Ruggles of Red Gap
“Ruggles” is a “fish out of water” story with Laughton as the fish. Laughton’s Marmaduke Ruggles is a proper English butler traveling with his employer, Lord Burnstead (Roland Young), in 1908 Paris. Burnstead loses Ruggles in a poker game to loud talking (and dressing) uncouth American millionaire Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles, no relation to the eponymous title character). Egburt, forever henpecked and disapproved of by his nouveau riche, high society wannabe wife Effie (Mary Boland), takes Ruggles under his wing. Za Su Pitts appears as Ruggles romantic interest, Mrs. Judson. What is so great about these long gone actors is that they could, well, act. McCarey intelligently allowed many of the scenes to play out in master shots requiring the actors, who no doubt had extensive stage experience, to play off each other. There is no need for close-ups to convey emotion or cover flubbed lines.
Ruggles, an ethnocentric sort at first, imagines life in the American west, in the town of Red Gap Washington, to be rough and tumble. However this fish out of water soon grows legs as he becomes less of a servant and more of his own man in a film that ultimately celebrates traditional American ideals while the snobs get their comeuppance. In certain respects “Ruggles” is a one joke film, but the saving grace is that it happens to be a good joke.
“Ruggles” represents a unique role for Laughton. Laughton is best remembered for playing stern, authoritarian characters who could not be more different from Ruggles: Henry VIII (“The Private Life of Henry VIII” 1933) and Captain Bligh (“Mutiny on the Bounty” 1935) to name just two. In “Ruggles” we are given an unusual glimpse into Laughton’s comic talent. In fact, Laughton enjoyed making “Ruggles” so much that, following its completion, he wanted to make another comedy. Scheduling however had him go right into playing Javert, the relentless police inspector in “Les Miserables” (1935). It is a testament to Laughton’s talent that he was able to shift gears from the light hearted Ruggles to the repressed, self righteous Javert. “Ruggles” and “Les Miserables would make for an interesting double bill.
Another unique aspect of “Ruggles” is that it is a rare case in which the remake is better known than the original. Based on a novel and play by Henry Leon Wilson “Ruggles” was first filmed in 1918 and then again in 1923 yet, when movie fans refer to “Ruggles,” they are almost always referring to this third version.
I will refrain from using the cliché that “they don’t make them like that anymore.” I will simply state that “Ruggles” is an infectiously fun, old time comedy with a game cast and director.
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Posted on April 2, 2012, in Classics, Film Forum and tagged Charles Laughton, Charlie Ruggles, Film Forum, Leo McCarey, Mary Boland, Roland YOung, Ruggles of Red Gap, Za Su Pitts. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.