After watching Barry Lyndon, I decided to continue to explore my DVR by watching another film that was shown as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.
First released way back in 1935, Ruggles of Red Gap was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mutiny of the Bounty. Interestingly enough, both Ruggles and Bounty featured the great Charles Laughton. In Bounty, Laughton played a tyrannical villain, Capt. Bligh. In Ruggles, however, Laughton is the film’s hero, a gentle and comedic butler named Marmaduke Ruggles who, after having his contract gambled away in a poker game, finds himself living in the frontier town of Red Gap, Washington.
It’s also interesting to note that Ruggles of Red Gap is one of the few best picture nominees to receive absolutely no other nominations. To a certain extent, it’s understandable. Ruggles of Red Gap was made at a time when the Academy had less categories but still nominated ten films for best picture. As a film, Ruggles mostly serves as a showcase for Charles Laughton but, that year, he received his best actor nomination for his work in Mutiny. (At that time, there were no supporting categories. Had there been, it’s likely that Laughton could have received a lead actor nomination for Ruggles and a supporting nomination for Bounty.) The next time that someone complains that Selma only received two nominations, you remind them that’s one more than Ruggles of Red Gap received.
As for the film itself … well, for a modern audience, the film’s deliberate pace takes some getting used to. The film’s best moments occur at the start. Ruggles wakes up one morning to discover that his boss (Roland Young) lost him in a poker game. Ruggles spends the day meeting and attempting to get used to his new employer, a nouveau riche cowboy named Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles). The joke here, of course, is that Ruggles is stereotypically reserved and British while Egbert is loud, brash, and American. Ruggles lives his life by the rules of the class system. Egbert comes from a world where there is no class and everyone is equal. Ruggles refuses to call Egbert by his first name. Egbert gets Ruggles drunk. The scenes of Egbert and Ruggles in Europe are a lot of fun, largely because the two actors were obviously having a lot of fun playing off each other and Laughton clearly relished getting to play comedy as opposed to villainy.
The second half of the film features Ruggles settling into life in Red Gap, Washington. The citizens of Red Gap are, of course, all honest and hard-working folks who don’t have the slightest hint of pretension. (Red Gap may have been in Washington but it was obviously nowhere close to Seattle.) They welcome Ruggles into the community but they also mistake him for being a colonel and soon, everyone is under the impression that Ruggles himself is a war hero. It’s an odd subplot, one that doesn’t seem to really be necessary to make the film’s point.
And that point, by the way, is that America is a land where everyone is equal and where butlers have the same rights as their employers. Ruggles goes from being somewhat horrified by his new surrounding to being a proud American, an entrepreneur who is now capable of being his own man. And it may sound corny and I’m sure all of my cynical friends are rolling their eyes but you know what? Charles Laughton pulled it off. As uneven as the film may sometimes be, Laughton’s sincere performance holds it all together. He’s the main reason to watch Ruggles of Red Gap.
How proud of an American does Ruggles become? He’s enough of an American that he can even recite the Gettysburg address! Watch below!