Having only seen Ruggles of Red Gap's Charles Laughton, as the eponymous lead, in serious roles (Mutiny on the Bounty and Spartacus) I was unsure of what to expect from him in a comedic role in this 1930s Paramount social satire. Laughton, with his Droopy Dog demeanour, was actually an excellent comedic actor. Director Leo McCarey, with his experience with actors like W.C. Fields and Harold Lloyd, brings out an almost natural humor from Laughton (in a way it reminds me of the humor that was drawn from Denholm Elliot at times).
Ruggles' plot is fairly simple: Ruggles is a very proper butler for an English Lord whose services are lost to an American in a game of poker. Hilarity ensues. Eventually, while in America (after a brief comedy of errors), Ruggles learns to stand on his own two feet and pursues the American dream. What could have come across as treacly as a Jimmy Stewart vehicle is, through Laughton's performance, oddly stirs feelings of patriotism and pride in the immigrant's American Dream (a great deal has been written about the influence of the immigrant studio heads during this era by far better educated folks so I won't presume to write about what I'm ignorant about). I think these feelings are roused because Laughton sells it honestly. His interactions with the widow Mrs. Judson (ZaSu Pitts) in her kitchen and his brief reverie about cooking just work at creating an empathetic bond between Ruggles and the audience. I wanted Ruggles to succeed in his endeavours and to prevail. Which by the end of the movie he does and the bad guy gets his comeuppance and the spirit of the American Dream triumphs.
But Joshua, really? Have you finally succumbed to your head injuries and gone potty to embrace and enjoy this American Dream nonsense? What happened to cynical and angry Joshua? Well folks, I'm still cynical and cranky but, as some of you might know, I'm also a sap for a well-crafted under-dog movie, whether rags to riches to rags back to riches (e.g. Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1941) ) or a Henry Fonda vehicle, hell, I even (though I am loathe to admit) enjoy It's a Wonderful Life. Sure, it's a rose-colored view of the American Dream but for some reason it works for me. Does it make me want to listen to "I'm Proud to Be an American"? Hell no. Does it make me think that the truth is always different than what's on the screen? Of course not. What I do take away from movies like Ruggles of Red Gap is an understanding and appreciation of the promise and draw of the American Dream to immigrants. At the risk of drifting into the (continuously) controversial issue of immigration, legal and illegal, into the United States - watching Ruggles of Red Gap makes me wonder how some US citizens can rail against immigrants (if not the Irish then it's the Chinese, if not the Chinese it's the Italians, if not the Italians it's the Jews, if it's not the Jews it's the Germans or the Poles or the Swedes or the Mexicans or...you get the idea) and still claim to espouse the virtues of the American Dream. Perhaps it's another topic for another time.
Ruggles of Red Gap is a finely acted, written, and directed movie. If you have the opportunity to watch it then I wholeheartedly recommend it.
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