Director: Leo McCarey
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson
Finally arriving on DVD in North America, through Universal Home Video’s intriguing “Vault Series” of manufacture-on-demand DVD-Rs (available exclusively through Amazon.com), Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap is a very pleasing fish-out-of-water comedy enhanced by the director’s humanistic feeling for his characters and their social condition.
The film opens in Paris, 1908. Charles Laughton portrays the Ruggles of the title, a stodgy British servant whose world is turned upside down (or right-side up) when his master (Roland Young) loses his services in a poker game to a nouveau riche American couple. Hilarity ensues as Ruggles discovers that his new employers, a Mr. and Mrs. Floud (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland), helplessly lack the social graces befitting masters of the house. The husband, for example, encourages Ruggles to drink on the job, leading to a very amusing and very touching sequence in which Ruggles gets soused and goes for a blissed-out ride on a merry-go-round.
Mr. Floud further insists on calling his new manservant by the nonsensical sobriquet “Colonel.” This particular faux pas incites a major misunderstanding back in the Flouds’ hometown of Red Gap, Washington, where the locals confuse the nickname “Colonel” for a genuine military designation, and celebrate the humble butler Ruggles as a distinguished member of the British Army. His social standing thus flipped, Ruggles grows to appreciate the life of an (accidentally) independent man, and resolves to strike out and make something of himself in his newly adopted country.
In the hands of McCarey and Laughton (who gradually suffuses Ruggles’ droopy, solemn countenance with pride, dignity, and good humour), this is a very sweet story of personal triumph over class barriers. So sweet in fact that one is tempted to forgive the whiffs of Hollywood flag-waving (see: Ruggles’ recitation of the Gettysburg Address in a Red Gap saloon), and the complementary aggrandizements regarding how far individual rights and freedoms actually extended in America at the time (the Flouds’ Black maid and Chinese servant are conspicuously forgotten about in all the hoopla surrounding Ruggles’ ascent to independence). Though it’s never quite as funny as Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), another assimilation-of-foreigners comedy (in which Garbo the communist learns to laugh!), Ruggles does claim the highroad over the latter film by avoiding easy condescension about how bad-off Ruggles was before his American conversion. To wit, McCarey doesn’t hard-sell America’s superiority over other nations and ways of life, but makes a gentler point about how much more fun, enlightening, and affirmative life among equals can be.