Entertainment Magazine

Westward, Ho!

Posted on the 21 September 2014 by Sjhoneywell
Film: Ruggles of Red Gap
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop. Westward, Ho! When you talk about good years for actors, you need to bring up 1935 and Charles Laughton. In that year, Laughton had a major role in 25% of the Best Picture nominees. Not impressed? After all, in a year with five nominees, anyone with a prominent role in one of those movies is in 20%. Yes, but in 1935, Laughton had major roles in three out of 12 nominees. And “major roles” undersells it. He was top billed in two of the films and second in the third. I’ve now seen two of those films, and for my money, Ruggles of Red Gap is the one you want to see.

The premise is simple. The awesomely named Marmaduke Ruggles (Laughton) is the manservant of the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young). One evening, the Earl is instructed in the fine art of poker by some visiting Americans. Long story short, he bet Ruggles and lost, which means that Ruggles is now in the employ of the loud, uncouth, and garish Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles). This is important news for Effie Floud (Mary Boland), who wishes to become the queen of the social register in their little town of Red Gap, Washington.

Before we get there, we get plenty of ideas of what might be to come. Effie wants Ruggles to straighten out her husband’s wardrobe and help culture him. Egbert wants to sit in saloons and drink, and brings Ruggles with him. After a few comedic moments, including what may be the first time Ruggles gets drunk, we head off to Red Gap and the new life for everyone.

The main problem occurs because of Egbert’s inability to understand exactly what a manservant is. He insists on treating Ruggles not as an employee, but as an equal. He also insists on introducing him to everyone in Red Gap as “Colonel” Ruggles despite Ruggles’s insistence that he never served in the military. But the rumor spreads faster than the truth, and before too long, everyone in town assumes that Ruggles is a guest of the Flouds and not their employee. This causes tremendous social embarrassment for the proud and prickly Effie. It also causes friction with the son-in-law, Charles Belknap-Johnson, who is a social climber of a different stripe.

Eventually, because this is a movie from 1935, Ruggles finds love in the little town. Specifically, he becomes attracted to Prunella Judson (the tragi-comically awesome Zasu Pitts), who also happens to be the first person he’s ever met to not make fun of his ridiculous first name. She encourages Ruggles to become his own man and inspires a new confidence in him that is sorely put to the test with the Earl of Burnstead arrives to take Ruggles back into service.

While the ultimate message of Ruggles of Red Gap is a good one about being one’s own man and pursuing a dream, nothing about the film is actually that serious. This is a film where one of its biggest strengths—the broad comedy—is also one of its biggest weaknesses. This is certainly a film that played better in 1935 than it does today, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a film worth watching. It’s simply that all of the characters—Ruggles and the Flouds in particular—are such immensely broad stereotypes that they border very close to being cartoon characters. This is most true of Egbert Floud, who is one whoop and a lariat away from being Yosemite Sam.

But that’s okay. Really, it all works perfectly, and a great deal of that comes from the performance of Charles Laughton. I tend to think of Laughton in more serious roles. He’s the main thing I remember from then 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, and while he has some comic moments in a film like Witness for the Prosecution, in the main, I think of him as a dramatic actor. Here, while he plays Ruggles as a straight man for most of the film, there’s no question that this is a comic performance, and it’s a damn good one. I’m pretty convinced that Laughton, as good as he was in Mutiny on the Bounty, was nominated for the wrong role and the wrong film.

The best thing about Ruggles of Red Gap is that it’s fun and parts of it are still genuinely funny. It’s a difficult film to dislike in any respect because it isn’t serious and it’s not meant to be. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and no one is more surprised than I am.

The films I have on the flashdrive tend to be one and done, but there are a few that I’ve kept. I’m keeping Ruggles of Red Gap because this is a film I will very much want to watch again some day.

Why to watch Ruggles of Red Gap: Charles Laughton does comedy and does it really well.
Why not to watch: It plays things so broadly that quite a bit is beyond farce.


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