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by Leland A. Poague

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.

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