October 2, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap

Ruggles of Red Gap. 1935. USA. Directed by Leo McCarey

These notes accompany screenings of Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap on October 3, 4, and 5 in Theater 2</a>.

A notable and oft-neglected comic Western is Ruggles of Red Gap…. Ruggles blends satire, sentiment, and social commentary and has consequently been considered an odd little masterpiece, off to the side of the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s.

Leo McCarey’s oeuvre is equally impossible to classify and categorize. His sharp-edged spoofs and the brilliant comic performances he elicited from actors in this period are the opposite of the melodramatic tearjerkers and sometimes treacly sentimentality of his later films…. McCarey had been a gag writer for Hal Roach, and many of the shorts in which he teamed Laurel and Hardy were ones that he wrote and directed. Laughton’s paralyzed grin at the denouement of Ruggles of Red Gap seems the heir to Laurel’s famous facial expression.

Ruggles waltzes pleasingly between satire and parody. The screenplay comments on social mores and political values while scoffing at essential conventions of the Western genre…. The great success of Ruggles revolves around its willingness to play off such conventions with warmth and wit while also expressing sincerely our deepest convictions about the occasional pretensions of aristocracy and the eternal truths of a democratic America.

– Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western (University of California Press, 2012) (currently available in the MoMA Store)

Charlie Ruggles’s persona in Ruggles of Red Gap is something of a visual homage to Mark Twain, and much of his innocent naughtiness harks back to Laurel and Hardy, the team created by Leo McCarey. It is appropriate, therefore, that Charles Laughton’s first assertion of independence should take the form of a kick to stuffy Lucien Littlefield’s derriere, in a throwback to the director’s buttock-abusing slapstick origins.

The film’s dramatic high point is Laughton’s barroom recitation of the Gettysburg Address and its assertion of “a new birth of freedom,” which prompts this gentleman’s gentleman to unknot his traditional ties and become the independent proprietor of the Anglo-American Grill. And yet it is evident, from what we know of McCarey’s closet authoritarianism (he comes out screaming in My Son John and Satan Never Sleeps), that he is dabbling here in democracy—just as, in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, he dabbled in anarchy.

Yet the film works, thanks almost entirely to McCarey’s genius for directing actors and exquisite sense of timing—both of which are far more evident here than ever before. Laughton’s previous performances had ranged from the bizarre to the grotesque, but as Marmaduke Ruggles he became more endearing and accessible than ever before—or after, for that matter. The Laughton of Ruggles is a near cousin to Michel Simon in Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, made four years earlier. Laughton physically resembled the great French actor, and his drunk scenes have a Boudu-like roguishness (“the brute in me”). Mary Boland and Roland Young are superb in supporting roles, and ZaSu Pitts performs with great charm as the widow whose fondness for the Englishman cannot quite encompass his mild criticism of her meat sauce. This relationship between Prunella and her Marmaduke is our first real glimpse at the lovely, delicate romanticism that flowed from McCarey at the peak of his powers: the grace of Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore in Make Way for Tomorrow, or of Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer (and, perhaps most moving of all, of Maria Ouspenskaya and her memories) in Love Affair.