Man, Charles Laughton was all over these early Best Picture nominees. Seems like all you needed was Laughton, good production sense, and a plotline amicable to audiences (and the Academy), and you had yourself a surefire Best Picture nominee. Hell, he’s in three of this year’s field, including the winner, which would be positively ludicrous had Claudette Colbert not done the same thing the year before. Anyway, here we have Ruggles of Red Gap, and here we have Laughton taking a role in an out-and-out comedy for the first time I’ve seen since Henry VIII. This is also a comedy by Leo McCarey, who would go on two years later to give us The Awful Truth, probably the only screwball comedy I actually enjoyed, so my hopes were raised slightly with this one. Add to it the plot, which features Laughton as a British manservant woefully out of place in a small American town, and my initial hesitations about continuing this year’s nominees after the last film I watched nearly completely flew out the window.
Laughton is the titular Ruggles, who works as a valet to an Englishman and is quite pleased with his place and stature as a servant. Since the status quo is required to be shaken up, Ruggles’ master winds up losing him in a poker game to a newly-minted American tycoon, and the mere thought of being sent off to America among the wild Indians and the even wilder settlers threatens to curdle his crumpets, so to speak. Nevertheless, Ruggles ends up traveling with his new family, the Flouds, to Red Gap in Washington state, where Ruggles manages to be taken for a British colonel and celebrity, finding the real meaning of companionship, and learning how to stand on his own two feet. First off, I have to say, I was not expecting Ruggles of Red Gap to actually be funny; I was expecting to be thoroughly amused through the running time, and little more. Nevertheless, when Ruggles’ new master Egbert Floud finally ropes him into drinking with him and a buddy of his, and we flash forward to a thoroughly off-his-ass Ruggles, and Charles Laughton cuts the air in half with the wildest whoop-and-holler this side of the most stereotypical western you’ve ever seen, and I snorted almost against my will. This film is actually, genuinely funny, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I wasn’t expecting that out of a Leo McCarey film at first. Sure, most of the humor comes from Laughton’s stuffy British sensibilities colliding head-on with the wild wild manners and personality of the Americans and him (Ruggles) not knowing what to do with himself when they do, but you know what? It worked, and it worked damn well. I genuinely laughed several more times through the film, and while it wasn’t an all-out laugh-fest, the film knew how to be funny and especially how to use the comedic sense of the film to impart dramatic lessons to us the audience, especially through Laughton’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address in a particularly affecting scene a good ways into the film.
I seem to be slightly spoiled when it comes to comedies the Academy actually appreciates, because I’m coming to this film off the unquestionably exceptional Thin Man and It Happened One Night, and the only way I can figure how to effectively rate this film is to compare it to those two, which came before and largely set the standard. Ruggles of Red Gap isn’t a standard-setter, and neither is it better than those two films, and this plus the filmmaking attitude of the film to just get things done rather than exceed expectations is largely why I’m giving it the rating I am. Still, don’t take this to mean that this film isn’t worth your time. Even if it is only just so, it certainly is; it’s actually funny, which is more than I can say about a good number of the comedies I’ve seen from the annals of cinematic history, so that should count for a good bit of mileage with any audience.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10