Ruggles is a staid valet employed by the Earl of Burnstead. Ruggles comes from a long line of men who have served the Burnstead family for generations. So, when the Earl informs Ruggles that he lost him in a poker game to a wealthy American couple, Ruggles tries to hide his surprise. It becomes harder to disguise this surprise when he meets the Floud’s, his new employers. They have only recently come into wealth and it shows.
Egbert Floud is the epitome of a loud, tasteless American tourist. While his wife Effie tries very hard to disguise their humble beginnings with expensive clothes and poorly spoken French. Ruggles is privately appalled by the Flouds, particularly as Egbert insists on treating him as an equal and continually ignoring their difference in class. Effie on the other hand is a woman Ruggles understands, despite her patronizing snobbery. Effie’s desire for an English valet for her husband coincide perfectly with Ruggles understanding of his place in life.
But Egbert just can’t seem to treat Ruggles as an inferior. When the Flouds return to their western Washington home town, Ruggles learns his preconceptions of a wild untamed land have been exaggerated. He has difficulty adjusting to the little town of Red Gap, but as Egbert and his friends continually insist on treating Ruggles as an equal, he begins to see the benefits of America.
An unexpected article in the local newspaper suddenly elevates Ruggles position in society above even the Flouds. Suddenly, not only is he an equal, but he experiences respect and the dignity of admiration for the first time. Through his experiences with Mr. Floud in America, Ruggles comes to appreciate the American ideals of freedom, independence and individuality.
Ruggles of Red Gap is one of those films which kind of creeps up on you. It generally flies under the radar, yet those who have seen it sing its’ praises. I had watched it once before and enjoyed it. But then time passed and I put off watching it again. Why, self why??
After watching this movie for a second time, I remember how much I loved it. Directed by Leo McCarey, it has his signature quick pace, comedic focus and talented casting. But it also has heart, warmth and sincerity. It’s a film which celebrates the best things about being American.
Charles Laughton never gives a boring performance. But I believe his portrayal of Ruggles is one of his best. He begins as a very restrained, reserved, disciplined English servant. But as the film progresses, he slowly discovers that his position is not his identity. His body language, his facial expressions all convey this dawning revelation that he is his own person, able to think for himself. For the first time he allows himself to feel real human emotions.
His initial disdain for the outrageous antics of Egbert Floud eventually grows into a grudging appreciation when he realizes that freedom means being exactly who you are, making no apologies for people who don’t accept you. When he finally “gets” the concept of true freedom, it is perhaps one of the most moving scenes in film. There are few more American moments in film than when Laughton as Ruggles recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg address to a saloon full of American men, none of whom can remember the speech.
I adore the character actors of classic Hollywood. And there are few I love more than Charlie Ruggles, Mary Boland, Roland Young and Zasu Pitts, all of whom play a part in Ruggles journey from man servant to free man. This may also be one of my favorite of Charlie Ruggles roles. His Egbert is outrageous, yet down to earth, occasionally obnoxious but lovable and non judgmental. And I love seeing Zasu Pitts as a love interest for Laughton’s character.
Overall, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It is not only a lot of fun, but also a good reminder of what is so great about being an American.