17 September 2013

Ruggles at Gettysburg

Last night's Filmsoc offering was the 1935 Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, The Awful Truth) comedy Ruggles of Red Gap, in which Charles Laughton plays a reserved and starchy English gentleman's gentleman whose aristocratic employer loses his services in a game of poker to a nouveau riche family from Washington state. Upon taking Ruggles back to their rootin' tootin' hometown of Red Gap, unsurprisingly it turns out that Ruggles loosens up a bit and starts to enjoy the lifestyle in the land of opportunity. It's a knockabout comedy, nothing particularly special, with fairly predictable comedy dialogue making much of the Ruggles' reserve slowly broadening as he is charmed by American life.

That the dialogue occasionally feels a little humdrum is a surprise, because it's not as if the screenwriters lacked plenty of source material.  The story was originally a newspaper serial that started in 1914, before both being written up as a novel by Harry Leon Wilson and as a Broadway musical the following year. There was also an earlier screen adaptation by Famous Players/Lasky Corp in 1923.  

The avuncular, effete Laughton was highly bankable at the time, having won the Best Actor Oscar for the title role in the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII. Laughton would also appear as Bligh alongside Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian in the famed Mutiny on the Bounty in the same calendar year as Ruggles. 

A particular highlight of the film is the saloon-bar scene in which Ruggles, who conveniently had been perusing US history texts in his employers' seldom-used library that very morning, adds some gravitas to proceedings by reciting Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The scene is both splendid cinema and completely hokey, pulling all the right strings as the Englishman uses the fine presidential words to make his own declaration of independence (to mix metaphors rather comprehensively). Perhaps it's meant to be a satire of Americans' lack of knowledge of their own national heritage - after all, none of the bar patrons has the slightest clue what Lincoln actually said on that famous day. Or perhaps the heart-swelling national pride that accompanies the recital - and of course the RADA-trained Laughton is the perfect orator - is just nicely undercut by the barkeep's reaction at the end of the speech: clearly a speech that high-falutin' must call for booze. Whatever the intent, you have to admire the writers, who know full well that patriotism sells - and, even better, using public domain text saves you having to write dialogue yourself.

The opening title card of Ruggles, like Design For Living screened at Filmsoc a couple of weeks ago, elicited a few sniggers from the audience. A bold logo pronounced 'NRA', with the tagline 'We do our part'. But this was not an advertisement for the notorious National Rifle Association. Rather, it showed the film-makers' commitment to the National Recovery Administration, a short-lived voluntary initiative of the Roosevelt administration, that sought to encourage setting minimum wages and maximum weekly hours, as well as minimum prices at which products could be sold. In 1935 the US Supreme Court ruled the legislation unconstitutional, and the organisation was dissolved in May of that year. However, some of its provisions emerged in 1936 in the Wagner Act, which set the groundwork for US labour relations.

Via Wikicommons
Laughton's wife, actress Elsa Lanchester, whom he married in 1929, was also a leading lady at the time - she played Anne of Cleves alongside Laughton's Henry VIII in the 1933 film, and in 1935 she starred as the title character in James Whales' Bride of Frankenstein. Her 1970s interview with Dick Cavett below is worth a watch; she seems quite taken with the dashing Cavett.

See also:
Radio play: Ruggles of Red Gap with Charles Laughton, July 1939 (w/ introduction by Cecil B. DeMille)
Interview: Dick Cavett talks to Elsa Lanchester about Laughton
Music: Toy Love - Bride of Frankenstein (NZ, 1980)
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