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Tuesday 21 April 2009

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Director: Leo McCarey
Stars: Charles Laughton, Mary Boland, Charlie Ruggles, ZaSu Pitts, Roland Young and Leila Hyams

At the 1936 Academy Awards that represented the 1935 year in film, Ruggles of Red Gap didn't do too well. It was nominated for Best Picture, though so were ten others, but the film that won out was a different Charles Laughton picture, Mutiny on the Bounty. That took a number of other awards too, but notably not the Best Actor award, The Informer's Victor McLaglen taking advantage of the fact that he was the only nomination for that category to not have been from Mutiny on the Bounty. So Laughton lost out on a nomination for this film for that one, and lost out on the win because his co-stars in that one, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone, were nominated too, thus diluting the vote in McLaglen's favour.

However the awards read though, 1935 was an awesome year for Laughton, already an established star but making him one of the most memorable actors in the business. And one of the most versatile too: Ruggles and Capt Bligh are about as different as roles could be. As we begin this film, Ruggles is in Paris, serving as gentleman's gentleman to the Earl of Burnstead. These two characters are the first of many outrageous stereotypes we'll meet through this film: Ruggles is precisely what he should be, a top notch servant, and he's taking care of a confirmed member of the absent minded idle rich. Between the pair of them, they comprise a single functional human being, but soon the Earl will have to fend for himself because the night before he lost Ruggles in his first poker game.

The winners are an American couple, just as stereotypical as the English characters we've just met. Egbert Floud is a loud and obnoxious backwoods hick well versed in colourful colloquialisms, prone to whoops and hollers and truly horrifying checked suits. He's also a millionaire, courtesy of some sort of lumber interests back home in Washington state. This has led his wife to delusions of grandeur, attempting horrific French and committing faux pas after faux pas as she attempts to pass herself off as the peak of high society. While Egbert wouldn't know what to do with a gentleman's gentleman, Effie is very eager to pick herself up a cultured English servant to impress her friends with.

So off they trek back home to Red Gap, a frontier town in the wild west of Washington, where Egbert introduces him to everyone as Colonel Ruggles, retired British army officer. And so Ruggles throws the whole place upside down. Egbert leads him astray in every way that could horrify Effie, who wants to get rid of him. Of course, by this time the rest of Red Gap is eager to meet the Colonel, so she can't do any such thing. By the time Mr Charles Belknap-Jackson, a Boston creampuff who married into the family's money, manages to get rid of him, the timing is as terrible as can be because the Earl is on his way to get him back.

This would seem on the face of it to be a fish out of water tale, done up with so many stereotypes that it ought to be scary to watch. However it's an utter gem, with a razor sharp script, subtle direction and a string of utterly perfect performances. I'm not going to suggest that it should have beaten Mutiny on the Bounty for that Best Picture Oscar, but it's a film to return to far more than its competitor, and watch over and over again. There's a throwaway line in this film where Egbert Floud describes a bottle of champagne as 'imprisoned laughter' and that would be good description for the film too. The title doesn't suggest much but the film is an utter delight.

Much of that has to go to Charles Laughton in the title role. He is stunning here, in a role that takes him from comfortable service to awesomely uncomfortable service and on to breaking generations of tradition to become his own man and start up a restaurant. He steals these early scenes like a pro. While his new master and mistress, played by Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland, whoop it up or flounce around, both flamboyantly, he is always the character to watch, even when he's just moving his eyes or by doing precisely nothing. It's a tour de force and a textbook on how to scene steal from scene stealers.

His most notable scene though comes later on. In the Silver Dollar saloon, Egbert mentions what Lincoln said at Gettysburg but can't actually remember what he said. Neither can any of the other men in the bar, who of course are all Americans. Ruggles recites the thing in entirety, which Laughton was keen to do in a single take, something that he repeated offscreen on the sets of Mutiny on the Bounty and, later, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This scene is a pivotal one in the story but it became a memorable one for moviegoers of the thirties, who would often applaud at the end of the scene.

Ruggles and Boland are excellent as the Flouds, utterly different but equally flamboyant, in what would be only one of fourteen films they made together as a double act. They get so many great lines it's hard to count them, never mind list them, but they throw them out there with aplomb. My favourite may be one of Effie's that epitomises her character, a common sort who tries to live above her station. In asking Ruggles to take her husband to the art gallery, she tells him to 'see that he acts like a gentleman if you have to hogtie him.'

However they're outshone by Laughton and by a couple of other actors in the film. ZaSu Pitts (this was back in the days when her first name had two capital letters) is the lady who Ruggles falls for in Red Gap. Initially she's the widow of Elmo Judson, who was hit by his favourite mule and never got over it. She becomes Prunella Judson, the lady who sets Ruggles firmly on a new direction in life. It's not the most ditzy or the most outrageous role that Pitts ever played and in fact it's a lost more subtle than most of the parts here, but the scenes that this mismatched couple share are some of the best in the film.

Bizarrely, the funniest character in the film is the driest: the Earl of Burnstead, George Vane Bassinger. In the hands of Roland Young, he's the epitome of the upper class character who swans through life without a care and without apparently a thought. I was in stitches for a number of his dialogues. He falls for a Red Gap girl himself, Nell Kenner, in an absent minded haze. 'Do you believe in love at first sight?' he asks her. When she answers, 'No, do you?' he throws out utterly deadpan, 'No. That's why I'd like to stay for a while, if I may.'

There are many such examples, with Young playing the dry card to almost everyone in the cast, but the most memorable has to be the one in which he plays the drums at one of Nell Kenner's parties, with her singing and accompanying him on piano, apparently teaching him American rhythms. There's no specific word or line that makes this scene funny but I swear Young had actress Leila Hyams in stitches and director Leo McCarey refused to cut. It's an awesome scene in every way, and the film is not far behind.

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