Ruggles of Red Gap: The Social Mythos of Leo McCarey

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

It is important in any extended discussion of Leo McCarey’s cinema to emphasize the significance of context in determining the specific value of certain motifs. In Duck Soup we are little inclined to condemn Rufus T. Firefly when he machine-guns his own troops; this disinclination is a function of the film’s artificial and farcical style. In My Son John, on the other hand, John Jefferson is machine-gunned to death gangland fashion, and we are clearly inclined to read the scene “realistically”: the act of murder is here to be condemned, as it was not in Duck Soup. I raise the issue because there is a tendency when dealing with McCarey to mistake metaphor for meaning—to assume, for example, that McCarey’s primary concern in Going My Way is to promote Catholicism. We could hardly describe the film as anti-Catholic, but it seems clear that the parish of St. Dominic serves a metaphoric function. It is a microcosmic “community,” a civilization in little, and McCarey uses it to make far more general and far more profound assertions about the nature of social freedom and social responsibility than would have been possible had the film been mere propaganda for a particular religious ideology.

Something similar, it seems to me, needs to be said about McCarey’s use of political metaphors. McCarey is frequently characterized as a defender of bourgeois/capitalist American democracy. And, to the extent that “democracy” serves as a powerful metaphor for social tolerance and flexibility, this is certainly true. But “America,” as a metaphoric social entity, is hardly immune in McCarey from those dangers of rigidity and complacency which beset and threaten St. Dominic’s (and hence civilization) in Going My Way. Witness, for example, Putting Pants on Philip, where Piedmont Mumblethunder’s overdeveloped sense of bourgeois self-importance is called into question by the European vitality of young Philip. Or consider the conflict between free enterprise and Christian charity in Good Sam: bourgeois capitalism (in the person of the owner of the department store where Sam works) hardly escapes unscathed. Indeed, as evidenced by Six of a Kind, The Milky Way, and Make Way for Tomorrow, the economic aspect of American democracy is generally presented by McCarey as being rigidly dedicated to the service of self-interest, and self-interest of any sort is anathema in McCarey when it conflicts with the rights and well-being of others. McCarey is thus for individuals; but individuals inevitably have social and familial responsibilities which disallow mere self-indulgence. Indeed, McCarey’s characters are often most truly themselves when they willingly put their selves at hazard (as in Once upon a Honeymoon).

All of which is relevant to Ruggles of Red Gap because Ruggles is arguably McCarey’s most personal, most social, and most idealistic film. Put another way, in Ruggles of Red Gap McCarey explores the relationship between personality and society, and does so in an idealistic literary context which asserts the essential identity of personal and social imperatives.

* * *

The overall movement of Ruggles of Red Gap is from bondage to freedom, from servitude to selfhood, from social discord to social harmony. At the film’s beginning McCarey cuts back and forth between two very conventionalized social/personal relationships, each of which embodies a somewhat discordant balance of social and personal priorities—and the contrast between the two relationships serves to specify the film’s central issue.

The first such relationship is that of master and servant, and involves the Earl of Bumstead (Roland Young) and his valet, Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton). On the surface their relationship is congenial. We first see the Earl in his bed, hung over after playing poker all night with rich American tourists. While the Earl comes slowly to his senses, Ruggles sets quite efficiently and enthusiastically about the morning routine, opening curtains, setting out a light gray suit (“There is something in the air this morning which calls for light gray”), asking after his lordship’s evening in terms which indicate a strong distaste for things provincial. His preference for the continental life is such, indeed, that when Lord Bumstead finally breaks the news—he lost Ruggles to the Americans in the poker game—Ruggles cringes at the thought of going to Britain’s former colonies. America is, as a pained Ruggles puts it, a “country of slavery.” The

Earl assures Ruggles that “some fellow named Pocahontas or something” took care of the matter. But McCarey’s point is clear: to a certain extent, at least, the obvious pleasure that Ruggles derives from his position results from an almost willful ignorance of alternative social models. (And it is this sort of naïveté which guarantees that Ruggles will go to America, like it or not.)

Charles Laughton as Marmaduke Ruggles

Thus the relationship between the Earl and Ruggles is personal to a degree: Ruggles takes pride—perhaps too much pride—in his ability to satisfy his lordship’s every need with style and grace; and both share an enthusiasm for upperclass pursuits (their discussion of Bumstead’s amatory adventures betrays a sort of conspiratorial camaraderie). But their relationship is impersonal to the extent that Ruggles submerges his personality into his role as valet (note his masklike expression, all pomade and stiff upper lip), with both men, moreover, clearly assuming that a valet is something to be wagered (and lost) in a card game. It never occurs to either of them that even a gentleman’s gentleman has individual rights.

The second relationship is that of husband and wife: Egbert (Charlie Ruggles) and Effie (Mary Boland) Floud of Red Gap, Washington, U.S.A. This couple’s marital bickering serves to emphasize and clarify the negative aspects of the Bumstead–Ruggles relationship. The tendency to let social decorum devalue human rights—a tendency somewhat evidenced by the behavior of Ruggles and his about-to-be-ex–master—is taken to its absurdly comic extreme by Effie Floud. Of course, Effie is nouveau riche in the worst way, and she lusts after Ruggles in the general hope that he will lend “tone” and “joy da vee” to the social life of Red Gap upon their eventual return home from Paris. But Effie is particularly interested in making a gentleman of her eccentric husband; feeling that an English valet is just what Egbert needs to set him straight, she insists that he go collect his winnings. Ruggles initially acquiesces to Effie’s scheme. Even at their first meeting, he is taken aback by Egbert’s elaborate handlebar moustache, his ten-gallon hat, and his loud check suit. Through the next few scenes he collaborates in the scheme to “smart up” Egbert—which means, in practical terms, that Floud must be “well turned out” (Ruggles’s phrase now) with morning coat, spats, top hat, the whole works. They even resort to trickery to trim Egbert’s much-loved moustache: if Effie has her way, Egbert “will look like a different man,” will cease to be himself—in which case it would seem that personal freedom and social decorum are irrevocably at odds.

But in the final analysis this is not the case. For all of Effie’s machinations, Egbert generally remains Egbert, outspoken, outrageous, egalitarian in the best sense of the word. He may let Effie push him around on occasion—to the point where we admire his patience—but only because she represents little genuine threat to his sense of self. If anything, her scheming only demonstrates how ridiculous her pretensions are: she is the butt of her own joke. It is therefore one measure of McCarey’s idealistic belief in the efficacy of responsible individualism that, despite Effie’s intentions, Egbert changes Ruggles far more (and far more profoundly) than Ruggles changes Egbert. No sooner does Effie leave to go shopping than Egbert hustles “Bill” off to a sidewalk café where he insists that the reluctant “Colonel Ruggles” sit down and drink a beer with him. Ruggles objects that “it just doesn’t do for a gentleman’s gentleman to sit with his superiors.” But Egbert will have none of Ruggles’s continental logic: “Superior nothing, you’re as good as I am and I’m as good as you are.” Ruggles has no choice but to sit down—which proves to be an important move in the right direction. The immediate result of Egbert’s egalitarian equation is that Ruggles gets thoroughly drunk—so drunk, indeed, that upon returning to the hotel with Egbert and another Red Gap cohort he winds up wrestling on the floor with a befuddled Mrs. Floud, his stern face and mumbled “milords” replaced by a wide grin and uncontrollable laughter. A farther-reaching result of Egbert’s influence is that Ruggles finally gets up off the floor and learns to stand on his own two feet, as one free man among many.

But again, it is not a simple matter of preferring individuality to community, or American eccentricity to European manners. The relatively consistent tone of the film, which is almost equally lighthearted whether the action takes place in Paris or in Red Gap, disallows easy distinctions. It is important to remark in this regard that the “distance” which matters most in the film is a function of time rather than space. That is, Ruggles of Red Gap is set in the past, in the Gay Nineties era McCarey first explored with Mae West in Belle of the Nineties; by setting his fable in such an idyllic, pastoral context, McCarey acknowledges the mythic or “should-be” quality of his point. Indeed, our understanding of the film’s pastoral quality allows us to account for the fact that the film moves from Europe to America, and to do so without necessarily asserting that McCarey is being simplemindedly jingoistic. In the context of a romantic comedy it is completely appropriate to shift from a city setting to a country setting. Red Gap is, after a fashion, a comic “green world” akin to the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and to Nuggetville in McCarey’s own Six of a Kind. In all these cases the green world is a place where over-rigid social roles can be loosened up or let go. No sooner do the Flouds arrive home than Egbert takes Ruggles to Nell Kenna’s (Leila Hyams) place—Nell is the “hostess” of the local “house”—and orders him to go in and “mix.” As Egbert’s friend, Ruggles is enthusiastically welcomed, and before long finds himself drinking and dancing and having a fine old time. He is no longer a butler or a valet. On the contrary, he is treated as a celebrity of sorts, introduced by Egbert as “Col. Ruggles,” and he rather enjoys the novelty of social esteem.

And yet Red Gap, while looser in general than the Paris of the film’s opening section, cannot be described as a perfect picture of social health. If anything, Red Gap’s “looseness” leaves it vulnerable to the whims of irresponsible egocentricity. Thus Effie, whose foolishness seems self-evident and relatively harmless in the midst of Parisian sophistication, becomes a genuine social lion upon returning home. She has a new Paris wardrobe, a new valet for her husband, a raft of new names to drop—and a new mandate, as it were, to “civilize” Red Gap, a mandate she shares with her fortune-hunting brother-in-law, Charles Belknap-Jackson (Lucien Littlefield) of the Boston Belknap-Jacksons. He came west upon learning of the oil strike that made Effie’s Ma a rich woman, and brought with him a precise knowledge of those things in life which “really matter”—doilies, fingerbowls, and the like. But Effie and her crew are less a cause of social illness than a symptom. The greatest threat to the continued social health of the Red Gap community is not Effie and others like her, but a more general sense of social complacency—complacency of the sort that grants Effie and Belknap-Jackson social authority, that permits ignorance of the struggle necessary to the maintenance of open societies (no one but Ruggles can recall what Lincoln said at Gettysburg); complacency of the sort displayed by Ruggles’s newfound lady love, Mrs. Judson (ZaSu Pitts) when she tells him that he’s “not a man” unless he renounces all loyalty to Lord Bumstead. It never occurs to her until after the fact that individuality and community are interdependent, that the concern which Ruggles shows for Lord Bumstead and for tradition bespeaks that very quality which makes him a genuinely interesting, considerate, and humane individual.

What McCarey holds out for in Ruggles of Red Gap is a proper balance of social and personal concerns. And he achieves that balance by allowing things to get momentarily but benevolently out of hand. It would seem, for instance, only another example of social imbalance that Ruggles should be accorded instantaneous status as a visiting British celebrity. To do so is clearly to place too great an emphasis on superficial and incidental characteristics—Ruggles’s accent, his dress, etc.—exactly as Effie (à la Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way) places too great an emphasis on the superficial aspects of “civility.”

The resulting tendency is for the more profound aspects of civility to be overlooked and undervalued: there is more to civilization than fingerbowls and doilies.

Ruggles (Charles Laughton) and his Red Gap friends

Yet again, in the idealistic context of the film it is ironic but appropriate that this misplaced emphasis on incidentals should actually turn out for the better. To begin with, Effie finds it impossible to fire Ruggles after he has delivered Belknap-Jackson a well-deserved kick in the pants. Ruggles is already the talk of Red Gap society and Effie is too social an animal to let him go. Her motives notwithstanding, by thus keeping Ruggles in Red Gap, Effie allows him opportunity both to read the classic texts of democracy—particularly Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—and to practice a sort of sexual democracy in his personal life. For once, Ruggles gets to go courting (he had always been the sexual on-looker while serving his lordship), and his courtship of Mrs. Judson (in contrast to the Floud relationship) is remarkable in its reciprocity: Ruggles teaches her to brew tea while she teaches him to make coffee. And secondly, after Ruggles has had the chance to live as a social equal for a while, it is Belknap-Jackson’s socially motivated envy (Ruggles is getting all the mail at the Floud mansion) that results in the dismissal of Ruggles—at which point Ruggles is both free (for having been fired) and able (for having educated himself) to follow his own path in life.

The path he eventually chooses to follow is neither idiosyncratic nor selfish. On the contrary, Ruggles’s declaration of personal independence, his deeply felt and deeply moving recitation of the Gettysburg Address, is simultaneously a personal and a social act. McCarey’s mise-en-scène emphasizes this duality. Intense closeups of Ruggles underscore the personal nature of the recitation; in the words of Robin Wood, it’s as if Ruggles were finally “coming to understand a text long known by heart.”* And yet those closeups are set within a context of shot/reverse-shot and reaction shots which firmly embed Ruggles within the society of his audience. Indeed, by the time Ruggles concludes his recitation, his own intensity has been generalized and everyone present has come to a new and more profound understanding of the relationship between social consciousness and individual liberty. Ruggles thus serves as an invaluable social model. To Red Gap in general, symbolized by the crew at the Silver Dollar Saloon, he brings a new sense of the value of personal freedom. It cannot be taken for granted or people like Effie and Belknap-Jackson will end up running the show (as happens, at least momentarily, in the Europe of Once upon a Honeymoon). More specifically, Ruggles gives Egbert the encouragement and the vocabulary necessary to defy Effie to her face (and by this point she richly deserves Egbert’s open defiance). Ruggles even shows his lordship, who had come to America for reasons of loyalty to rescue Ruggles from the Flouds, that America really is a land of opportunity rather than savagery: if Ruggles can leave a heritage of service to set himself up in trade, there is no reason why the Earl of Bumstead should not cast aside social caution and marry the melodious Nell Kenna—and indeed he does just that.

The film concludes, then, on a strongly egalitarian yet strongly social note. It is opening night at Ruggles’s “Anglo-American Grill”—the very name implies a union of continental gentility and colonial energy—and the whole of Red Gap society turns out. As a matter of fact, it is the first time that the entire cast appears together. It was previously the case in every Red Gap scene that some important segment of Red Gap society was missing: Effie and her “circle of cats” never show themselves at Nell Kenna’s or at the Silver Dollar; conversely, Nell and those who frequent her place are seldom if ever seen in the haunts of high Red Gap society. In the film’s closing moments, everyone joins together to celebrate the opening of Ruggles’s new establishment. Furthermore, and despite the proletarian implications of the word “grill” (as opposed to, say, “café” or “restaurant”), everyone is in formal dress: Effie, naturally enough, wears a Parisian formal; Egbert wears a cutaway and a top hat; even Ma Pettingill (Maude Eburne) doffs her buckskins and dons an evening gown. In this case the wearing of formal attire clearly connotes not the suffocation of personality—as it does vis-à-vis Egbert in the Paris section of the film—but rather a playful and self-aware appreciation of social convention. It is a positive social gesture, made to honor Ruggles and Lord Bumstead, and it does not serve to squelch individuality. Of course, individuality can go too far—as the envy-stung Belknap-Jackson goes too far when he calls Nell a “cheap dancer” and Ruggles “a low, common shiner of boots”—but social convention now disallows such incivility and Ruggles quite courteously and properly, as befits his position as proprietor, tosses Belknap-Jackson out by the seat of his pants.

Even in an idealistic film like Ruggles of Red Gap, then, McCarey evidently feels it necessary to qualify his mythmaking by allowing for the possibility that the mythos won’t “take.” There will always be people like Belknap-Jackson, people unable to loosen up and be their better selves no matter how conducive a particular social context might be for such personal amelioration. Indeed, after tossing Belknap-Jackson out the door, Ruggles himself fears that the integrity of his gesture will be the ruin of his hopes, and he retires to the kitchen where Mrs. Judson does her homiletic best to assure him that “it’s always darkest just before the dawn and every cloud has a silver lining.” In this particular instance, at least, the cliché proves true enough. Ruggles has brought a new sense of life to Red Gap, and Red Gap salutes his contribution by declaring communally, in song, that Ruggles is “a jolly good fellow”—Belknap-Jackson or no Belknap-Jackson.

Of course, Egbert has to drag Ruggles out of the kitchen, and Ruggles is shocked to learn that he is the jolly good fellow (Egbert: “Why ya old plate of soup, they’re singing it for you!”). But nobody, and certainly not Leo McCarey, can deny the look of joy that comes to Ruggles’s face as the song is repeated one last time. And the joy is not Ruggles’s alone.

McCarey alternates closeups of Ruggles with closeups of every other major character (except Belknap-Jackson, of course), and by so doing underscores the fact that personal and social imperatives are (or ought to be) indivisible. Everyone is granted opportunity to express their strongly felt appreciation for the unity Ruggles has brought about—but they do so as individuals, bound together not by ritual alone but by the bonds of personal loyalty which make those rituals socially and personally viable. Such viability is not easily arrived at—not in Ruggles of Red Gap, certainly not in later films like My Son John—but it is clearly the case that McCarey recognizes the difficulties involved. And if he remains, in some sense of the word, an “apologist” for American democracy, he is far less naïve and far more profound an apologist than some would have us believe.

* Robin Wood, “Democracy and Shpontanuity: Leo McCarey and the Hollywood Tradition,” Film Comment, 12, No.1 (1976), p. 15.

RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935)
Direction: Leo McCarey. Screenplay: Walter De Leon, Harlan Thompson, and Humphrey Pearson, after the play and novel by Harry Leon Wilson. Cinematography: Alfred Gilks. Art direction: Hans Dreier, Robert Odell. Costumes: Travis Banton. Editing: Edward Dmytryk. Musical numbers: Ralph Rainger, Sam Coslow. Production: Arthur Hornblow. A Paramount Picture. (90 minutes)
The players: Charles Laughton, Charles (Charlie) Ruggles, Mary Boland, ZaSu Pitts, Roland Young, Leila Hyams, Maude Eburne, Lucien Littlefield, Leota Lorraine, James Burke, Dell Henderson, Brenda Fowler.

Leland A. Poague is in the Department of English at the State University College of Arts and Sciences, Geneseo, New York. He is the author of The Cinema of Frank Capra (Zwemmer-Barnes) and projected volumes on Lubitsch, Wilder, McCarey…. Through no fault of his, be was identified a few months ago, in Film Quarterly, as a contributor to Movietone News. Now it’s true. Not long after writing this essay on Ruggles of Red Gap, Lee Poague also moved westward, from New York to Iowa, where he has taught at Iowa State University since 1978.  His most recent book is A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), co-edited with Thomas Leitch.
Research for this paper was undertaken with the support of the SUNY Geneseo Faculty Research Committee.

© 1977 Leland A. Poague

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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