This week’s film recommendation comes from Dr. Jean O’Reilly, a colleague of mine at the National Addiction Centre at King’s College London. I am indebted to Jean for introducing me to the gut-bustingly funny, wise and sweet film Ruggles of Red Gap, about which she has done serious scholarly work. She can describe the virtues of this 1935 movie gem much better than I can, so let me turn things over to Jean:
Fans of actor Charles Laughton and director Leo McCarey will probably look askance at this choice of film, often regarded as an early, minor success in each man’s career. But it’s a charming film, with Laughton rising to the challenge of a rare comic performance and McCarey settling into the easy style of filmmaking that typified his later career.
Ruggles of Red Gap tells the story of an English gentleman’s gentleman (Laughton) who in 1908 is transported against his will from service in the household of an English earl to the American frontier town of Red Gap, Washington. In his strange new surroundings, Marmaduke Ruggles works as a manservant and dogsbody to the nouveaux riches Egbert and Effie Floud. After living for a time in Red Gap, Ruggles becomes infused with the spirits of democracy and equality and begins to consider abandoning a life of servitude to become his own man.
I love this film because it features, in nascent form, one of the attributes that became a hallmark of McCarey’s mature directorial style: the improvised scene. McCarey’s easygoing, collaborative approach to filmmaking is well documented, including the piano kept on the set for sing-alongs, the jokes and stories he told to lead his cast toward new scenes, and his keen eye for showcasing actors’ skills. He thought nothing of rewriting the shooting script on a whim, or spending a day shooting a new scene that had nothing to do with the storyline but that he thought might surprise viewers. As a result, McCarey’s films tend to be episodic, loosely structured, and peppered with inspired moments not always closely connected to the storyline.
The best known of these off-the-cuff scenes is Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy’s performance of “Home on the Range” in The Awful Truth, her poor piano skills rivaling his dreadful singing. But other moments are easy to pick out: Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi’s abandoned kiss in Make Way for Tomorrow; Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers’s drunken discussion of Browning, Shakespeare, and Irving Berlin in Once Upon a Honeymoon; and, from Ruggles, the scene (clip embedded below) in which Leila Hyams (as Nell Kenner) teaches Roland Young (as Lord Burnstead) how to play “Pretty Baby” on the drums. McCarey himself held that if he could string together the best such moments from all his films, he would have one truly spectacular movie.
Ruggles of Red Gap shows McCarey working toward that style. Although the film takes only ninety minutes to tell a rather convoluted story, it several times takes a break for little comic scenes, often engineered to flaunt an actor’s talents or ideas. Laughton maintained that he was partly responsible for the appearance of at least one improvised scene, in which Ruggles teaches Prunella Judson the proper way to make tea (“Always bring the pot to the kettle. Never bring the kettle to the pot!”).
And of course the great time-out scene from Ruggles — unusual for McCarey in both its drama and its connection to the film’s narrative arc — is Laughton’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address to an audience of stunned bar patrons. Not an improvisational scene in the strict sense, it nonetheless arose from ideas developed on the set and was intended to show Laughton’s skills as an orator.
McCarey was always keen to provide a happy, pleasurable experience to his audiences, and these scenes, exciting in their unpredictability and enlivened by the actors’ genuine laughter, keep his films fresh and delightful, even for jaded modern viewers.