This pre-war comedy of manners offers the chance to see the great Charles Laughton in a role rarely remembered these days, although the movie and its twice-before-filmed serialised source novel of 1915 (by Harry Leon Wilson) were both much loved in their time. A period piece set in 1908, the film casts Laughton in the comic role of Marmaduke Ruggles: the refined, slightly fey and proper English valet to his Bertie Wooster-like ‘gentleman’ George Vane Bassingwell, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young). While holidaying in Paris, the Earl negligently loses his man Ruggles in a game of poker to nouveau riche American couple Egbert and Effie Floud (the appropriately named Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland) and after some comic-based misadventures in the French capital, the stiff-necked butler finds himself transported with his new employees reluctantly back to their North American home – which is to say the rapidly emerging Pacific North West town of Red Gap, Washington. What follows is a light hearted commentary on the clash of sensibilities that ensues when Old World customs and the buttoned-up sense of social propriety embodied in a quintessential bowler-hatted Englishman like Ruggles, meets the uncouth, classless, rugged individuality of an expanding and prosperous New World.
But the film is also a document of the fading American Old West at the turn of the 20th Century, as the country struggles to adapt itself and develop an identity in the changing, rapidly industrialising landscape indicative of the early nineteen-hundreds. The couple who ‘adopt’ Ruggles represent the twin poles of this North American recalibration: Egbert is an unreconstructed cowboy-turned-businessman who retains his baggy check suits, his pipe, a droopy wild-west walrus moustache and a levelling take-people-as-you-find-them-on-the-ranch, backslapping exuberance, while his socially aspirant but gauche wife Effie aims to enhance their position amongst Red Gap’s newly moneyed elite with this fortuitous acquisition of authentic Old World charm in the guise of a ‘proper’ English butler. Most of the film’s initial comedy is generated from the combination of Ruggles’ distaste for his employees’ enthusiastic but clumsy efforts to imitate the sort of refinement Effie in particular perceives in European sensibilities, but which comes out instead as ill-informed snobbishness (Effie tries to use French phraseology to make herself seem sophisticated but routinely mispronounces or misapplies her terms) and Ruggles’ attempts, at the behest of Effie, to transform the rambunctious and proudly shabby Egbert into a proper, smartly suited, properly groomed Gentleman (out goes the walrus moustache!) with a refined appreciation of historical classicism and European art etc. Instead, Ruggles’ efforts to contain Egbert’s uncouth mischievousness come undone when he’s cajoled into imbibing copious amounts of alcohol in a street café with Egbert’s rowdy backslapping friend Tuttle (James Burke) and ends up joining in with the duo’s insalubrious revellings and cavorting at a Parisian fairground. To cap it all he later drunkenly conducts himself with an inappropriate familiarity in the presence of Effie and is mortified by his own behaviour in the morning.
The original novel was by all accounts an uncomplicated patriotic celebration of the American way and an excoriation of a perceived hidebound, old-fashioned, class-bound and stagnant set of European traditions and their rigidly codified social divisions. The US film version still conveys something of this but its spirit is in the end altogether more ecumenical with regard to the virtues of its British cousin (perhaps with overseas box office considerations in mind) and the humour is languid and gentle and laced throughout with well-choreographed slapstick. Laughton’s performance is sometimes considered rather odd and supremely mannered in its stylisation, and it’s true that his portrayal of the upright English butler comes across as shifty, slightly fey and rather uncomfortable -- as well as edgy, anxious and not a little repressed; Ruggles does not display the effortless unruffled cool of Wodehouse’s Jeeves, for instance (who didn’t actually debut as a central character until 1916, a year after the publication of Wilson’s novel). But the performance is partly a contrivance designed for comic effect to be contrasted with the exuberant freewheeling manner of Egbert and his ‘cowboy cronies, the latter met with when the prim & proper Ruggles reaches Red Gap. Here he’s introduced to the rest of the Floud clan, who all live together in a tastelessly gaudy mansion and form a microcosm of the upper elite of this emerging American town: Effie Floud’s sister (Leota Lorraine) is married to the loathsome Charles Belknap-Jackson (Lucien Littlefield) -- a Bostonian attracted by the oil money that made the Floud sisters’ mother Maude 'Ma' Pettingill (an ebullient, thigh-slapping performance from Maude Eburne) a prime mover in the town, despite her lack of interest in pursuing her daughters’ attempts to ape the mores of Old World refinement.
The lack of social stratification in Red Gap means that Ruggles is soon able to become a kind of well-loved local eccentric in the community after a misunderstanding on his arrival leads to his being announced in the local paper as a visiting colonel in the Coldstream Guards. Unable to take the social pretensions of the snobbish Charles Belknap-Jackson seriously, he soon becomes an enemy of exactly the kind of one-upmanship and stiffness he was brought to the town to facilitate for his new employees; but ironically, his now-unwilling host Effie can no longer get rid of him so easily because she and the Belknap-Jacksons are still enamoured of the social distinction his presence in the household has inadvertently brought the Floud clan. Soon Ruggles’ dealings with an array of colourful Red Gap residents, such as the much locally despised dancer Nell Kenner (Leila Hyams) and widowed cook Prunella Judson (ZaSu Pitts), whom Ruggles develops a romantic affiliation to -- cause him to reject his old life as a butler and to celebrate the rich diversity and social equality the film posits as being central to the American way (that is unless you happen to be the Floud mansion’s barely glimpsed black manservant or its Chinese doorman, presumably), as represented not by the pretentious Belknap-Jackson and his ilk but by Egbert, Nell and Ma Pettingill, and the homespun attitudes displayed by the patrons of the Angel Saloon.
The key scene of the movie, designed to show that the sense of history inherent in the Old World traditions Ruggles embodies can sit comfortably hand-in-hand with the thrusting, North American pioneer spirit, comes when Ruggles proves to be the only client of the local saloon bar who can recall (and recite word for word) Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Ruggles’ appreciation of tradition and his sense of history and heritage enhance his live-for-the-moment hosts’ sense of themselves and their place in the world, while they in turn help him to realise his true self, so that when his former boss, the Earl of Burnstead, eventually turns up again intending to bring him back home to his old life, he finds a Ruggles who has at last given up the job his family had previously pursued for generations, and gone into business for himself -- opening an Anglo-American grill house with Miss Judson. It’s not long until he too succumbs to the American way and falls in love with the dancer Nell Kenner during a charming scene in which she attempts to teach the laid-back English aristocrat jazz drums, thus opening the way for her own rise in social status.
Laughton employed director Leo McCarey (the man who originally brought Laurel and Hardy together and directed the Marx Brothers classic “Duck Soup”) for the job of bringing this delicate affair to the screen, and he does so with stylish panache in long but effective takes during which the action plays out often in simply staged master shots that also have the virtue of showing off production designers Hans Dreier and Robert Odell’s beautiful evocation of turn-of-the century Paris (with all its Art Nouveau architectural frills) and the Fordian splendour of Red Gap itself -- a Wild West frontier town now transforming itself into a vibrant, steam-driven exemplar of modernity. This new Masters of Cinema release features a surprisingly strong HD transfer which retains the original film grain while supplying enhanced contrast and pleasing detail, showing off cinematographer Alfred Gilks’ work to ultimate advantage. Extras wise, there are optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired, a music and effects only track and three radio adaptations in which Laughton and Charles Ruggles can be heard returning to their much-loved roles regularly over a decade long period, all supplemented by a recording of Laughton delivering the Gettysburg Address. Simon Callow provides a 12 minute video assessment of the film and its place in the Laughton cannon, and relates it to Laughton’s own struggles with the English class system. Finally, there is also a 36 page booklet containing an interesting essay by film scholar Dan Sallitt and numerous production stills to round off the package.
“Ruggles of Red Gap” is an enjoyable gem from the Golden Age of Hollywood’s screen comedy tradition, containing some beautifully played character studies by the likes of Roland Young and Charles Ruggles alongside many agreeable slapstick episodes courtesy of Laughton et al. A worthwhile addition to the Masters of Cinema collection.
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