Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ruggles of Red Gap (Paramount, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the 1935 Ruggles of Red Gap, one of those acknowledged classics from Hollywood’s height as the world’s movie capital that somehow I’d never got around to watching before. It was based on a novel by Harry Leon Wilson which was turned by Humphrey Pearson into a stage play first produced in 1915, and the first movie of it was made by Essanay Studios in 1918. When Essanay went out of business Paramount bought the rights and did a late silent in 1923 with the young Edward Everett Horton as Ruggles, a British über-butler whose master loses him in a card game to an obnoxious American Westerner who trots him back with him to Red Gap in Washington state. This version got made in 1935 as a vehicle for Charles Laughton, whom Paramount teamed with an all-star cast of their contract favorites: established comedy team Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland as Egbert Floud (a rather awkward name) the man who wins Ruggles’ services in a game of draw poker and his wife Effie, who’s all in favor of her husband acquiring a British butler in the hope it will give him “class”; ZaSu Pitts as Prunella Judson, the cook for another family in Red Gap (and as usual she’s funny in that peculiar dry-wit sort of way she had in which she was able to get laughs as the put-upon victim, but it’s still infuriating that in 1922 she had filmed the female lead in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and turned in one of the greatest dramatic performances ever captured on film — a role that should have broken her out of comedies forever the way Sybil and Norma Rae did with Sally Field half a century later — but because of MGM’s evisceration of Greed and utter disinterest in promoting it, she got stuck back in comedies until her career ended with her death in 1963; Roland Young as George, Earl of Burnstead, the man who lost Ruggles in that poker game; and Leila Hyams (in her last film, even though she was still personable and attractive and got to sing a couple of songs of the period in a nice voice) as local “party girl” Nell Kenner, who throws beer busts on her lawn and pulls Egbert away from Effie’s “gentrification” project on him. The film gets off to a bad start in that though it opens in Paris, the site of the poker game in which Burnstead loses Ruggles to Egbert, we don’t actually get to see the game — and we should have; one aches for the droll expressions Laughton could have given us as he realizes to his horror that he is the stakes in his master’s game and his master just might lose him to this uncouth American who’s going to take him to the West. (There is a nice bit in which Ruggles imagines what the West is like — and director Leo McCarey gives us a series of stock clips of ferocious Indian attacks from previous Paramount Westerns.)

The film is pretty obviously divided into three acts (you could probably tell this had started out on stage even if you didn’t know that ahead of time), the first in Paris — in which Effie has their French maid Lisette (Alyce Ardell) burn all Egbert’s loud Western clothes (to Lisette’s astonishment, Effie tells her she wants the clothes “taken out and burned. and then burn the ashes”) and Egbert hangs out at a bar playing hooky from Effie’s cultural-education assignments — she wants him to go to Paris’s great musea and write her reports on what he’s seen, he couldn’t care less, so he buys art books and regurgitates their contents in his reports, and Ruggles helps him on this — and with his equally uncouth friends Jeff Tuttle (James Burke) and Sam (Dell Henderson), Egbert takes Ruggles out for a night on the town and gets him drunk for the first time in his life, missing an elaborate dinner party Effie planned to show off that they had a real-life, honest-to-goodness British butler. The action then moves to Red Gap, where Effie wants to impress the “best people” — it’s not really a big enough town to have best people, but to the extent it does they’re more or less led socially by “Ma” Pettingell (Maude Eburne), whose self-made fortune attracted male-golddigger Charles Belknap-Johnson (Lucien Littlefield) to marry “Ma”’s daughter (Leota Lorraine) and spend “Ma”’s money on social pretensions. Thanks to some misunderstandings, word gets around town that Ruggles is actually a British colonel (he’s really never ever served in the military) and the Flouds’ social standing zooms up while the Belknap-Johnsons’ plummets. Belknap-Johnson retaliates by getting Effie to fire Ruggles, only his livelihood is saved by Prunella, whom he’s more or less been dating. The two of them get the idea to open a restaurant, and Belknap-Johnson comes on opening night, acts obnoxious and gets thrown out by Ruggles. He threatens to retaliate by demanding all the “best people” leave and boycott the place, but Ruggles gets them to stay and looks like he’s on his way to a promising new career when [surprise!] George, Earl of Burnstead, shows up in Red Gap ready and eager to rehire Ruggles, and Ruggles is torn by conscience over whether to resume his destiny to remain a butler forever and the new possibilities America has offered him as a self-made businessperson.

It’s not that bad an idea for a comedy — though quite frankly I had thought the plot would revolve around Egbert’s transformation at Ruggles’ hands instead of the other way around — but it seems to have been directed under water. Leo McCarey takes a lackadaisical pace, which was a gimmick he’d worked out with Laurel and Hardy to reflect that they were playing stupid characters (charmingly and hilariously funny stupid characters, but still stupid) but sits oddly here with a film about people who are supposed to be of at least normal intelligence. At the time this film was made Charles Laughton was known primarily for playing crazy authority figures — Nero in The Sign of the Cross, Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (which apparently started shooting just as this film finished), and in order to distinguish Ruggles from these people of power, the usually hammy Laughton underacted so much that through much of the film he hardly seems even to be there. By far the most moving moment in Laughton’s performance is the scene in which, aghast that no one else in the town’s Silver Dollar saloon (whose existence is heralded on the soundtrack by Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”) remembers what President Lincoln said at Gettysburg, recites the entire Gettysburg Address in a quiet, infinitively moving voice that renders the rest of the film virtually unwatchable by comparison; it was a pretty typical Laughton tour de force (in a later film he read a good chunk of the Bible on screen — and the producer, worried that Laughton’s reading would outshine the rest of the movie, had it cut out). Edward Dmytryk, who worked as editor on this film before becoming a director himself, recalled that Laughton was so worked up about doing this scene that it took a day and a half to shoot it, and that it aroused unwanted laughter when it was previewed — so instead of keeping the camera front-and-center on Laughton during the entire speech, McCarey reshot the scene with the camera largely over Laughton’s shoulder photographing the reactions of the bar crowd as he recited the speech. Laughton later said that doing the Gettysburg Address in this film was “one of the most moving things that ever happened to me,” and an “trivia” item suggests that that was because at the time he was considering becoming a U.S. citizen (though I don’t believe he ever actually did). The Nazis banned this film in Germany because it contained the Gettysburg Address!

Other “trivia” items indicate that Laughton personally chose Leo McCarey to make this movie after having seen the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which particularly impressed him (though the relentlessly zany, fast-moving Marx film is about as far removed from the sort of comedy in Ruggles of Red Gap as one could imagine) — though if Laughton was impressed by Duck Soup he was almost the only one in the business who was, since the film was a horrible flop, critics said things like “Practically everybody agrees that in this picture the Four Marx Brothers are not so amusing,” and the film really didn’t find its audience until the 1960’s, when radical counter-culturists who’d watched the U.S. lie its way into the Viet Nam War with arguments as absurd and ego-driven as the ones Groucho Marx as the dictator of Freedonia makes in the movie took it to their hearts and flocked to see it in revivals. (One wonders what McCarey, who lived until 1969, thought of that; he’d been a hard-core Right-winger and a key organizer of the blacklist-supporting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, as well as a devout Roman Catholic for whom Bing Crosby’s two priest pictures, Going My Way and its sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s, were deeply personal projects.) Apparently Laughton also hired his own (uncredited) writer, Arthur MacRae, to work with screenwriters Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson to make sure the movie stayed sufficiently “British” it wouldn’t be laughed off the screen (for the wrong reasons) in the U.K. Oddly, after thinking about the movie for a while it occurred to me that it might have been a better film if Laughton and Ruggles had switched roles — Ruggles would have been more believable as the befuddled butler and Laughton might have been screamingly funny posing as the uncouth American Westerner (he’d play a similar role to Egbert Floud seven years later in They Knew What They Wanted) — as it is, Mary Boland practically steals the film, expertly conveying her exasperation with her husband and determination to “make a gentleman” out of him even if it kills both of them!