Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap is an overlooked masterpiece of Depression-era Hollywood comedy. The third adaptation of the Harry Leon Wilson novel of the same name, McCarey’s 1935 version was the first to take advantage of the then recent advent of sound cinema. (A musical version starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball was released in 1950). The movie tells the story of an English butler brilliantly portrayed by Charles Laughton who is “lost” by his employer in an overseas poker game, sending the hapless domestic servant to the mining boom town of Red Gap, Washington in the early days of the 20th century. Part screwball, part western, part slapstick, part social satire, the film presents the type of experimental genre mixing we might expect from contemporary auteurs like the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino. In depicting Ruggles’ adventures among the emerging aristocracy of American nouveau riche and the lumpenproletariat of the Old West, the film skillfully dissects the class issues of an allegedly classless country. While the movie is sometimes described as an antithesis to Frank Capra’s Americana, the most memorable scene features Laughton reciting the Gettysburg address to the local populace; however, the sentimentality is undercut by the biting joke that none of these yokels get the reference. The movie possesses the uncanny ability to believe in the American dream while also exposing the blatant hypocrisy at its core.
Perhaps the movie’s reputation has suffered due to the director himself. McCarey was an early innovator of American cinema, particularly in the comedy genre, yet he is not as well-regarded as others like Capra, Howard Hawks or John Ford. He “created” the comedy duo Laurel & Hardy, directing many of their early shorts, and made the definitive Marx brothers movie, Duck Soup. He played around with genre conventions (as in this movie) and also encouraged actors to ad-lib and improvise dialogue on set, developing a freewheeling style that fit the early days of an exciting new medium in the flux of technical improvements. Over the course of his career, McCarey would win a combined three Oscars for writing and directing. Yet as he aged, his politics became increasingly right wing and virulently anti-communist, a turn reflected in both his life and his work. He volunteered to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee at the height of McCarthyism and made movies like My Son John and Satan Never Sleeps that can only be described as laughable pieces of propaganda.
Thankfully, this movie predates the sad decline in McCarey’s Hollywood career and personal politics. If anything, it’s a tribute to the anarchic and unorthodox spirit of the director’s earlier artistic output. And the delightfully named actress Zasu Pitts.