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Ruggles of Red Gap (1938) |Old Classics?…Newly Reviewed

This week Gini tackles a film billed by Turner Classic Movies as a comedy:

Dying is easy, comedy is hard. And the older the comedy, the harder it has to work for today’s audiences…

If you’ve read my review of D.O.A.  then you’re probably wondering if our night was a total movie disaster. Interestingly enough, it was not.

The hubs and I were watching a double feature, with Ruggles of Red Gap on first, and D.O.A. on second. (Hey, don’t judge our viewing habits – we do it all for you.)

A boozy Earl of Somethingorother (Roland Young) loses his valet/manservant/butler, Ruggles (Charles Laughton) to a rough and tumble Wild West millionaire, Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles…really) because said millionaire’s wife, Effie Floud (Mary Boland), wants them to improve themselves culturally, because, despite her rollicking and rich mother, ‘Ma’ Pettingill (Maude Ebern) who’s all about being fun and casual, Effie’s been influenced by her social-climbing brother-in-law Charles Belknap-Jackson (Lucien Littlefield). The Americans are going to take Ruggles back to Red Gap, Washington, and hilarity ensues.

Ruggles is a proper English butler and he’s horrified at first being used as a wager, being lost in that wager, and his new employers. Then he discovers the interesting truth – while Effie thinks Egbert is “getting culture”, what he’s actually doing is getting drunk. He gets Ruggles drunk – for probably the first time ever – and hilarity ensues.

Once in the States, and devoid of Indian attacks that Ruggles was expecting, they arrive in Red Gap. Which looked a lot like the Old Tucson movie set and probably was. I’m willing to bet all of Washington state is greener than what this movie portrays, but whatever. Apparently, there is oil and gold in Washington, too, as well as cattle ranching, and Egbert and Ma do it all – they’re filthy rich, which is why Charles has married Effie’s sister (a non-entity in the movie who I’m not bothering to look up). Charles is clearly the villain, by the way, but he’s subtle – at first.

Because of Egbert’s nickname for him, “Colonel”, Ruggles is immediately mistaken for a retired British military man and is now the talk of the town. This mistake creates a lot of fun for Egbert and Ma, a lot of stress for Effie, and a lot of rage for Charles. And hilarity ensues.

Ruggles is now serving three masters – Egbert, aka the fun one, Effie, aka the proper one, and Charles, aka the jerk who hates him one. Through Egbert, Charles meets Nell Kenner (Leila Hyams) and, because of that, Mrs. Prunella Judson (Zasu Pitts) who doesn’t laugh when he shares that his first name is Marmaduke. They fall instantly into sweet, gentle, cautious love.

Nell is gorgeous, young, rich, and hella fun. The real mystery of this movie is how this woman is not married when we meet her.

Through association with the Americans, Ruggles starts to Americanize. When he’s fired by Charles and runs into Egbert and Ma at a bar (shocker!), he bears them no ill will and they, in turn, want to hire him back. But he wants to be his own man, which they wholeheartedly support, in word and deed. The scene where Ruggles recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for all the Americans who have all admitted they don’t know what Lincoln said in that speech, is both moving and meaningful – and the point of the movie: All men are created equal. (This is a 1935 film, so don’t ask about the women and minorities and just roll with it.)

I’ll admit there might have been a few tears at this scene.

The Earl comes to fetch Ruggles, but gets fetched instead by Nell (got it, she was waiting for royalty, and someone as pretty, nice, fun, and rich as she was, deserves it), Ruggles starts his own business, and Charles gets his comeuppance and the town cheers.

The refreshing points of this movie are many – Egbert adores his mother-in-law, for starters. Egbert loves his wife, despite her improvement goals. Effie isn’t evil or even mean, she’s just been so influenced by Charles’ supposed charm that she’s become a less endearing version of herself. The townspeople are divided – nice ones and socially climbing ones – but they all support the good person in the end. There is some very mild racism, shown mostly as Ruggles’ misinterpretation of life in America, but it’s brief and not too grating.

I spent the entire movie envious and drooling over the gowns that Effie was wearing. Because it’s an old picture, costuming wasn’t mentioned at the end credits and IMDB wasn’t helpful, either, but whoever it was, they did an outstanding job, all the way around, but particularly with Effie’s gowns. I WANT those gowns.

There’s a lot of humor derived from the costuming as well, which still works today. The mores of the time are on casual display – no one’s really looked down upon for being a drunk, Nell is most likely a former madam (how she got her wealth is never discussed but all the “good” women of the town look down on her), and becoming socially respectable isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing, it’s all in how a person achieves it that matters.

While not a total laugh riot, the movie is funny and entertaining, and, as an uplifting view of what America represented and should still represent today, Ruggles of Red Gap is an enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half, and one of Laughton’s sweetest and most accessible performances, too. I’m glad I saw it.

4.5 stars out of 5


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