Back in the early part of the 20th Century, Hollywood really liked Ruggles Of Red Gap. Even though the original play only ran for 33 performances on Broadway, it spawned two silent movies and then this 1935 talkie starring Charles Laughton. The actor had just won a Best Actor Oscar for The Private Life Of Henry VIII, and many thought it was odd he chose such a straightforwardly comic role as a follow-up, something he wasn’t particularly well known for at the time.
Laughton plays title character Ruggles, the butler of a posh English lord who is lent to a rather unrefined but very rich American and his social climbing wife, who sees having a butler as a way of showing people how posh they’ve become. After a couple of adventures in Europe, Ruggles is taken to Red Gap, Washington, a pioneer town that doesn’t know quite what to make of this refined manservant. While having Ruggles in the American west causes a bit of a culture clash, the butler (who is introduced to people as a former Colonel in the British Army) finds many people treat him as an equal and he begins to see that the American dream could be his and he could make a go of it on his own in America.
As Laughton biographer Simon Callow says in the special features, the actor was the son of hotel owners, which gave him an intense dislike of the class system and more specifically the idea of meekly serving others no matter what they do. Being a closeted gay man who went into a marriage for show due to pressures from the powers that be (it should be noted his wife, Bride Of Frankenstein’s Elsa Lanchester, knew what she was getting herself into) probably didn’t make him a big fan of traditional social attitudes either.
He brings this to bear in Ruggles, and although his performance is rather mannered, it has a quiet power. That’s especially true during his recitation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which became so popular it was even released separately on record (that recording is also included on the special features).
It’s a sweet story although you can tell why the film is better known in the US than over here, as it’s very much about how great the American dream is in a rather simplistic, fairytale fashion. That said, it’s quite fun and entertaining, with some witty scenes and a great sense of empowerment. It also gives you an appreciation for the skill of director Leo McCarey, who’s one of Hollywood’s best if most overlooked talents. He pretty much created the modern image of Laurel & Hardy and went on to win best Director Oscars for The Awful Truth and Going My Way (for which he also picked up a Screenplay Oscar).
As for the Blu-ray, the transfer is decent, although due to the film’s age it’s rather grainy and the sound is sometimes a tad rough. It certainly looks okay on a big screen, although it’s understandably not the clear, crisp image you get on newer films.
The special features are also pretty good. As mentioned there’s an interview with Simon Callow, in which he gives a fascinating talk about Laughton and where Ruggles fits into his career and philosophy. It’s a great addition to the set and gives a lot of added value to what might otherwise seem a rather minor addition to Laughton’s career. There are also three radio adaptations of the story, starring Laughton and some of the other cast members of the movie. They were recorded between 1939 and 1946, proving the film’s continued popularity in that era.
Overall Verdict: A fun little film about realising you’re not just a cog in the class system, which may not be a masterpiece, but is massively overdue its first home entertainment release. Thankfully Masters Of Cinema has now taken care of that.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac