Catch up: Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)


This is a pretty common story. An olive in a bowl of cherries, something like that; a fish out of water, etc. Recently we have seen this theme in Did You Hear About The Morgans? – a NYC couple (Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant) get relocated to a small town in Wyoming by the witness protection program – and New In Town – Renée Zellweger is a Miami businesswoman who moves to a small town in Minnesota. I have seen neither of these movies (despite the name of this website); my point is that this is a narrative device for comedies still used today. Moreover, Ruggles of Red Gap took on many forms before 1935. It was a novel, a play, and two silent films, though the most successful was this version here, starring Charles Laughton as an English butler, Marmaduke Ruggles, working in Paris under the Earl of Burnstead, a rather dapper man prone to mumbling, who uses poor Mr. Ruggles as a stake in a poker game. Ruggles is won by a New Money cowboy, Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles (the actor’s name is purely coincidental)), and taken away to a small American town: Red Gap, Washington. Before they leave, however, Egbert gets his new decidedly uptight butler drunk to the point where all Ruggles can do is hoot, giggle, and ride Egbert as if Egbert was a horse: something Ruggles learned, of course, from Egbert. Ruggles’ untimely display of periodic tippling causes Egbert’s socially conscious (if not socially paranoid) wife, Effie Floud (Mary Boland) to threaten to terminate her new butler, though she inevitably lets him off the hook and even allows him a morning snifter which she says will solve Ruggles’ hangover, not that she would know firsthand.

The trio head for Red Gap. Ruggles’ head is a cloud of delusions about the place: wild Indians will scalp him, he’s sure of it. Yet it doesn’t take long for Ruggles to adjust to Red Gap, helped by the town’s misconception that he is a colonel, because of Egbert’s calling him that, like some people say, “Pal.” Ruggles courts a woman – Prunella Judson, played by ZaSu Pitts – who is also the hired help. Ruggles later admits to her he is not, in fact, a decorated colonel, but a butler and a cook.

After a few twists and turns, and the recitation of the Gettysburg Address, Prunella and Ruggles successfully open a restaurant. The End.

The beauty of this movie is it takes archetypal characters (a stiff British butler, a hootin’ an’ hollerin’ rich cowboy, or the cowboy’s mannish mother who is named Ma) and turns them into real and extremely likeable people. To let our guard down around a character as stereotypical as Egbert Floud and to find he is a genuine friend to Ruggles and an altogether good man is a real nice feeling. It is a pleasure to watch Ruggles succeed, as we know he will. And what would a warm-hearted comedy be without some despicable villains? Effie Floud, Egbert’s phony wife, and Effie’s scheming brother – I can’t find his name, sorry – are dead set against our hero every step of the way, and we’d just like to kick them in the ass, as Ruggles, at one point, does. There is also Lord Burnstead (Roland Young), Ruggles’ previous “owner,” the one who lost Ruggles in the poker match; he surprised me because, though he is a very affable fellow, he does not see Ruggles’ stepping out on a limb and starting his own restaurant as a noble task; rather, he wonders why Ruggles will not come back to serve him.

The movie is a pleasure because of Charles Laughton. His peculiar smile and his seemingly crossed eye, as well as his brilliant comic timing, enraptured and delighted me. He is simply top-notch. At the end of the movie, when the restaurant patrons sing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” to an unsuspecting Ruggles, and his eyes go glassy, so did mine.

It’s short, too: 90 minutes.

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