Ruggles of Red Gap


“It’s a mess, isn’t it?” “It’s wonderful.” This is small-town widow Prunella Judson (ZaSu Pitts) talking to British ex-butler Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton) in Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). They’re surveying the wrecked hash house he has just taken over, but they’re also talking about America, its chaos—and the opportunities for self-determination that immigrant Ruggles doesn’t take for granted. This knee-slapping, slyly noble film begins in Paris, 1908: Ruggles, descendant of a long line of servants, is won in a poker game and transported to Red Gap, Washington, by a pair of frontier millionaires, uncouth Egbert Floud and his arriviste wife, Effie (Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland). In telling the story of Ruggles’s gradual liberation from generations of class predestination, McCarey offers a utopian vision of Western aspiration—though menaced by creeping Eastern snobbery in the form of a Boston relation of the Flouds. Fitting such a democratic film, there’s no bad part here, with Roland Young a particular standout as Ruggles’s original owner, the Earl of Burnstead, a muttering, distracted gentleman perpetually surprised to discover the world carrying on around him. Laughton, of course, is elegant rotundity in motion, a naughty, moonfaced cherub in his drunk scene, later sweetly surprised when finding himself elevated into a man by the Gettysburg Address, a recitation of which is the film’s palpitating heart.