Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)


(director: Leo McCarey; screenwriters: Arthur Macrae, Walter DeLeon/Harlan Thompson/Humphrey Pearson/based on the play and the novel by Harry Leon Wilson; cinematographer: Alfred Gilks; editor: Edward Dmytryk; music: Heinz Roemheld; cast: Charles Laughton (Marmaduke Ruggles), Mary Boland (Effie Floud), Charlie Ruggles (Egbert Floud), ZaSu Pitts (Mrs. Judson), Roland Young (George Vane Bassingwell, the Earl of Burnstead), Leila Hyams (Nell Kenner), Maude Eburne (Ma Pettingill), Lucien Littlefield (Charles Belknap-Jackson); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.; Paramount Pictures; 1935)

“The film’s main asset is the strong comical performance of Charles Laughton as the straitlaced and very proper English butler Marmaduke Ruggles.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Droll comedy of manners adapted by writers Arthur Macrae (British writer brought in at the insistence of Charles Laughton), Walter DeLeon, Harlan Thompson and Humphrey Pearson. It’s taken from the novel and 1915 play by Harry Leon Wilson. Director Leo McCarey (“Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!”/”Good Sam”/”The Bells of St. Mary’s”) shows a good ear for comedy. He was chosen by the film’s star Charles Laughton, who wanted in his first comical role to be directed by a master in comedy (McCarey directed maybe the best comedy ever made in the Marx Brothers “Duck Soup”). The film’s main asset is the strong comical performance of Charles Laughton as the straitlaced and very proper English butler Marmaduke Ruggles.

In Paris in the spring of 1908, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young) tells his startled manservant, Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton), that he has lost him in a poker game to the genial but uncouth hick millionaire rancher Egbert “Sourdough” Floud (Charlie Ruggles). Egbert’s overbearing, society-conscious shrill wife Effie (Mary Boland) is determined to take Ruggles to their home in Red Gap, Washington, and make a gentleman out of her unsophisticated husband.

After the Floud’s vacation in Paris and return to Red Gap, the traditional Ruggles surprisingly adjusts very well to an America that is not class-conscious. When Ruggles’ playful new boss introduces him as a colonel, this is reported in a newspaper article that is never double checked. This really pleases Effie, who pretends that Ruggles is an honored guest instead of a servant.

But Effie’s snobbish brother-in-law, Charles Belknap-Jackson (Lucien Littlefield), fires Ruggles. Before he can leave town, Ruggles enters the Silver Dollar Saloon. Egbert and his wealthy, earthy mother-in-law, “Ma” Pettingill (Maude Eburne), react in shock to the firing. Ruggles says he cannot be fired without his consent and rehires him. It leads to a bar room discussion of egalitarianism. When no one in the bar can remember President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Ruggles recites the speech from memory to the receptive patrons (the speech being the highlight of the film). Ruggles then quits being a manservant and goes into the restaurant business with the help of the widow Prunella Judson (Zasu Pitts). She’s a local with whom he is smitten. Ruggles then gets a business loan from Egbert and Ma Pettingill, and he opens his restaurant and calls it the Anglo-American Grill. In the final scene, the earl arrives in Red Gap engaged to an American commoner Nell Kenner (Leila Hyams). When the earl can’t talk Ruggles into returning with him, he gives a smashing speech in Ruggles’ honor. The crowd reciprocates with a hearty chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and Ruggles is taken aback to realize they are singing, not for the earl, but for him.

The film is little bit overloaded with sentimentality and American patriotism, evoking a time when Americans were more innocent and believed wholeheartedly in an America that gave its citizens a chance to better themselves without being locked into a class system (self-made millionaire vs. a traditional aristocrat). But despite these contrivances, the film is appealing. It gets across its Lincoln theme of all men being created equal in a tender, teary-eyed manner.

There were silent film versions of the Harry Leon Wilson story in 1918 and 1923. Bob Hope co-starred with Lucille Ball in a loose musical remake, Fancy Pants, in 1950.