Posted by David Kalat on May 9, 2015
Ruggles of Red Gap is an odd duck. It is a crucial turning point into the formative genre of screwball comedy, but it isn’t easily recognizable as a romantic comedy nor is it especially female driven. It was Charles Laughton’s favorite screen role, but he’s not known for comedy, and his performance here consists substantially of standing still and trying to suppress an awkward smile. It’s a 1930s Hollywood comedy for the Downton Abbey set, whose most famous scene involves a British valet reciting the Gettysburg Address to a bar full of Wild West toughs.
In other words, it’s a movie that calls for some unpacking. So let’s get started!
Last week I started mouthing off about the development of screwball comedy, a thread I intend to follow for the next several weeks until I get distracted and drop it mid-thought like I usually do.
Last week I put forth the postulate that there were talented writers and directors working in silent slapstick who were incentivized to move away from the slapstick model because the focus on solo stars a) limited the extent of their own contributions and b) squandered the plentiful resources of Hollywood’s many comically-gifted performers. My metaphor for this argument was that if all your movie could think to do with Joan Crawford was show the back of her head, you’re doing it wrong.
This was a clumsy metaphor, of course—for one thing, Joan Crawford was the least suited to comedy of practically any Hollywood starlet in history. For another thing, I don’t want to be misconstrued as slinging any mud on Tramp, Tramp, Tramp. Harry Langdon was a bona fide genius and his (sorta) debut feature is side-splittingly funny. I just meant that Hollywood’s eco-system wasn’t going to thrive on the speciality flavors of Harry Langdon, and needed to cultivate more robust cash crops.
We can actually see this process in action with Ruggles of Red Gap. The story (which had actually been filmed once before, as a silent comedy!) involves a proper “gentleman’s gentleman” (Laughton, as the titular “Ruggles”) whose employment contract is lost in a card game to a loudmouth American rancher (Charlie Ruggles, but don’t get distracted by his last name—that’s just a confusing coincidence). The American’s social-climbing wife (Mary Boland) thinks having a British valet is just the thing to rub in the noses of her equally snooty friends back in Red Gap.
At first, the valet is horrified by this turn of events. To be torn from his employer (Roland Young) and sent off to the untamed Wild West is unnerving, and his new employer is uncouth and ignorant of social custom. But once in Red Gap, the valet starts to realize the benefit of his employer’s resistance to Old World social mores. The rancher accepts his valet as an equal, and introduces him to his friends not as a servant but a person. America’s classlessness might be its greatest saving grace.
Laughton insisted on getting Leo McCarey as his director, for what was launched as practically a Laughton-vanity project. McCarey had been one of the creative forces behind Laurel & Hardy, and from there had gone on to direct other slapstick icons in star-driven vehicles: Six of a Kind (Burns & Allen); The Milky Way (Harold Lloyd); Duck Soup (The Marx Brothers). In other words, the CV of a gifted comedy mastermind, but one whose own auteurist vision was at least partially obscured by the personalities of his stars.
But after this film McCarey’s career looked like this: The Awful Truth, Make Way For Tomorrow, Going My Way… Movies that not only mark out McCarey’s unique personal territory but also cause us to retroactively reevaluate his earlier works and find the irreducible McCarey in them. Ruggles of Red Gap is where McCarey becomes McCarey.
And so what is the McCarey touch? Part of it is the ensemble nature of his works, where every supporting player is given the space to command the screen/steal the scene, where the effect of the film is magnified by the collaboration of a deep bench of onscreen talent.
I said that Laughton’s performance includes a lot of standing still and trying to avoid smiling—which opens up a lot of space for other actors to take center stage.
There’s Charlie Ruggles, a blunderbuss of loud checkered suits and unfaltering enthusiasm (and a George Bush-y habit of nicknamification). There’s Mary Boland, a shrill onslaught of self-aggrandizing social climbing. There’s Roland Young, marble-mouthed and meek.
And there’s Zasu Pitts as Laughton’s love interest—a rare opportunity for Pitts to be the leading lady in a Hollywood blockbuster.
In addition to the appealingly quirky romance between Laughton and Pitts, a second romance blossoms late in the film between Roland Young and Leila Hyams. I’ve raved in this blog before about the scene-stealing brilliance of Young’s and Hyams’ courtship over an impromptu drum lesson (“Oh, a ditto bum?”), but for our purposes this week what’s most significant is that their romance, which plays out in just a handful of scenes between minor supporting characters, is a key plot point. This is what I mean about McCarey’s approach to ensemble-based storytelling. These subsidiary characters’ actions have more direct consequences to the resolution of the story than the primary romance between the leads.
In short, this is how the New Comedy differed from slapstick. You could make a movie that depended entirely on, say, Harry Langdon to sell each and every one of the jokes—or you could generate laughs from a good dozen actors, and summon all their disparate plotlines and character attributes to contribute to the finale.
[Next week: When Cinderellas Attack!]
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