Film Title: Ruggles of Red Gap
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Charles Laughton
- Mary Boland
- Charles Ruggles
- ZaSu Pitts
- Roland Young
- Leila Hyams
Ruggles of Red Gap was released by Paramount on March 8, 1935. Though it is the most commonly known, it is not the first film of this title to be produced. The 1918 and 1923 versions were both silents, and the 1950 film Fancy Pants with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball is also an adaptation of this 1935 comedy starring Charles Laughton. Directed by Leo McCarey, who had over 90 films to his credit, including the 1933 Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap is a subtle masterpiece.
1908. Paris, France. Charles Laughton is Marmaduke Ruggles, a refined manservant with a robotic existence. His daily activities consist of nothing but caring for the Earl of Burnstead, George Vane Bassingwell (Roland Young). Bassingwell suddenly, yet regretfully, informs Ruggles that he has lost him in a poker game to an American named Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles, whose last name has no connection to the film title). Floud is a free-spirited hillbilly of sorts, who, despite his wealth, has never abandoned his dirt-poor mannerisms. Floud’s wife Effie (Mary Boland) is the complete opposite. She prances around like a conceited woman of high society determined to change her husband’s ways. Floud is more concerned with a cold glass of beer and laughing than socializing with the upper-crust. Before they leave Paris for their hometown of Red Gap, Washington, Effie commands Ruggles to find Egbert a more suitable wardrobe. She feels that his usual ensemble of checkered clothing is embarrassing to a man with money. Instead, Egbert drags Ruggles to a saloon for a few drinks. The two are soon joined by another friend of Egbert’s, who is just as much a hillbilly as Egbert himself. Ruggles has a very difficult time considering himself an equal and all but refuses to sit down. His years of service have taught him his place, regardless of Egbert’s reassurance that it’s not a crime to relax once in a while. With the passing of a few hours, Ruggles has not only relaxed, but thrown back one too many and become deliriously drunk. The three slap-happy men stumble back home in an attempt to sneak past Effie, but are caught red-nosed. Effie is angry with Ruggles for ignoring his duties. Nonetheless, they return to Red Gap and are greeted by a crowd of Egbert’s vagrant-looking pals. Effie boasts an even greater arrogance with Ruggles in tow. Meanwhile, Egbert is still one of the boys and playfully introduces Ruggles as his friend “Bill” and “Colonel”, rather than as his servant.
Ruggles and Egbert attend a gathering at the home of Nell Kenner (Leila Hyams), a pretty, down-to-earth singer who Egbert has known for years. Ruggles, still struggling to shake his statuesque demeanor, fraternizes with the guests and even dances with a young girl named Prunella Judson (Zasu Pitts) after giving her some pointers on how to make sauce. The local newspaper columnist is intrigued with Ruggles and begins scribbling “facts” about him on a notepad, the most far-fetched of which pegs Ruggles as a Colonel in the British army. It seems that all of Red Gap is taking a shine to their mysterious new visitor. Effie is again dissatisfied with Ruggles, but when the newspaper article is printed and names him as a distinguished guest of the Flouds, she realizes that firing him would damage her gilded reputation. Instead, Effie recruits her pompous brother-in-law, Charles Belknap-Jackson (Lucien Littlefield), to fire Ruggles by letter. By now, Ruggles has found a bit of comfort in Red Gap and is devastated by the release. He sadly packs his bags and stops at the Silver Dollar saloon while waiting for the San Francisco-bound train. Once inside the saloon, he finds Egbert with his friendly mother-in-law “Ma” Pettingill (Maude Eburne). Both Ma and Egbert are flabbergasted at the news of Ruggles’ firing and assure him that it will never go through. Ruggles is happy and finally understands the meaning of equality. To the surprise of the saloon patrons, Ruggles recites Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address verbatim when no one else can remember the words. Now riding on a boost of confidence, Ruggles decides to leave his servant days behind and open his own business in Red Gap.
The new business is to be a restaurant, The Anglo-American Grill. Ruggles has found a willing team of supporters in Prunella Judson, Egbert, and Ma, who agrees to donate a building to house the eatery. Everything appears to have taken a better direction for Red Gap. However, Effie informs Ruggles that his old employer, the Earl of Burnstead, is coming into town unexpectedly to retrieve him. With the foundation for the restaurant already laid, Ruggles finds himself at a crossroad. Though he is a drastically improved man, his servant roots cause him to second-guess his own independence. Bassingwell arrives and is entertained by Nell Kenner, who painfully struggles to teach him rhythm on a set of drums. It becomes clear that he has little life experience, and Nell begins to lose patience with his aloofness. When he and Ruggles finally meet face-to-face for the first time in months, Ruggles stands his ground and refuses to leave Red Gap. Bassingwell is caught off-guard and tries to dissuade him, however ineffectively. All of Red Gap turns out for the grand opening of The Anglo-American Grill. The customers appear to enjoy the food and Ruggles is an apparent success. Nell Kenner and Bassingwell stroll in as a couple, much to the chagrin of Effie. The damp rag of the crowd is Charles Belknap-Jackson, who not only insults the menu but demeans Ruggles. He “reminds” Ruggles that he is nothing more than a lowly servant who will always be on the bottom rung of society. Ruggles realizes that standing up for himself in public may cost him his business, as Belknap-Jackson is among the town’s elite.
Charles Laughton was still fresh off his Academy Award win for 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII when he made Ruggles of Red Gap, his 15th film. He had appeared in the Boris Karloff classic The Old Dark House and with co-star Leila Hyams in Island of Lost Souls. Laughton commanded attention for his quiet presence. The old saying “It’s the quiet ones you have to watch” would certainly hold true during his long and successful career. Laughton would appear in the suspense classic The Big Clock with Ray Milliand in 1948. Clock, like Ruggles, found Laughton as the subdued giant waiting for the opportunity to break his silence. Any actor who can play Henry VIII must be able to bite as ferociously as he barks. Charlie Ruggles’ first role was an extremely minor appearance in 1914’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Many of his subsequent roles would also be small, but as Egbert Floud, Ruggles would steal part of the spotlight. He played Floud perfectly as a bumbling fool unaffected by material wealth. Floud can almost be seen as the inspiration for the popular 1960s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. It was that fundamental humility that worked well in conjunction with Laughton’s Marmaduke Ruggles. Mary Boland was effective as Effie Floud. Her role called for an icy woman who is nothing without the social power she enjoys. Effie believed she was in control, seemingly unaware that real life was laughing in her face along the way. Boland had a good amount of film experience by 1935 and would even appear in 1940’s One Night in the Tropics, the legendary first film of comedy team Abbott & Costello. Incidentally, Boland, Charlie Ruggles and Leila Hyams would appear together once again in the next film for each of them, 1935’s People Will Talk. Leila Hyams was far from a rookie and not quite a veteran when she appeared in Ruggles of Red Gap. Though Ruggles was her 51st film since her maiden role in 1924’s Sandra, Hyams was never given the opportunity to break out. She had been praised by numerous critics for her screen presence, charm and voice, but would never realize her full potential. In Ruggles, she played Nell Kenner as a light-hearted young woman who survived on life itself. Her musical numbers were fluid and delightful, and her smile lit up the dusty town of Red Gap. Hyams retired the following year in 1936.
There is no definitive DVD release for Ruggles of Red Gap. There are a few rudimentary DVDs floating around, mostly unauthorized versions from overseas. There was, however, a VHS release from Universal Studios in 1992. This, like many other classic films, has suffered obscurity for the advancement of modern films. In the meantime, the VHS and random showings on TCM will have to suffice.
Underneath the comedic elements of Ruggles of Red Gap, there are lessons to be learned. Not only are we reminded of our own individuality, but we are shown a prime example of the book cover that hides a beautiful story. There are both sides of the coin in this film. If you’d rather sit back and laugh, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. But if you’d like to analyze the subtleties, there’s space for that too. Film Daily’s nationwide poll of the Critics of America found Ruggles to be one of the top 10 films of 1935. Perhaps the butler really did do it.
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