The Also Ran’s Project – Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Ruggles_of_red_gap.jpg (578×886)Directed by Leo McCarey

Written by Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson, Story by Humphrey Pearson, based on the novel by Harry Leon Wilson

Starring Charles Laughton, Charlie Ruggles, Mary Boland and ZaSu Pitts

Charles Laughton had a good year in 1935.  He was in three films , all nominated for Best Picture: Les Miserables, Ruggles of Red Gap and Mutiny on the Bounty.  And while it’s fair to say he benefited from an expanded field of nominees – they did an even dozen that year, ladies and gentleman – it’s also important to remember he starred in the winner: Mutiny on the Bounty.

 

But while it was a good year for Laughton, it falls just short of being great.  See, while he benefitted in one way from that expanded field of nominees for Best Picture,[1] he was done in another way by virtue of the Academy not yet giving awards explicitly for Supporting Actors or Actresses – those categories would not be established until the following year, when Gale Sondergaard would win for Anthony Adverse and Walter Brennan won the first of his three Oscars in the Supporting Actor category for Come and Get It.

While in another year the three men nominated for Best Actor out of Mutiny on the Bounty – Laughton, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone – might find themselves spread across the two separate races, in 1935, they were all nominated into one.  Given this, it’s reasonable to expect the three of them likely drew enough votes from each other to cancel themselves out and give Best Actor to Victor McLaglen in The Informer.

And handing the award to McLaglen is something of a travesty, because 1935 should have been a great year from Laughton.  After all, in the same year he embodied the villainous, scenery-chewing, yet strangely rational and heroic, Captain Bligh, he was also the reserved, charming and splendidly understated Ruggles of Red Gap.  In other words, because he gave two such different performances, in two such different films, he should have won the Oscar for one or the other simply because of the range of his abilities.[2] – As it was, he won for neither.

All of this, of course, says nothing about Ruggles of Red Gap.  So, you might ask – what about it?

Ruggles of Red Gap is the story of a proper English butler, lost by his Lord in a wager[3]   to some new money westerners, named Floud.  The Floud’s[4]  hail from Red Gap, Washington.   Mr. Floud, being a personable, back-slapping sort of bucakroo, starts off by calling Ruggles colonel and is so insistent on the nickname that, when the Floud’s finally take Ruggles home to Red Gap,[5] the townsfolk assime Ruggles is an actual colonel from the British army.  Being proper and seemingly averse to disagreement,[6] Ruggles has a hard time correcting people on his mistaken identity and so while he never overtly lies about who he is, he definitely benefits from this mistaken identity.[7]  In the end, Ruggles learns to become his own man and, with the aid of the Floud’s, opens a restaurant.

Ruggles of Red Gap is a diverting movie.  Far from great, but charming nonetheless. For modern sensibilities, it would surely be labeled thin and slow.  The comedy is less-comic than I’d like and while at times the pace approximates screwball, and there is some rather inspired comedy, on the whole the film is tepid and sluggish and what should be, at best, a brisk 75 minute culture-clash movie, feels padded out to 90.

Curiously, while Ruggles of Red Gap, and movies of it’s like, would get regular nominations for a small period of time in the 1930’s,[8] the seriousness of World War II seemed to destroy all that for all time.  After all, even as the Academy developed a slight predilection for frothy musicals in the 1950s and 1960s, the era of the comedy, they never really turned to comedy again.  Even today, about the only comic director who can get anything nominated for Best Picture anymore is Woody Allen, and generally that only happens for his more serious work.

So, final verdict?  Is Ruggles of Red Gap a misunderstood or little-known masterpiece screwed over by the Oscars?  No.  When you hold Mutiny on the Bounty against Ruggles of Red Gap, it’s obvious both films got what they deserved.

Charles_Laughton_in_Mutiny_on_the_Bounty_trailer.jpg (720×576)Charles Laughton, on the other hand, did not.  In a year that should have seen him be the first actor to take home two Oscars, he went home empty-handed instead, all for want of a Best Supporting Actor category.

You can find other entries in The Also Ran’s Project here.

[1] Did I already say it was an even dozen?

[2] Preferably, though, for Captain Bligh.

[3] We are obviously to overlook the fact that the story takes place around 1908 and to my knowledge, even at that time a butler was not a piece of property who could be wagered, won or lost.  Ironically, at the end of it all the film makes clear a man cannot be property when Ruggles goes on to be ‘his own man’.

[4] Appropriately, it’s pronounced like the word ‘loud’.

[5] Even if the film is called Ruggles of Red Gap, it takes a full third of the movie’s running time for Ruggles to actually get to Red Gap.

[6] Or eye-contact, for that matter.

[7] In a way, he’s almost like Chance, the gardener, in Being There.

[8] For example, It Happened One Night and The Thin Man vied for Best Picture in 1934; My Man Godfrey was nominated in all four acting categories in 1936; and The Awful Truth lost for Best Picture in 1937.

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