The most brazenly inclusive of any socially minded Hollywood film from the pre-war era (a distinction made all the more harrowingly distinctive by the same director’s sensationalist paean to democratic exclusivity two decades later, My Son John), Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap is a schizo, slack-jawed, preemptive rejoinder to Frank Capra’s saintly sober “everyman.” The story, about a British butler, Marmaduke Ruggles (a transformative Charles Laughton), who involuntarily migrates to the turn-of-the-century wild west as the newly acquired personal assistant of some less-than-refined ranchers, espouses nationalist hokum no less exuberant than Capra’s, but with more likeable elasticity. Could an anachronistic manservant from the cradle of the United States actually become an American—that is, not just exchange the frivolity of citizenship, but douse himself in and drink deeply of the colonial-capitalist esprit?
Why the heck not, McCarey and Laughton respond with a coarse flippancy that offers a negative tone-image of Powell and Pressburger’s subtly propogandistic, transatlantic goodwill (cf. A Canterbury Tale). And thus Capra’s smoothed vanilla, demagogic everyman, before even being properly developed, was trumped by McCarey’s anyman, the notion that sturdy stateside values are so valuable because of their inability to be encapsulated within a single, manly image. And Laughton, even in 1935, was chameleonic and swollen enough that any suggestion of his having swallowed both the U.K. and the U.S. whole was entirely plausible.
But I hear you protesting at this utopian vision of diverse-but-equal. Ruggles himself does the same, as soon as he’s notified by his original upper-crust sot of an employer/owner (Roland Young) that a series of escalating poker wages on an ill-timed bluff will be necessitating his move. “America…” Ruggles says, his eyes engorging, “the land of slavery.” Uttered unflatteringly by an indentured servant who’s just been lost on a gamble, this clumsy line is less ironic than its apparent intention; it’s as if Ruggles objects to slave labor as an essentially bad-mannered custom. This quasi-poor taste exposes how little the director or highly cultured star knew of Jim Crow. And yet the film recovers nearly as quickly as we cease to take it seriously, because it creatively commences Ruggles’s assimilation process overseas, on a moistened tour of Parisian bars with his new, homespun master, Egbert Floud (coincidentally played by Charlie Ruggles, sporting a mustache like a shaving cream applicator).
Soused for likely the first time in decades and caterwauling while riding a merry-go-round, Ruggles atavistically becomes an alien in his own familiar Western Europe, undergoing a hardening, humiliating process that heaves the former Henry VIII out of Lady Liberty’s birth canal. As the newbie, Ruggles of course takes the heat from wannabe dowager Mrs. Floud (Mary Boland, impeccably cast) in the headache-y morning after, and all is forgiven, cauterizing the rite of passage. Compare this with the wino French housemaid from Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, whose wiles drive a young boy to grow into Don Ameche. The juxtaposition’s truth is alarming: Old, European corruption has sleeper cells even among New York immigrants, but glisteningly new American indulgence isn’t corruption at all, it’s a symbol of any-man’s right to handicap himself. And so the playing field isn’t just leveled, but pretty much forgotten in a swelter of cigar smoke and “vis-kee-so-da.” (“That’s French for a highball!” Floud’s also-abroad companion boasts.)
Once in the highly Fordian Red Gap itself, the movie stalls a bit on a mistaken identity plot Preston Sturges would later expand into a double helix of deception: Since Floud continually calls Ruggles “Colonel,” and since butlers are a non-entity in the milieu, the citizenry of the one-horse town confuse the émigré for a veteran, and fête him appropriately. The Flouds are alternately embarrassed and amused by this turn of events, but Ruggles himself is trepidly curious about the potential; dormant chunks of his brain are now fueled and burbling. In the film’s source material, a serialized novel wherein more or less the same “things” occur, albeit as a less brisk pace, the alchemic effect of this ruggedness on Ruggles, both in terms of the physical and moral landscape, is charted by an increasingly vulgarized first-person narration. Here, Laughton condenses the verbal mutation into an hour and a half of steadily erupting giggles, determined glances, and taken liberties. In one of the narrative thorax’s best scenes, he courts a local woman (ZaSu Pitts) with unknowingly frank conversation about what spices would complete her renown sauce, leading her to exclaim: “Let’s not have an international row about it!”
In the film’s penultimate scene, Laughton mellifluously recites the Gettysburg Address to diffuse a conflict, and we can’t help but feel that we’re on the receiving end of a tonal raspberry; the true Americans are undignified by choice, McCarey seems to elucidate, but whatever else can be said of us, we buy our own rhetoric! Yet again, however, Laughton—who would later famously commit a series of remarkable live readings to LP—buttresses this political smarm with performerly aplomb, lightly toasting the words of Lincoln in his portable oven of a mouth to imply that such articulate thoughts indeed are immortal for having practical value. And one could hardly argue, not only because the Gettysburg Address was a plea to end American fractiousness, but because it’s as short and sweet as the founding fathers get. Ruggles of Red Gap portrays the west, and the entire, still-untamed country by extension, as an environment fecund enough to forgive any folly or in-fighting, a world where a man can start his own business from nothing or simply prove himself an emblematic idiot with a brief attention span—or, as is most often the case, both in tandem. That vision of American democracy as a frontier of psychotic sprawl to be endured rather than enslaved—the egg that McCarey laid and Sturges hatched—has yet to be improved on in film, or embraced with such staggering innocence. Following their template, one can nearly love this reckless country without ignoring what this reckless country is capable of.