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Ruggles Of Red Gap (1935) Blu-ray review – Charles Laughton laughs

May 22, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Laughton laughs – but this isn’t entirely the boisterous romp you’d expect from such a dominating star; instead, it’s a gentle charmer

Ruggles Of Red Gap 1935 Charles Laughton Leo McCarey

Ruggles Of Red Gap
(Leo McCarey, 1935)

By 1935 Charles Laughton was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, figuratively and literally, following up grotesque breakthroughs like Dr Moreau in Island Of Lost Souls with his Oscar-winning powerhouse performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII.  He was getting ready to play Captain Bligh opposite fellow icon Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny On The Bounty, when he took an unexpected U-turn into comedy.

Ruggles Of Red Gap is an absolute charmer, a not-quite screwball that marries dextrous verbal wit and drunken slapstick with a surprising political parable and an emotional undertow that comes out of nowhere.  Its appeal comes from Laughton, a serious and intense actor giving a weird, eye-rolling comedic performance that hides real thought and care in creating a likeable and multi-faceted character.

The film has a great premise, in which an uptight English butler is won in a game of cards by a coarse, nouveau riche American while on holiday in Paris.  That set-up stacks a deck of cards familiar to audiences of the time, used to sophisticated European fairytales from the likes of Lubitsch but also loving the saltier vernacular of American wordplay.  [The presence in the cast of actor Charlie Ruggles , who did the Paris comedy in Love Me Tonight and would essay superb Stateside style in Bringing Up Baby, links the two.]  With Laughton in the centre, the film also plays on the star’s rep as the grand English actor who played kings and mad scientists.

Laughton hired Leo McCarey, the genre master behindLaureland Hardy and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, to steer this rich brew.  The result is a work of organised chaos, as actors mug away as you’d expect… but in such deceptively simple long takes that a real warmth of detail hits you like a wave.  McCarey was halfway to the achingly sad tone he would master in 1937’s Make Way For Tomorrow, and this is so gentle in its humour that it effortlessly slides into something richer.  In the film’s most audacious move, a hilarious tracking shot of a barman trying to find a patron who knows the Gettysburg Address comes to a standstill when Laughton’s Ruggles – in honeyed, mellifluous tones – recites the whole thing.

That sequence is the film in a nutshell.  At first, Ruggles comes across like a complete loon, a madman who has mastered the art of deference.  As a butler, he moves with a nimble, almost dainty grace, but Ruggles is one drink away from becoming a loud, lurching beast sizing up the world with a mischievous half-smile. 

But the catharsis he finds when he drinks is nothing compared to the Epiphany he finds in America.  Here’s a film (made as the Depression was biting hard) that takes one look at the class system and says: to hell with it.  A town like Red Gap, with its vulgar manners and sawdust style, might be a snob’s nightmare, but it’s the kind of place where a man needs only a friendly push (and maybe a small beer) to become his own master.

Ruggles of Red Gap is released on Blu-ray by Masters Of Cinema on Monday 28th May, along with fellow Charles Laughton movie Island Of Lost Souls.  Extras include an interview with Laughton’s biographer Simon Callow, a recording of Laughton’s recital of the Gettysburg Address, and best of all, three complete radio plays featuring the same cast, which goes to show how popular this film was.

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