Having recently watched McCarey’s excellent Make Way For Tomorrow, I thought I’d dig below the surface and watch some of his other films. I came into Ruggles of Red Gap nothing about Charles Laughton and the other members of the cast, and very little about McCarey. I have to say that on first impression, I am very disappointed.
Laughton portrays Ruggles, an English valet who is working in Paris but is transferred to America to work for a brash American (confusingly portrayed by Charlie Ruggles). Once in Washington, our valet develops as a character and grows in confidence, going from obedient servant to full independence, eventually deciding to open his own Anglo-American restaurant.
Laughton biographer Simon Callow, in a key bonus feature on the UK Masters of Cinema release, discusses in great detail his opinion on the performance and his disappointment having watched it. In context, he was comparing him to his great performances as the Hunchback of Notre Damme and as Henry VIII, to name a couple. I have not seen these, but I wholeheartedly agree with everything he says. I’d got further – as an Englishman, the whole thing is utterly insulting.
The Ruggles that is portrayed is a bumbling Brit that would leave any aristocratic servant-employer worried for their own safety. Indeed, I’d probably ask for a different waiter if I was served by Ruggles in a restaurant. The portrayal leaves the viewer with an air of discomfort. There’s something going on between his flickering eyes and his awkward body language that made me want to look away. In hindsight, I think it was Laughton’s attempt at comedy. Perhaps it was “of the time”, but it really hasn’t aged well.
That he can’t find any route out of servitude until he goes to America, which is patriotically portrayed here – unashamedly – as the land of the free, is undermining of Britain. With very little knowledge of Laughton as a person, I’m willing to guess that he must have been very anti-British to accept such a role.
The film was hugely popular amongst American viewers and very much not popular in Britain, and for the reasons just mentioned I can understand why. Having listened to Callow speak so fondly of Laughton and McCarey, I’m really keen to seek out something that justifies their enduring popularity. I’ll gladly welcome any suggestions!
Ruggles of Red Cap is available now in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD.