Ruggles of Red Gap Review

I have always found an intense satisfaction in the kind of cinematic high delivered so ably by a film such as Ruggles of Red Gap. It flows at a wonderful pace full of laughter and wit. The lead performance by Charles Laughton as displaced manservant Ruggles is perhaps his comedic high point on film, and persuasive evidence of his brilliance as an actor. No one else who would have played the role in the precise way Laughton did, turning the quirks and wide-eyed incredulousness into something that feels definitive. Leo McCarey's direction reminds us of what a supreme talent he was. The string of pictures this kicked off for McCarey was easily one of the most impressive engineered by anyone during the time of the studio system. Supporting performances in the film are basically perfect as well, highlighted by the largeness of Charlie Ruggles and the understatedly dry turn from Roland Young.

The way the entire picture comes together, all the parts fitting almost uncomfortably against one another at times but fitting all the same, makes for a rare treat. Ruggles of Red Gap is not merely a comedy, though it's an aggressively funny one nonetheless. There's a sometimes delicate (sometimes less so) undercurrent of American patriotism running across the movie. For the first half hour or so, when the setting is Paris in 1908 and Ruggles has been lost by his master (played by Young) in a poker game to a brash American named Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles), the laughs are big, bold, and sidesplitting. They're also somewhat basic, in the sense of being frequently physical and visual, without becoming stupid. Indeed, there are a number of occasions where it wouldn't be undue to wonder why comedy can't be more like this now, until you realize that we probably don't have any Leo McCareys with us now.

I'm inclined to claim that the Paris sequence contains some of the very funniest moments ever captured on film. Tellingly, too, I think I laughed harder while  watching Ruggles now on Blu-ray than I did the first time I saw the picture. And I've probably laughed or at least chuckled audibly to myself in the interim while thinking of some of the exploits of Colonel Ruggles. During this portion, the film seems to only care about its comedic elements and the results are more or less perfect. At one point, we see Floud and his friend from back home in Red Gap sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Paris along with Ruggles. The camera shoots Ruggles straight-on, with his companions at either side of him. McCarey cuts from when the men begin drinking to after they've clearly had a few too many. The effects on the pals from Red Gap are immediately obvious, but Ruggles is allowed to sit at the table silently for a few seconds while the other two exhibit their drunkenness. He's previously been shown as a highly proper valet with no apparent recognition for anything resembling spontaneity. It's this set-up which makes Ruggles' inebriated outburst of hooting and hollering all the more hilarious, and McCarey designs it with the utmost skill.

Even during this first third of the film, we can pick up on a bit of an undercurrent aimed at how Americans are perceived by their European friends. When told that he will now be moving to America with his new master, Ruggles fearfully disparages it without any hint of self-awareness as the "land of slavery." A later image of indians and cowboys riding across the west is juxtaposed against Ruggles thinking about his involuntary change in address. Floud and his wife Effie (Mary Boland) come across as the epitome of the nouveau riche. Worsening matters is that Effie wants to be seen as cultured, and she comes across comedically ridiculous in her pursuits. They're targets of an idea which still persists today - that Americans are insular at best and uneducated and uninformed at worst. What's kind of interesting is that the non-American characters are portrayed as equally clueless. Ruggles' former master as played by Young doesn't know the difference between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln or Utah, Omaha, and Washington state. Prior to his arrival, Ruggles also has a flawed preconception of the country.

Concepts of freedom as it's afforded to those in the U.S. run pretty deep in the film. As Egbert and his pal are stared at with horror during their Paris sidewalk hoedown, there's also the idea at play of their behavior, however obnoxious and inappropriate, having derived from a freer, more open society not beset with the same class structure and uptight expectations. The Parisian onlookers don't get this and neither does Ruggles, at least initially. The servant's acclimation into the friendly American west becomes key to the main theme of the picture. It's only in America, the film says, that a servant who comes from a long line of similarly restricted placeholders could be given the opportunity to be treated equally. That's, of course, ignoring a major factor of race at the time, which is broached for just a second when Ruggles sees the Flouds' other servants who are, respectively, black and Chinese.

Ruggles of Red Gap, based on a popular story of the same name by Harry Leon Wilson, extends beyond just comedy with its ideas on equality and, to some extent, meritocracy. It does remain, foremost, a comedy, but the unmistakable interruption of Laughton reciting Lincoln's Gettysburg Address captures a far different mood. It's here, during the film's climactic point of Ruggles experiencing life without waiting on the whims of another human being, that everything else hinted at and alluded to becomes a reality. Hairs stand on the back of the neck and we listen intently as the British servant with little prior knowledge of the United States before arriving repeats the magnificent words of perhaps the nation's greatest leader. It's presented as a deeply emotional moment, and indeed registers as such. McCarey's mastery of tone makes the shift not just tolerable but rousing in a quiet, nodding way.

The film needn't be polemical to entertain. It's perfectly joyous even if you overlook the more well-meaning intentions (which, for the record, I find to be as effective as any such rather heavy-handed tactics have ever been). That said, McCarey did kind of imbue some of his pictures with messages or ideas which might not always have aged as well as his filmmaking. Ruggles generally sidesteps such criticism because it's very easy to like and, frankly, it's not wrong. The concept of everyone being equal and not beholden to their past deserves no controversy. Likewise, the humor in McCarey's film is completely on target. In a career filled with highlights like Make Way for Tomorrow, The Awful Truth, and Duck Soup, this picture is as good as any of them. If, as Orson Welles said, Make Way for Tomorrow (another MoC release), is really the saddest picture ever made then Ruggles of Red Gap might be one of the happiest.

The Disc(s)

Ruggles of Red Gap has never had a previous DVD release in the UK and it only exists as a made-on-demand title in R1. The Masters of Cinema Series dutifully corrects that oversight here with its Dual Format edition containing both a DVD and a Blu-ray disc. The latter is locked to Region B.

The image quality on this release is pretty exciting. This next sentence may sound perverse but so be it. More so than on the latest, greatest digitally-perfected blockbuster, you can really see the appeal of Blu-ray when examining a film now 77 years old. There's texture and grain and uncommon, previously unseen depth here. Screen captures can't do justice to the magic of abundant film grain. To scrub it away entirely would be to, literally, scrub away the very medium on which it exists. This is a fantastic-looking transfer of an old movie which probably hasn't been seen with such clarity, well, ever. I went to a screening of a scratch-filled print just a few years ago and it certainly couldn't compete visually with this comparatively clean image. The damage is more or less gone now. We're instead left with something that feels a bit closer to an ideal that even in 1935 most likely wouldn't have been a reality. There's an inviting warmth here that I adore.

Audio is offered via a two-channel English DTS-HD mono track. The sound is a product of the technology of the era and, as such, not impressive by modern standards. Nonetheless, dialogue registers with ease and cleanly enough so as to not become a distraction. It's a perfectly reasonable listen on the whole, and never a struggle. There's no indication of significant hiss or instances of audible pops. English subtitles for the hearing impaired have been provided. They are optional and white in color.

A DTS-HD music and effects track has also been included.

Supplements for this release include a filmed appreciation (17:02) by actor and Charles Laughton biographer Simon Callow. Callow is a little sour and apparently not quite as high on the film as I was. He really seems more interested in talking about Laughton than Ruggles. 

A section entitled "Ruggles on the Radio" collects three separate radio adaptations of the story for your listening pleasure. All have Laughton and Charlie Ruggles reprising their roles, and Zasu Pitts also joins them in the initial performance. What's particularly notable here, if you have the interest, is hearing the evolution (or lack thereof) across several years. The film came out in 1935, and the radio broadcasts are from 1939, 1945 and 1946.

A two-minute recording of Laughton reading the Gettysburg Address, taken from a promotional 78rpm, can also be accessed from the menu.

Inside the clear plastic case of this release is a 32-page booklet. The bulk of the insert is a lengthy new essay written by Dan Sallitt which especially highlights the contribution of director Leo McCarey. Credits and stills make up the remainder of the booklet.

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