Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

by on April 4, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed April 4 thru Tue April 10 at 1:30, 3:30, 5:30, 7:30, 9:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*No 5:30 or 7:30 shows on Mon, April 9

This obscure gem finally gets its deserved spotlight in a one-week run. We looooooooooove this movie. And we’re not the only ones: Wes Anderson deems it the movie he’d most like to remake, and Jonathan Lethem named his Maine bookstore after it.



Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

A warm, elegant comedy (1935) by Leo McCarey, about an English butler (Charles Laughton) who suddenly finds himself in the wild west when an American wins him in a poker game. The locals look to him for a touch of European culture, but his greatest moment comes when he recites the Gettysburg Address to a barroom full of astonished cowboys. The cast—which includes Mary Boland, Charles Ruggles, and ZaSu Pitts—shines under McCarey’s relaxed, free-flowing direction.



Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

Charles Laughton starred in this justly honored version of the venerable comedy by Harry Leon Wilson. The film, directed in a calm, restrained style by Leo McCarey, is just about irresistible, even with its big scene–Laughton, an English valet in the Old West, reciting the Gettysburg Address in a saloon, as the camera pans across the awed faces of the cowhands. It’s a bit much, but it works like magic.

Billy Stevenson for A Film Canon:

Ruggles Of Red Gap would be a fairly standard comedy of manners, were it not for the unusual performance of Charles Laughton as butler Marmaduke Ruggles, who finds himself suddenly transplanted to America, where the social conditions upon which his service is predicated are (supposedly) meaningless. Laughton’s innovation is to take Ruggles’ hereditary inclination for butlerdom literally, such that etiquette becomes a physiological phenomenon; or, more accurately, a way of cauterising his sensory access to the world. Thus his first ‘American’ experience – the moment at which his new patron invites him to drink at the same table – disorients him with respect to his own body, producing a blankness that is quickly followed by a series of occasional, seemingly inexplicable, physical outbursts; a slippage between thought and action encapsulated in his bulging stare, which gives the impression that his eyes are operating independently of his brain, and adds an ambiguous, subversive surplus to his conversational contributions. Given that this American sensorium is identified with physical camaraderie, especially as it manifests itself in eating and drinking, it makes sense that Ruggles’ eventual compromise between hereditary and environmental factors should take the form of “The Anglo-American Grill”, where, as chef and proprietor, he participates in its indulgences from a decorous distance.



Time Out Film Guide:

Ruggles is a British butler (don’t you know), Red Gap is the American shack of a town he comes to work in, having been won in a poker game. After initial incomprehension, he recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and becomes the country’s greatest fan. Sounds awful? Not so; this is the archetypal film they don’t make any more, partly because comedy has now grown too raucous to favour the quiet drollery of players like Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland, partly because after the ’30s even McCarey himself had problems in separating sentiment from sentimentality. Laughton, as always, enjoys himself enormously; we can only follow.

Alt Screen editor Dan Callahan’s tribute to Charlie Ruggles, at The Chiseler.


Andrew Sarris in You Ain’t Heard Nothing’ Yet!:

Ruggles of Red Gap established McCarey as a major director with a flair for off-beat humor and seriocomic situations. His vogue only lasted a decade, but in that period he left his stylistic mark on the American sound film. Jean Renoir said of McCarey in this period: “Leo McCarey is one of the few directors who understand human beings.” As it turns out, time has vindicated Renoir’s cryptic judgement. In the late sixties McCarey was thought to represent a principle of improvisation in the pacing of his scenarios. Hailed for his relaxed digressions, McCarey was grouped with such other eminent veterans of silent screen comedies as La Cava, Stevens, and Capra.

For a long time, McCarey was overshadowed by Capra because of the latter’s “bigger” subjects packed with social significance. McCarey worked on a more intimate canvas, but his emotional colors proved to be richer and deeper than Capra’s. Who can forget Charles Laughton reciting the Gettysburg Address in Ruggles of Red Gap or, even more enchantingly in the same film, Binnie Barnes teaching Roland Young to play the drums?



Paul Harrill for Senses of Cinema:

McCarey’s watershed – simultaneously a culmination of over a decade’s worth of comic training, but also a confident expression of a new, more personal direction producing films with deeper emotional resonance and greater sensitivity to human behavior. A wholly successful picture, the film is funny, genuinely touching, and may well be one of the best films ever made – including those by Capra – about the idea of America.

McCarey’s detractors (and sometimes even his supporters) argue that he is a director of great moments rather than great films. Up until Ruggles of Red Gap, this is a fair assessment: McCarey trained as a gag-man and grew, some would say slowly, into a director of features. But while Ruggles contains some of his finest set pieces – including the justifiably famous scene where Ruggles the Brit is the only person in a bar of clueless, speechless Americans that can recite the Gettysburg Address – the film also coheres as a narrative.

One reason it coheres, and one thing that marks Ruggles as McCarey’s first mature feature, is that here he begins to deal spiritual themes, something that runs through virtually all of the remainder of his work for the next twenty-two years. Ruggles is a very funny movie, but McCarey is dead serious about what lies at its core: it is a film about a man’s spiritual transformation. After Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address in the bar, all the patrons share a beer together. It is a moment of informal, but real, communion – a ceremony celebrating Ruggles’ “baptism,” not just as an American, but more importantly, as a human being with fully developed hopes and desires of his own.


Blogger Clydefro Jones:

Ruggles of Red Gap immediately took its place as one of the better comedies I’ve seen from the 1930s. Laughton is really outstanding as the title character. His transformation from completely uptight and proper valet to a liberated man of the people is extraordinary. The scene where his new employer, Egbert Floud, and Floud’s friend are drinking at a Paris cafe, suddenly drunk after a cut fast forwards the drinking time, perfectly plays with the audience. We see the two Americans obnoxiously hooting and hollering as Ruggles sits silently in the middle with mostly full glasses of alcohol. Suddenly, though, Ruggles lets out his own exclamation and it becomes obvious that he too is tanked, albeit with considerably less consumed. From then on, Ruggles is his own man, slowly freed from a life of servitude.

There are enough shenanigans and humorous moments in McCarey’s film to merit a strong recommendation on the sole basis of it making the audience laugh without feeling bad about what we find funny, but there’s also a stronger, more touching stream running beneath the comedy. When Ruggles is first told by his master, the Earl of Bumstead (Roland Young), that he’s been lost in a poker game and will have to make America his new home, he associates the continent with slavery. Such an inhumane and cruel practice is obviously looked upon unfavorably by this man, one who ironically spends his life at the beck and call of another human being, someone who treats him like a lesser citizen and requires his services for seemingly personal and simple matters like dressing and reading the newspaper.


Joseph Jon Lanthier for Slant:

The most brazenly inclusive of any socially minded Hollywood film from the pre-war era, Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap is a schizo, slack-jawed, preemptive rejoinder to Frank Capra’s saintly sober “everyman.” The story, about a British butler, Marmaduke Ruggles (a transformative Charles Laughton), who involuntarily migrates to the turn-of-the-century wild west as the newly acquired personal assistant of some less-than-refined ranchers, espouses nationalist hokum no less exuberant than Capra’s, but with more likeable elasticity. Could an anachronistic manservant from the cradle of the United States actually become an American—that is, not just exchange the frivolity of citizenship, but douse himself in and drink deeply of the colonial-capitalist esprit?

Why the heck not, McCarey and Laughton respond with a coarse flippancy that offers a negative tone-image of Powell and Pressburger’s subtly propogandistic, transatlantic goodwill (cf. A Canterbury Tale). And thus Capra’s smoothed vanilla, demagogic everyman, before even being properly developed, was trumped by McCarey’s anyman, the notion that sturdy stateside values are so valuable because of their inability to be encapsulated within a single, manly image. And Laughton, even in 1935, was chameleonic and swollen enough that any suggestion of his having swallowed both the U.K. and the U.S. whole was entirely plausible.

Ruggles of Red Gap portrays the west, and the entire, still-untamed country by extension, as an environment fecund enough to forgive any folly or in-fighting, a world where a man can start his own business from nothing or simply prove himself an emblematic idiot with a brief attention span—or, as is most often the case, both in tandem. That vision of American democracy as a frontier of psychotic sprawl to be endured rather than enslaved—the egg that McCarey laid and Sturges hatched—has yet to be improved on in film, or embraced with such staggering innocence. Following their template, one can nearly love this reckless country without ignoring what this reckless country is capable of.



R. Emmet Sweeney for Moving Image Source:

Producer of Ruggles, Arthur Hornblow, Jr.: “[McCarey and Laughton] had an instant rapport. In fact, they were so much in rhythm, that [I] became the “heavy” in the trio. Charles and McCarey both seemed to resist producers as representatives of the establishment.” This anti-establishment mentality produced a film that, paradoxically, was a beautiful ode to American democratic establishment values as well as a peerless comedy of manners. The film is a dream of America, a vision of the country’s best intentions made flesh in the town of Red Gap, where class barriers dissolve and officious social climbers get their comeuppance. This vision is crystallized in the scene where Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address in a bar, after none of the residents can remember the words. The country of the address exists solely in Ruggles’s head, but it’s his (and McCarey’s) unstinting belief in a more perfect union that pushes Red Gap closer to Lincoln’s model—and makes the film so enduringly affecting.

Charles Laughton’s Ruggles is a brilliant creation, a fastidious man who rarely breaks his perfect posture, his growing disquiet with his role in society played out mostly through his sarcastic saucer eyes. McCarey gives him plenty of room to exploit this physical interpretation of the role, and one scene encapsulates their working relationship on the set. In a piece for The Saturday Evening Post entitled “The Role I Liked Best…,” Laughton recounts the beginnings of a scene where he makes tea for love interest Prunella (Zasu Pitts), “Once, when a prop man was making me a cup of tea on the set, I objected because he took the kettle of hot water to the tea. ‘Always bring the pot to the kettle,’ I told him. ‘Never bring the kettle to the pot.’ McCarey sat right down at the piano and started working out the little score about that, which you may have seen in the film.”

Examples of this kind of spontaneous scene-building abound in McCarey’s work, and stand out for their emphasis on character—on slowing down the plot to savor the various idiosyncrasies of his actors. As Robin Wood puts it, McCarey works with “actors-as-people, intimate and spontaneous.”

Laughton reminiscences:

Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →