Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). 90 minutes. Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Charles Laughton (as Ruggles), Mary Boland (as Effie Floud), Charlie Ruggles (as Egbert Floud), ZaSu Pitts (as Mrs. Judson), Roland Young (as the Earl of Burnstead), Leila Hyams (as Nell Kenner), Lucien Littlefield (as Charles Belknap-Jackson), and Maude Eburne (as Ma Pettingill).
Ruggles of Red Gap is a delightful comedy about a stuffy English valet who is won in a card game by a pair of nouveau-riche Americans and relocates to their small Western town. With the help of American principles of political and social equality, the valet (Ruggles) embarks on a project of freeing himself from servitude and establishing himself as an independent man. In that regard, the movie reminds me of Born Yesterday (1950), which similarly posits that American institutions can be a force for personal (as well as political) liberation. Ruggles of Red Gap lacks the hard edge of Born Yesterday, but it uses its lighter tone to celebrate the idiosyncracies of English and American life, resulting in a story that, while very much a paean to sober concepts such as liberty and egalitarianism, is perhaps even more of a love letter to the sillier aspects of the two cultures it depicts.
In Paris in the early 1900s, the Earl of Burnstead loses his valet Ruggles in a card game to Effie and Egbert Floud, two Americans from the Far West town of Red Gap, Washington. Ruggles struggles to adapt to his new employer Egbert, who prefers to address him as “Colonel” and (to Ruggles’s horror) insists on interacting with him as an equal. The Flouds and Ruggles set off for America, where Ruggles is boisterously welcomed and quickly mistaken for a real colonel. Keen on keeping up appearances, Effie permits Ruggles to reside with them as a guest rather than as a valet, and he spends his time reading about great Americans. Soon, however, the Flouds’ sinister relative Charles turns Ruggles out.
At a saloon awaiting his train out of town, Ruggles encounters Egbert, who insists that he stay. In a moment of inspiration, Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address from memory to a room full of stunned patrons. Egbert begins to scheme with Ruggles to open a restaurant, the Anglo-American Grill. As the night of the restaurant’s debut approaches, the Earl of Burnstead pays Red Gap a visit. Ruggles encounters the Earl and tells him that he cannot return to him, that he has become his own man. The movie concludes with the opening night of the Anglo-American Grill, which is a roaring success.
In its most charming moments, Ruggles of Red Gap reminds me of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels. Much like Wodehouse’s Jeeves, Ruggles is a reserved servant, more gentlemanly than the man (Egbert) he serves, and easily mortified by undignified behavior. Watching Ruggles attempt to maintain order, particularly social order, in the land of the American West where characters are loud and over the top is a particular pleasure. His insistence on opening doors for Egbert, ushering his master into cars, picking up gloves and canes, and serving the Flouds their morning coffee are all part of his attempt to impose English rigidity on their lives. Above all, his insistence that he be addressed as “Ruggles,” his last name, rather than by Egbert’s nickname for him (“Colonel”) or his embarrassing first name (Marmaduke) becomes a struggle for him not only to maintain propriety but also to preserve a sense of English decorum, in which he locates the highest worth. (This is particularly true with regard to the nickname “Colonel,” which is used in some parts of the United States to affectionately address a superior and might thus cause Ruggles special consternation.) But we repeatedly and comically see his efforts undermined, in part because English servant customs have conditioned him to be muted, understated—neither of which is enough to win conflicts in the movie’s version of the West.
If the representations of English culture that we encounter via Ruggles seem comical, the American West that Ruggles experiences is decidedly ludicrous as well at times. Whenever Egbert meets an old pal (and he has many old pals), he does so with walloping yells and outrageous behavior—embracing and slapping people on the back, riding his friend piggyback down a Parisian boulevard near the Louvre to the delight and shock of many, and insisting on indulging in a few too many drinks in public. Egbert has a fond insult for everyone he reunites with, “You old sourdough” or “You horned toad,” nicknames that make Ruggles shudder, as do Egbert’s ensembles of choice: three-piece suits with loud, checked patterns.
But part of what is remarkable about Ruggles of Red Gap is the way that it lampoons the two cultures it depicts while offering endearing portraits of people from both sides. In particular, lest you should think that the movie is full of unfeeling caricatures of Americans, consider that everyone in the movie wants to hang out with the loud and uncouth Egbert. Among the Americans, he is well loved; he is popular at the railroad station in Red Gap when he and Ruggles arrive in town—a whole crowd of people gathers to say hello. And the Earl of Burnstead travels to Red Gap and ends up fraternizing with Egbert, escaping from a stuffy social event with him by lowering himself out of an upper-story window and drinking the night away at Egbert’s friend Nell’s. The Earl falls in love with Nell and marries her, permanently merging with Egbert’s society.
Indeed, American culture in Ruggles of Red Gap—with its accompanying political system, regional identities, and customs—is in many regards depicted as supremely liberating and fundamentally desirable. Although Ruggles is shown to be the quintessential English valet, his story of growth and change is nevertheless fueled by both admiration and affection for the United States, either in spite of or because of the quirky locals he regularly encounters in Red Gap. In its optimism and faith in the American principle of equal opportunity, Ruggles of Red Gap ranks among other great movies about outsiders who transform their lives through political study, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and the aforementioned Born Yesterday (1950). But whereas the protagonists of those movies must be nurtured in their studies and guided in their reading by other characters who are more expert in American ways, Ruggles directs his education himself in his own time and on his own terms. In this way, even more so than the characters of those later movies, Ruggles cultivates the mystique of the ideal self-taught, self-made man who resides at the core of the American Dream.
The turning point in Ruggles’s journey is decidedly the scene in the saloon where he recites the Gettysburg Address to a barroom full of Westerners, and it is in this scene that Ruggles of Red Gap makes a pointed statement about the cultural legitimacy and authentic political standing of newly minted Americans. As Ruggles sits commiserating with Egbert about his misfortune, someone mentions that the words of Lincoln apply to his situation, but no one in the saloon can remember them. Ruggles begins to mutter Lincoln’s speech from memory. He speaks louder, and the bar is transfixed. Part of the irony of this scene, of course, is that it is Ruggles, the English valet, who knows the content of Lincoln’s speech—not the Americans themselves—indicating that Ruggles as an immigrant to the United States has internalized American culture and history through study and devotion in a particularly powerful way, outstripping even cradle-born Americans in his zeal for Western democratic principles. In this way, Ruggles of Red Gap makes the implicit case that some of the most politically well-informed people the U.S. has to offer are recent immigrants.
It is not a coincidence that Ruggles recites something from the slavery conflict: when he learns that he is being sent to the United States, he actually refers to it as “the land of slavery.” And of course, Ruggles has himself been traded from one master to another without being asked for his consent. The fact that Ruggles was won in a frivolous card game makes his transfer to Egbert seem even more oppressive, as if he were a mere bauble to be traded away rather than a human with desires of his own. Although Ruggles maintains a stoic demeanor on the morning the Earl relates the details of the game, it is obvious that he is disconcerted by the news, perplexed by the thought of moving to the United States and taking up with a new master.
It could be hard for an American audience to accept that a grown man who is not actually a slave could submit himself to his lord’s judgment so completely and not voice his own objection to being moved across the globe by people he barely knows. But for years Ruggles has voluntarily participated in the classism that dictates his own trade. The reasons for this are complex: the English class system offers both advantages and disadvantages to someone like Ruggles. He actually benefits from and seems to enjoy his elevated status as an ideal valet snob and stern judge of proper decorum. Of course, he simultaneously suffers because of his inferior status as an obedient servant when he is gambled away by the Earl. Given how complicated Ruggles’s relationship to class and authority is in England, it is perhaps no wonder that he experiences something like an identity crisis when he is relocated to the New World.
When Ruggles eventually emerges from his crisis and abandons servitude, he accordingly becomes a member of his own class as a kind of sui generis entrepreneur: no longer a valet, not a member of the upper classes, and not clearly a part of the middle class either. But as Ruggles transforms into his new indeterminate self, the film reveals the vulnerability of characters who remain enmeshed in specific class pretensions. For example, whereas Egbert may be a coarse Westerner who speaks with a thick accent, his wife Effie sounds mid-Atlantic and takes care to dress in the extravagant women’s fashion of the time. Her atrocious French, both mispronounced and misused, peppers her dialogue as she strives to appear more sophisticated than she really is. She initially delights in Ruggles; she is the one who insists on playing cards for him, thinking a real English valet will improve her husband’s standing in society. But she cannot tolerate Ruggles when she determines (mistakenly) that he is a bad influence on her husband, stumbling home drunk one evening in Paris with Egbert or losing Egbert at one of Nell’s parties in Red Gap. Nevertheless, appearances are so important to Effie that she allows Ruggles to continue to live with them in Red Gap even after he has been reported to be a colonel on holiday and their house guest in the local society papers.
But no one in this movie wants to be in Effie’s household or at her stuffy parties. We never see Egbert successfully attend one of them (he always finds a way to escape), and he rarely runs the errands she appoints him (such as visiting the Louvre and taking notes in Paris or delivering a society item to the local newspaper in Red Gap). Most of the movie is about Egbert avoiding what he is supposed to be doing, and watching Ruggles get sidetracked as he attempts to steer his master towards productivity is enjoyable. But Egbert does not want to be productive, and he does not want Ruggles to be productive either. The life that Egbert introduces Ruggles to is thus chaotic, laden with drinks, music, carousing, broken neckties, singing, dancing, and loud shouting. The heavily decorated and enclosed grand estate built by Effie’s family is replaced by Egbert, and later Ruggles himself, with the world of the saloon, the outdoor cook-out, and the Anglo-American Grill—freer, more fluid environments characterized by ease and pleasure. In these places, characters mingle across classes and types: the reserved Earl of Burnstead with the vivacious Nell, the stuffy Ruggles with the humble cook Mrs. Judson. The result is a jumble of characters who have in common the pursuit of warm companionship and spirited living rather than social success.
Ruggles locates something special in Egbert’s decentered, calamitous chaos, something that his previous life lacked. In line with his discovery, he opts for surprise and unpredictability over rigidity and expectation. The movie’s insistence that New World rowdiness is part of what helps to liberate Old World Ruggles suggests, through frequent allusions to historical American presidents, that wildness is also an essential ingredient in American culture, even though that might not be a quality that we immediately associate with Lincoln or the wigged and powdered revolutionaries of the eighteenth century. Ruggles of Red Gap’s enthusiasm for specifically rebellious liberty, mingled with its jokes about American mores, might make for a unexpected take on the American Dream, one that both praises and pokes fun at American culture—but in its way it is beautiful and uplifting, and very, very funny.