Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ruggles of Red Gap

Tonight's selection for Essentials, Jr. on TCM is the 1935 comedy Ruggles of Red Gap, a movie which contrasts well with a lot of the screwball comedies that were being made at the time.

Charlie Ruggles plays Egbert Floud, a man in the first decade of the 20th century who's made a fortune in ranching in the decidedly uncultured town of Red Gap, Washington. Egbert's wife Effie (Mary Boland), wants Egbert to get some culture, so she's taken him to Paris, which is where the movie opens. Egbert, for his part, doesn't seem so interested in soaking up that culture. He's gotten himself into a poker game with the very British Earl of Bumstead (Roland Young), and is winning: to pay off the debts, the Earl has to give up the services of his butler, Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton). Although Effie doesn't like her husband gambling -- in Paris, no less, where she should be learning culture! -- she realizes that this could be an opportunity for the proper English butler to teach her husband some things about the finer points of life.

Egbert, for his part, plans to have nothing of that. He treats Marmaduke as just as good as he is; none of that class-conscious stuff here. Although Effie intends for Marmaduke to be their butler once they return to Red Gap, Egbert arranges things so that everybody in Red Gap will believe Marmaduke is actually a former British Army officer visiting Red Gap. Indeed, Marmaduke's coming to America has less of an effect on Egbert than it does on Marmaduke, who begins to start taking on the American attitude about the country being a land of opportunity and all men being created equal and all that stuff.

By this time Effie and her high-class brother have fired Marmaduke, forcing him to try to earn a living elsewhere, which he plans to do with the help of local widow Prunells (ZaSu Pitts). He's cooked for her, and she was impressed enough with it to suggest that he go into business for himself by opening a restuarant. Just as the restuarant is about to open, however, the Earl shows up, with the intention of renewing his contract for Marmaduke's services....

Ruggles of Red Gap has something in common with some of those great screwball comedies of the 1930s in that you've got a clash of classes and cultures, with the level-headed guy getting changed just as much as the ditzy people. Just as William Powell changes Carole Lombard and family in My Man Godfrey and he gets changed by them; or the journey that changes Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, so class-sytem imbued Marmaduke Ruggles' journey to America changes him completly when the journey was supposed to change the other party. But there's also a big difference in tone between Ruggles of Red Gap and the movies that first spring to mind when we think of screwball. There's no daffy heiress here for one, and the rich people are the nouveaux riches instead of the old money families. And everybody in the cast is decidedly more normal looking -- not ugly, but certainly not Hollywood glamorous.

As for the acting, Charlie Ruggles was the one known as a comedic performer (along with ZaSu Pitts), but Charles Laughton also shows how surprisingly good he could be at comedy. Mary Boland is doing something here that could have been done just as easily by Billie Burke; I'm imagining Burke's obsession over Lord and Lady Ferncliffe in Dinner at Eight. But Boland is more than adequate putting on her airs in Paris while showing that she really doesn't belong.

Ruggles of Red Gap has made it to DVD thanks to Universal's DVD MOD scheme. So, you can buy it at Amazon, but not at the TCM Shop.

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