Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/6/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksRuggles of Red Gap (dir. Leo McCarey, 1935)

When it comes to older films—40 or 50 or more years old—there is increasingly a gap between those generations which will view a film in context, and those who will not. Most younger viewers will approach an older film skeptically at best and ask: what relevance does this have for me?

As an employee of Best Video I witness this generational gap all the time: Families come in together, movie after movie is proposed, and all manner of eye-rolling and groaning ensues.

I am going to make a bold statement here: old movies do matter, a lot, just as much, if not more, than new movies. When I was a boy my mother insisted that I watch movies with the adults and, once I stopped squirming in my seat and paying attention to what was going on, I was hooked. Aside from becoming a life-long passion for me, I am better for it: watching a wide array of films—old and new, foreign and domestic, silly and serious—has given me context and opened me up to other ways of seeing the world. No, old movies do matter, just as history and culture matter. (By the way, thanks Mom!)

As evidence I offer a comedic gem from 1935 directed by Leo McCarey, best remembered today for GOING MY WAY and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER. His career stretched over a number of decades, but it began inauspiciously enough, first as an amateur boxer, and then as a lawyer; yet these early false starts seemed to have made McCarey a more patient and sympathetic—even humane—observer of the foibles of life, a trait which would come to define his work over time. McCarey, a native of Los Angeles, got his first break as an assistant to Tod Browning before moving over to Hal Roach Studios in the 1920’s as a gag writer and director of numerous one- and two-reelers for Charley Chase, Mabel Normand, and Laurel and Hardy. As McCarey transitioned into feature film work in the 30’s and afterward his style forever bore the impression of this early apprenticeship in silent comedy, as he developed an improvisatory, almost off-the-cuff style, which, at times, made his narratives feel nearly “plot-less.” Yet, in paring down the action McCarey never lost sight of the center of his film-ic universe: people.  As noted by no less a director than Jean Renoir (THE RULES OF THE GAME, GRAND ILLUSION): “Leo McCarey understood people better than any other director in Hollywood.”

RUGGLES OF RED GAP is McCarey’s first great film, and certainly one of his best, a fish-out-of-water comedy about an English butler loose in the Old West, and a demonstration of surgical-like precision in the maintenance of warmhearted tone, yet without sacrificing character. The film opens in Paris “in the spring of 1908,” where proper English valet Ruggles (Charles Laughton) is offhandedly informed one morning by his employer, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young), that he was on a bit of a bender the night before, an evening which ended with a game of poker and a badly-played hand… and Ruggles himself was the stake!

Before Ruggles knows it he has found himself hitched—in a manner discomfortingly similar to slavery—to nouveau riche couple Egbert and Effie Floud (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland) of Red Gap, Washington: he a meek and hen-pecked frontier-type, with walrus moustache to match, and she an upwardly-ambitious society matron who covetously eyes their new English butler as the coup de grâce in her quest for upper-crust respectability. As Ruggles struggles to digest this nauseating bit of news—seemingly unable to do anything but stare dimwittedly into the distance—he is soon whisked off to North America, a land of Indian attacks and wide-open opportunity, where he is mistaken for a colonel in the British Army, feted by society, falls in love, and, finally, is forced to come to terms with his identity as a human being and a free man, and not as a mere servant.

The picture blithely oscillates between the tensions of the old world and the free-spiritedness of the new, between scenes of hilariously stuffy social functions, a free-ranging and charmingly egalitarian frontier party called a “beer bust,” and a moment of tender emotion wherein the dusty patrons of a saloon are treated to the finest recitation of the Gettysburg Address in the history of movies! It is essential viewing.

Among the excellent ensemble cast the stand-outs are: Zasu Pitts, who—aside from playing a very-Zasu Pitts-like character, all quavering voice and dithery hand motions—injects the film with heart as the simple and unpretentious lady-love of Ruggles, Mrs. Prunella Judson; Young, whose mumbling patter oozes the respectability of the well-bred English Brahmin, and whose discordant accompaniment to Leila Hyams on a cheap drum set is as belly-achingly hilarious and heartfelt a moment as there is in movies; Maude Eburne, who adds sauce to the picture as Boland’s bemused mother and frontier woman “Ma” Pettingill; and Boland and (Charlie) Ruggles, both Hollywood stalwarts, here delivering career-best performances, as, respectively, a preening wind-bag and a whooping, rootin’ tootin’ cowboy, who shoots from the hip but is all boy at heart.

Finally, Laughton, in a storied career, has never been better than here: his performance is a comedic high-wire balancing act, from his stuffily pinched façade and pitched-forward gait which makes it appear as though he is permanently tiptoeing downhill, to his scenes of gleeful intoxication, his early discomfort at the side of the Flouds and in America, and his enthusiastic instructions to Prunella on the manner of properly serving English tea. Throughout we see Ruggles, the butler, develop into Ruggles, the human being. Ruggles is a man who has known only dignity in service before he finally learns how to be indignant, whose adoptive homeland opens him up to new sensations and feelings, who learns that “when people think you are someone, you begin to think you are,” and whose awakening conscience finally prompts him to ask “Am I someone, or am I not?”