Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson
To begin, Ruggles of Red Gap is not a Western. Certainly I can see why, or rather how, this title came up when I was researching for this Western marathon, but there were some titles which consistently came up on lists I saw which I easily identified as NOT being Westerns. Therefore I left them out. Such titles include Days of Heaven, The Last Picture Show and Badlands. Each of these can be construed to align with familiar Western tropes, but the combination of the fact I had seen them before and the fact their inclusion in the genre could be seen as a stretch, I decided to trim my list of these marginal selections (marginal in the sense they belong, each is a magnificent film). Ruggles of Red Gap is a film I watched, a film I enjoyed, and therefore I will review it, but I will stand by my position that this is not a Western film and therefore would not be included in any list I might generate in the future.
The majority of the film takes place in Red Gap, Washington, a small rural town in the West at the turn of the century (early 1900s), and as such there are cowboy hats and saloons, but in general Red Gap is a developed and settled community, lacking any of the lawlessness and lawmen that are synonymous with the Old West. Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton) is a valet for George, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young) in England. However, when George “loses” Ruggles to an unsophisticated American, Egbert (Charles Ruggles, ironically), Ruggles, a prim and proper Englishman, must transition to the informality of life in the American West. Resistant at first, Ruggles soon meets local woman Prunella (Zasu Pitts) and begins to find the freedom of the country liberating, as he realize his individuality and dreams.
There are elements of Western here. As Ruggles charges into a new and foreign land where the rules are invariably different than the ones he knew before, he begins to see opportunity and an unparalleled freedom to express himself, a chance to start anew and forge ahead from his limited past. These are some of the same things that could be said of new settlers to the American West, but there are no outlaws, there are no ranches, there are no Native Americans, there are no railways. It doesn’t fit into any of the seven types of Western stories I mentioned in my first post of the marathon because this is not a Western. That, however, does not mean it is not a good movie. On the contrary, I had a heck of a good time with Ruggles of Red Gap.
First and foremost, this is a vehicle for the incomparable talents of Charles Laughton in the leading role. I have seen a few films featuring Laughton before, but never before have I enjoyed him more. His English charm and sense of humor shine through the character of Ruggles, and the situations the story is able to place him in are quite suiting for his talents. Laughton crafts Ruggles as a sympathetic, funny, and endlessly endearing character, a winning attitude and one worthy of my admiration to cheer him on. Laughton is matched by a completely different performance from Charles Ruggles, whose offbeat Egbert is loud, rude and completely hysterical. The two create a wonderful balance, offering laughs for various reasons, in various moments, and various styles.
I am certainly glad that I watched Ruggles of Red Gap. It was a wonderful film. I just wish I could have watched it in a different capacity than as part of a Western marathon. I shouldn’t harp too much on this misfortune, however, and I certainly shouldn’t count its lack of being a Western against it. I intend not to. As a matter of fact, the likelihood that I would have seen this film otherwise is quite small considering how I go about seeking things out to be seen. I should be thankful this film fell into my lap under these circumstances, otherwise it could have been at least a decade before I would have ever considered seeking it out. Instead, I can now easily recommend it to anyone looking for a light, funny, and perfectly enjoyable film featuring a marvelous performance from the charming Charles Laughton.