Sunday, July 4, 2010

Ruggles of Red Gap: What Price Freedom?

Freedom isn’t free. There is always a price that must be paid.

An excellent example of this is on display in this lesser-seen gem starring the phenomenally talented Charles Laughton as Ruggles of Red Gap. Ruggles is a very proper manservant to Lord Burnstead in England. His employer, however, offers him as chattel as part of a bet that he loses in a poker game to some unusual Americans, Egbert and Effie Floud (Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland). Effie is thrilled beyond belief that this valet will be able to influence her wealthy, but decidedly uncultured, husband. But Egbert has other ideas. He is glad to have a new buddy and introduces Ruggles as “the Colonel” to the townsfolk back home in the U.S.

Ruggles is like a fish out of water. He doesn’t quite know what to make of this situation. He is an excellent servant but confused as to what his responsibilities are supposed to be in this household that is so decidedly different from the one he has known in England. Still, he is impressed with something he never quite grasped before. There are opportunities in this new country for everyone who is willing to work hard.

Ruggles befriends Mrs. Judson (ZaSu Pitts) and demonstrates his remarkable cooking abilities. Soon, the man who was displaced from his comfortable employment into a brand new environment is learning what it means to be a free man.

In the most touching scene of a movie that is mostly filled with humor, Egbert attempts to quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in the Silver Dollar Saloon when the quiet and gentle voice of Ruggles eloquently recites it in full. It is a remarkable moment and one that always makes me thankful for the many blessings afforded to us in our beloved country.

Like Ruggles, Charles Laughton began his career in England, but traveled to America to enhance his acting opportunities. He made his Broadway debut in 1931 and enjoyed almost immediate success in both American and British talking pictures. By 1933, he already won a Best Actor Oscar for the title role in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Following the release of Ruggles in 1934, Laughton enjoyed a remarkable period in his career, starring in Les Miserables (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Rembrandt (1936), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

The supporting cast sparkles in Ruggles of Red Gap, especially Charles Ruggles who plays the endearing Egbert. It’s the “nouveau riche” Egbert who personifies the American spirit in the film. He accepts every person as his equal, never forgets a friend, and ignores any distinction between classes.

It’s interesting that the film’s most powerful scene—Ruggles’s reciting of the Gettysburg address—wasn’t in the original 1914 novel. But that scene and the strong performances give Ruggles a depth that’s totally missing in the 1950 Bob Hope remake Fancy Pants.

If you’ve never seen Ruggles of Red Gap, it makes for excellent viewing on this patriotic holiday. I truly hope that each and every American celebrates today with thanks given to our Lord and to those who made our freedom possible. Happy Fourth of July!


  1. Toto, what a delightful choice for the Fourth of July! When I was a kid, RUGGLES appealed to me because it was funny. It was only when I was older that I appreciated its true message, that (as you said) America is a land of freedoms and opportunities. The scene you describe where Ruggles recites the Gettysburg address is always stirring. Well done review!

  2. Toto, what a nice pick for our Fourth of July blogathon. Ruggles is such a funny movie, but as you and Rick have said, it also promotes the message that America is the land of opportunity...and freedom.

  3. Toto, Awesome post!! And a big thank you for stepping in for me.. Happy 4th of July!!

  4. Toto, thanks for bringing attention to this wonderful movie with your amusing and concise post. I saw it many years ago and loved it, then again a year or so ago and it was just as good as I remembered. I especially recall Laughton's drunk scene and Charlie Ruggles's outrageous checked suit. I don't think Laughton ever gave such a charming performance--in fact, I'm not sure he ever gave another performance that could be described as charming!--and he is a delight. When he got the N.Y. Film Critics best actor award for "Mutiny on the Bounty," they also cited his work here (although, curiously, not in "Les Miserables," also a 1935 release, where he was also excellent). The expert direction is by Leo McCarey ("Duck Soup," "The Awful Truth").

  5. I really enjoyed your article, Toto. I have never seen this movie - I never gave it a chance, thinking from the title that it was some kind of comedy western. It sounds like I missed something really good, and I intend to remedy that soon! Your comments about Laughton's rendition of the Gettysburg Address showed a real love for the U.S., and it was nice to see.

  6. Wonderful review, toto! I'm not a Charles Laughton fan, but he is terrific in this film, and that perpetual facial expression he seems to maintain throughout the film is priceless. Excellent post for the 4th of July!

  7. Thank you all for your kind comments! R.D., the outfits worn by Egbert were hysterically bad! I really enjoy Charles Ruggles in this role. Becky, I have also skipped films based on a title or a performer I didn't like. I hope that you have a chance to give it a try one day. Dawn, I enjoyed being able to share a film that is quite dear to me. Rick and Kim, sometimes a sweet film like this does indeed remind us of the freedoms we receive as Americans. Sark, I love how Charles Laughton can milk a look. He can be quite terrifying ("Les Miserables") or imposing ("Hobson's Choice") so it is fun to see him as charming and approachable.