The Discreet Charm of Charlie Ruggles

There was a becoming modesty to Charlie Ruggles‘ career. The critical
establishment’s recognition of his presence often reflected the
scale of his long career.
An earnest looking Charlie Ruggles as he appeared in The New York<br /> Times in 1915
In 1915, the good, gray New York
Times anointed his youthful presence on the Broadway stage with some
tepid remarks under the heading “Second Thoughts on First
Nights.” While acknowledging that he was the brightest performer in
playwright Edgar Selwyn’s Rolling
Stones
, calling him “an adroit farceur, winning in manner,
and possessed, it would seem, of a nice sense of nonsense”, the
anonymous critic said that his “advent is scarcely a momentous
theatrical event” and he “did not set the Hudson afire with
his talent.” Thank goodness Ruggles didn’t take this faint praise to heart. Perhaps the theater-goer from the Times was merely spoiled by the relatively rich range of acting talent offered by the entertainment world back then. Only in retrospect do the best of the players appear to shine.

Instead of being discouraged by this, Charles Ruggles plugged on, seemingly always eager and game to try to take on a new play or film or medium throughout his life. Beginning with an unconfirmed appearance in a movie of L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914), he’d already dipped his toe into the new medium of the flickers,
just as he would decades later in television, which, thanks to nearly
endless rotations of Bullwinkle and Rocky, The Andy Griffith Show & other series, he became familiar to Baby Boomers and their children too.

Born in 1886 in Los Angeles and growing up in the San Francisco area, Charlie and his younger brother, Wesley Ruggles, who would become a movie director, were attracted to the theatre from an early age. His early life was marked by tragedy when his mother was shot by an armed bandit in his family home, reportedly when she stepped between her husband and the robber. Despite this, and his surviving parent’s requirement that he try to become a pharmaceutical salesman prior to becoming an actor, he apprenticed in stock companies on the West coast, specializing in playing older characters from an early age. Ruggles toured extensively throughout America, eventually becoming known as a reliable comic supporting actor with a distinctive, hard to describe but memorable voice, (rather like a creaking garden gate hinge).

Later years of radio, as well as film and later tv work
would also help hone his ability to modulate that voice beautifully to
express a range of emotions and keep his listeners in any audience with
him. His uniquely identifiable voice would become his signature
throughout his career.

As I was reminded several days ago when TCM broadcast a forgotten little programmer, Murder in the Private Car (1934), Charlie Ruggles could make comic bricks with very little straw indeed. Charlie Ruggles (left) with the cast of the farce, Murder in the<br /> Private Car (1934)This illogical time-killer,
which paired him with a sprightly Una Merkel, allowed Ruggles‘ affable charm,
verbal dexterity and light touch to deny the banality of the cliché ridden script (complete with a lost daughter of a
multi-millionaire working as a telephone operator) to raise the picture to an entertaining level. Depression era audiences were already very familiar with the actor’s abilities. In a period when cherished character actors such as Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles were audience draws along with the stars, Charlie’s seemingly hesitant and timorous portrayals were regarded with affection by audiences.

Whether appearing in an elegantly crafted Ernst Lubitsch film such as Trouble in Paradise (1932) or Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight
(1932) or Howard Hawks’ brilliant Bringing Up Baby (1938) or in a series of fourteen fitfully funny domestic comedies with Mary Boland, the actor delivered his neatly polished performances with a captivatingly casual air. With Mary Boland, his comic partner & bête<br /> noire in 14 cinematic forays.His versatility as a supporting player lightened everything from a 1939 pastiche of a Russian musical in Balalaika with
Nelson Eddy to an early ’60s sex farce with Sandra Dee, called I’d Rather Be Rich (1964)–all made more palatably entertaining by his
honeyed voice and gentle presence. He was often asked to play put upon, hapless and occasionally beaten men, (a character that probably evoked a feeling of sympathy among struggling audiences in the ’30s). Yet there was invariably a remarkably consistent equanimity to his portrayals. Playing henpecked husbands, butlers, valets, rejected suitors, or occasionally lecherous fellows, he remained a man who hung onto his civilized identity–sometimes by a thread. Ruggles seemed to derive real pleasure from his
portrayals of would-be lotharios the most; gently mocking the
unprepossessing, not so rampant male of the species.

A small man, Charlie was almost always dapper in appearance, (that irresistible photo of him in character for a forgotten film with the cat at the right notwithstanding). The only time that I can recall seeing him play a thoroughly disagreeable sort was in the very interesting noirish
Western, Ramrod (1947), directed by André de Toth, starring Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea. The director cast Ruggles as a dictatorial and
manipulative father trying to force his daughter (Lake) into a loveless marriage with neighboring rancher Preston Foster.Mr. Ruggles, ready for action
(Interestingly, the director also cast the bilious milquetoast boss of tv’s ’60s maid, Hazel,
Don DeFore, as a hothead with a gun in this odd, but compelling little movie).

Later, when he began to appear as a likable, very understanding member of the older generation, as a paternal Otis Skinner in such movies as Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944) or
an avuncular cousin to Bette Davis’ twins in A Stolen Life (1946), and eventually a truly lovable grandfather in The Parent Trap (1961) and in the seemingly

“lost” gem, The Pleasure of His Company (1961), his characteristic bemused manner mellowed into wisdom. There’s a particularly well done, seemingly casual scene when Hayley Mills embraces Ruggles affectionately in The Parent Trap (1961) after hercharacter returns from summer camp. She lingers, examining his features and memorizing his scent of tobacco and peppermint. Startled by her attention, he blusters through the moment, obviously touched but embarrassed by her explanation that she is simply “making a memory” of him. It’s a lovely moment, played with just the right instinctive mix of sentiment and humor.

Recent years have enabled us to “make memories” of
Charles Ruggles anew with the releases of the Lubitsch, Mamoulian, and Howard Hawks‘ delightfully effervescent movies on dvd. One film that
deserves mention is among Charlie Ruggles very best. It is seldom broadcast and, unfortunately little known to many. Ruggles of Red
Gap
(1935) directed by Leo McCarey (who also directed Charlie in the memorable Six of a Kind) was the third film adaptation of
Harry Leon Wilson’s novel.Zazu Pitts, Charles Laughton, Charlie Ruggles & Maud Eburne in<br /> Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) (The “Ruggles” in this film’s title refers to the name of the
character played by Charles Laughton, not to the actor, Charlie Ruggles). The difference here was the addition of sound, Charles Laughton‘s
masterfully amusing British Galatea to Charlie Ruggles‘ unaware American Pygmalion, and the
intoxicating blend of observant humor and–believe it or not–a spiritual awakening–all rendered by director Leo McCarey at his very best. Set in 1908, Ruggles’ character wins the valet (Laughton) of a British nobleman (Roland Young, who’s delightful) in a poker game in Paris. Charlie Ruggles, who plays one Egbert Floud, has been brought to the City of Light by his overbearing wife Effie, (Mary Boland) to have his frontier rough spots sanded down. Once Egbert acknowledges that when his wife “gets riled up she’d fight a rattlesnake and give it the first two bites”, he accepts the indignity of traipsing around the boulevards dressed “like [a]
bantam rooster before he was run over” with his new watchdog Laughton. Soon, of course, Egbert’s refusal to treat Laughton as anything but his boon companion and absolute equal leads to complications, especially after dragging the valet home back to America, and the wild and wooly frontier town of Red Gap in Washington state.An outraged Egbert Floud in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Gradually, as
Laughton undergoes a spiritual
awakening that culminates in a beautifully done recitation of the
Gettysburg Address in a barroom by the Englishman–the native Americans,
interestingly, cannot remember the speech–Charlie Ruggles‘ character also asserts himself, restoring “democracy” to his marriage to the dictatorial Mary Boland. The writing and playing of all the actors in this film are quite delightful, but the
uncharacteristically blustery role that Charlie Ruggles plays could easily have seemed overdone in the hands of another, less deft actor. Barely recognizable behind a walrus mustache and leaving the sentiment to the Laughton character, Ruggles shows a lovely balance between
buffoonery and underplaying, contributing just the right note to the
overall ensemble.

An older Charlie Ruggles

I’d recommend this film to anyone, especially in an election year, since it has more to say about the things that make America and Americans endearing and maddening than a thousand editorials. The civics lessons enshrined in Ruggles of Red
Gap
are delivered with a light touch, illuminated with a tolerant love of characters and their differences, and blended with a spirit of conviviality and spontaneity that are all too rare.

Thank goodness for small favors and really guilty pleasures: Disney pictures such as The Parent Trap, Son of Flubber, The Ugly Dachshund, the
cherished
Bullwinkle and Rocky
show
and those seemingly endless rotations of the often winning The Andy Griffith Show, the numbskull humor
of
The Beverly Hillbillies and other programs on

TVLand. Without these enduring artifacts of the Baby Boomers’ childhood most of us would never know who Charles Ruggles was today.

Those lucky enough to have caught his appearances on
television shows from the sixties, (his voice-over work as Aesop in the
“Aesop’s Fables” segments in the Bullwinkle and Rocky Show is still particularly droll), will always pause if you catch a word of his characteristic speaking voice or dimpled, good-natured face. The rest of us, who have only discovered his sublime work in movies from the ’30s on, continue to rediscover Charlie Ruggles‘ gentle charm.

Mr. Ruggles in his prime.

25 Responses The Discreet Charm of Charlie Ruggles
Posted By john : May 8, 2008 9:32 am

he was certainly one of the best character actors of the 30s and 40s.
his unique style of flustered incompetence was in the same league with
horton and blore. i had  the pleasure of bumping in to him on the
streets of new york and got to shake his hand. these old pros are all
gone now and would be forgotten but for tcm. thanks for the memories.

Posted By john : May 8, 2008 9:32 am

he was certainly one of the best character actors of the 30s and 40s.
his unique style of flustered incompetence was in the same league with
horton and blore. i had  the pleasure of bumping in to him on the
streets of new york and got to shake his hand. these old pros are all
gone now and would be forgotten but for tcm. thanks for the memories.

Posted By Curt : May 8, 2008 3:32 pm

Wonderful profile of Charlie Ruggles. BTW, Mr. Ruggles gave a slyly
amusing performance as a villain in the second season Man From
U.N.C.L.E. episode, "The Ultimate Computer Affair" … a
delightful addition to his Autumn-years resume.

Posted By Curt : May 8, 2008 3:32 pm

Wonderful profile of Charlie Ruggles. BTW, Mr. Ruggles gave a slyly
amusing performance as a villain in the second season Man From
U.N.C.L.E. episode, "The Ultimate Computer Affair" … a
delightful addition to his Autumn-years resume.

Posted By Murray : May 9, 2008 12:03 pm

Excellent piece.  Ruggles is always a comforting bonus when the
opening cast credits flicker by in an  oldie goldie. I
happened on "Ruggles of Red Gap" in a moment of pure
serendipity.  Great movie.

Posted By Murray : May 9, 2008 12:03 pm

Excellent piece.  Ruggles is always a comforting bonus when the
opening cast credits flicker by in an  oldie goldie. I
happened on "Ruggles of Red Gap" in a moment of pure
serendipity.  Great movie.

Posted By moira : May 9, 2008 4:06 pm

Thanks for the heads up, John, Curt & Murray. It's always
delightful to meet  fellow Charlie Ruggles fans.
John, you have no idea how much I love hearing that someone had a
chance to meet and thank Mr. R. in person for all the pleasure he gave
his audience. I'm sort of hoping that others will discover Charlie
via this article too. Charles Ruggles will
brighten TCM on May 21st at 6:30pm ET in No More Ladies
(1935) with Joan Crawford & Robert Montgomery in an MGM comedy.
Later this summer, he'll be popping up in No Time for
Comedy
(1940), (7/2 @ 2:15am), the Disney flick, Son of
Flubber
(1963) (8/9 @ 10:45am), & Bringing Up
Baby
(1938), (8/30 @ 2:30pm). His role in the latter as Major
Horace Applegate, big game hunter, should have earned him an
Oscar!Btw, the truly classic comedy, Ruggles of Red
Gap
(1935) is on YouTube, beginning at the following
link:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FskLtDR9n4 Seeing
it in pieces is better than not seeing this gem at all, though I
recommend tracking down a dvd, if you can find it. 
;-)  

Posted By moira : May 9, 2008 4:06 pm

Thanks for the heads up, John, Curt & Murray. It's always
delightful to meet  fellow Charlie Ruggles fans.
John, you have no idea how much I love hearing that someone had a
chance to meet and thank Mr. R. in person for all the pleasure he gave
his audience. I'm sort of hoping that others will discover Charlie
via this article too. Charles Ruggles will
brighten TCM on May 21st at 6:30pm ET in No More Ladies
(1935) with Joan Crawford & Robert Montgomery in an MGM comedy.
Later this summer, he'll be popping up in No Time for
Comedy
(1940), (7/2 @ 2:15am), the Disney flick, Son of
Flubber
(1963) (8/9 @ 10:45am), & Bringing Up
Baby
(1938), (8/30 @ 2:30pm). His role in the latter as Major
Horace Applegate, big game hunter, should have earned him an
Oscar!Btw, the truly classic comedy, Ruggles of Red
Gap
(1935) is on YouTube, beginning at the following
link:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FskLtDR9n4 Seeing
it in pieces is better than not seeing this gem at all, though I
recommend tracking down a dvd, if you can find it. 
;-)  

Posted By Birdy : May 10, 2008 10:35 pm

Moira, Such a nice article on one of my favorite character
actors – he isn't usually listed in the Now Playing Guide, so is a
nice surprise when he pops up in a fun movie.   Wouldn't
it be a treat if he had an afternoon dedicated to his birthday
(not that I have any idea when that is).  I doubt we could hope for
a whole day!  I always loved that scene in Parent Trap where
Hayley says she is making a memory, everytime I watch it I mist up a
little because I can smell my grandad!B

Posted By Birdy : May 10, 2008 10:35 pm

Moira, Such a nice article on one of my favorite character
actors – he isn't usually listed in the Now Playing Guide, so is a
nice surprise when he pops up in a fun movie.   Wouldn't
it be a treat if he had an afternoon dedicated to his birthday
(not that I have any idea when that is).  I doubt we could hope for
a whole day!  I always loved that scene in Parent Trap where
Hayley says she is making a memory, everytime I watch it I mist up a
little because I can smell my grandad!B

Posted By YancySkancy : May 12, 2008 8:29 pm

Ruggles of Red Gap is my favorite movie, so you can imagine how it
warms my heart to see such an effusive appreciation of both the film and
its wonderful "Egbert Floud."  Charlie Ruggles was
ubiquitous in my childhood, between the TV appearances you mention and
Disney films.  I think I knew his voice first, from Bullwinkle
& Rocky.  I always found him distinctive and delightful, and
his name in the credits is usually more than enough to rate a
look.It's a shame the Academy didn't add the Supporting
performance categories until 1936.  Surely Ruggles, Young and
Boland would've rated nominations (and I'd throw in the lovely
Leila Hyams as well).  And Ruggles deserved to win.I think
the only time I've been disappointed by a Ruggles performance was in
The Invisible Woman, an otherwise delightful comedy in which he
flounders a bit in the slapsticky role of a harried butler.  But
it's surely the material more than the performer, because
Ruggles was one of a kind.

Posted By YancySkancy : May 12, 2008 8:29 pm

Ruggles of Red Gap is my favorite movie, so you can imagine how it
warms my heart to see such an effusive appreciation of both the film and
its wonderful "Egbert Floud."  Charlie Ruggles was
ubiquitous in my childhood, between the TV appearances you mention and
Disney films.  I think I knew his voice first, from Bullwinkle
& Rocky.  I always found him distinctive and delightful, and
his name in the credits is usually more than enough to rate a
look.It's a shame the Academy didn't add the Supporting
performance categories until 1936.  Surely Ruggles, Young and
Boland would've rated nominations (and I'd throw in the lovely
Leila Hyams as well).  And Ruggles deserved to win.I think
the only time I've been disappointed by a Ruggles performance was in
The Invisible Woman, an otherwise delightful comedy in which he
flounders a bit in the slapsticky role of a harried butler.  But
it's surely the material more than the performer, because
Ruggles was one of a kind.

Posted By moira : May 12, 2008 10:50 pm

Thanks so much for the supportive words, YancySkancy and Birdy. It is
heartening to realize that there are so many who grew up with Charlie
Ruggles as a companion in the Disney movies and the much more demanding
rigors of '30s movies. Whenever he appears he is a welcome
touchstone. 

Posted By moira : May 12, 2008 10:50 pm

Thanks so much for the supportive words, YancySkancy and Birdy. It is
heartening to realize that there are so many who grew up with Charlie
Ruggles as a companion in the Disney movies and the much more demanding
rigors of '30s movies. Whenever he appears he is a welcome
touchstone. 

Posted By Robert : May 23, 2008 4:50 pm

I just caught a few minutes of No More Ladies (1935)
the other night on TCM. Robert Montgomery & Joan Crawford were the
ostensible stars. If you caught the scene in the nightclub that
Charlie
Ruggles stole completely with his
sweetly drunken souse act, you would understand why he is an actor to
cherish. More Charlie Ruggles, please, TCM.

Posted By Robert : May 23, 2008 4:50 pm

I just caught a few minutes of No More Ladies (1935)
the other night on TCM. Robert Montgomery & Joan Crawford were the
ostensible stars. If you caught the scene in the nightclub that
Charlie
Ruggles stole completely with his
sweetly drunken souse act, you would understand why he is an actor to
cherish. More Charlie Ruggles, please, TCM.

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : September 14, 2008 4:04 pm

[...] of everyone from George Raft, Jack Oakie, Richard Bennett (Constance & Joan’s dad) to Charlie Ruggles. Even  Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields make appearances in various segments, all directed by eight [...]

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : September 14, 2008 4:04 pm

[...] of everyone from George Raft, Jack Oakie, Richard Bennett (Constance & Joan’s dad) to Charlie Ruggles. Even  Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields make appearances in various segments, all directed by eight [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : February 5, 2009 10:03 am

[...] occasional airs from Puccini’s rapturously beautiful opera score and adding a game Charlie Ruggles  to the cast. Overall, the movie, which can be glimpsed in this clip, was quite dated for [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : February 5, 2009 10:03 am

[...] occasional airs from Puccini’s rapturously beautiful opera score and adding a game Charlie Ruggles  to the cast. Overall, the movie, which can be glimpsed in this clip, was quite dated for [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : February 5, 2009 12:46 pm

[...] occasional airs from Puccini’s rapturously beautiful opera score and adding a game Charlie Ruggles to the cast. Overall, the movie, which can be glimpsed in this clip, was quite dated for ’30s [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : February 5, 2009 12:46 pm

[...] occasional airs from Puccini’s rapturously beautiful opera score and adding a game Charlie Ruggles to the cast. Overall, the movie, which can be glimpsed in this clip, was quite dated for ’30s [...]

Posted By With Mary Boland his comic partner b te noire in 14 » Images Search : April 13, 2012 8:07 pm

[...] http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/05/07/the-discreet-charm-of-charlie-ruggles/ 13 April 2012 5:07pm – Images « Mary Boland Emilia Farago Carol Haviland Al Harahap Chloe de los with Mary Boland » [...]

Posted By With Mary Boland his comic partner b te noire in 14 » Images Search : April 13, 2012 8:07 pm

[...] http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/05/07/the-discreet-charm-of-charlie-ruggles/ 13 April 2012 5:07pm – Images « Mary Boland Emilia Farago Carol Haviland Al Harahap Chloe de los with Mary Boland » [...]

Posted By tolly devlin : April 15, 2015 3:40 pm

I have been an admirer of Charlie Ruggles work for decades. I saw Ruggles of Red Gap & some of the comedies he made with Mary Boland when they were shown on New York’s WNEW ( channel 5 ),back in the mid sixties. One film of his that Ihave always liked was The Parson Of Pannamint.I can’t remember who else was in it but I always remember the ending with Ruggles shaming the towns people, who I believe were about to lynch the titular character.It has been almost thirty years since I last saw that movie.

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