occasional mention by film buffs. A shoutout in the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink” led to a young Edward Norton discovering the film, which he now includes as one of his favorites. Thanks for getting the word out, Other Hulk.
And with that unnecessarily condescending Marvel reference, we conclude Year Four of The Horse’s Head. Thanks to each and every one of you for making 2020 easily the most successful year for the blog so far. We’ll be taking the holidays off, but will return in the new year for Year Five and a new roster of classic movies. Until then, please stay safe and take care of each other.