Though Leo McCarey is best known for his screwballs, his greatest skill appears to be the drama. Make Way For Tomorrow (1937) is one of my all-time favorite films, and this underseen gem from 1935, featuring Charles Laughton as the dignified butler Marmaduke Ruggles who ultimately yearns for an identity of his own, is alternately charming and deeply touching. Ruggles of Red Gap opens with the discovery that the Earl of Burnstead, George Vane Bassingwell (Roland Young), has lost his loyal servant Ruggles in a poker game. The winners? The Floud’s, a late-middle aged couple from Red Gap, a small town in rural Washington: Effie (Mary Boland) and Egbert (Charles Ruggles; ironic, or something). Desperate for some sophistication in her saloon-driven Western town, Effie brings Ruggles back to stay with and serve them, hoping his impeccable manners and pristine ways will rub off on Egbert, a hard-drinking, mustachioed cowboy sort, and the town as a whole.
One of McCarey’s gifts is how he deftly spreads the sentiment around. Here, Ruggles may be the centerpiece, but Effie is perhaps the most interesting and sympathetic character. Here’s a woman who fashions herself an elderly bourgeoise-in-training, who wishes for nothing more than to possess extreme grace and to host lavish dinners and cocktail parties…but she’s completely lost on how to act, beyond insisting that her sloppy husband ditch the plaid jackets and buy some proper suits. There’s a wonderful moment where Ruggles fails to show up to orchestrate a dinner party, and an overmatched Effie stammers, stumbles, and ad-libs while 30 guests look on in bemusement. It’s both quite funny, especially with Egbert staggering around rebelliously—a common occurrence—and moving: Effie’s chosen to settle in a place where her wants are completely at odds with the town’s ways, and it’s too late for her to really learn them herself or to put down roots elsewhere. If McCarey’s social commentary on class disparities and lifestyles isn’t exactly Buñuelian, it certainly makes it points: some things can’t be taught, and some things are unacceptable in certain parts of the country, and the world.
And Ruggles? He fits into this equation neatly, also discovering that trying to be someone you’re not is tougher than it first appears. Ultimately, however, he finds the courage to break with family tradition and set off on his own path, and eventually earns a satisfying—and much-deserved—acceptance from the people of Red Gap (Egbert among them, though he shows it’s not so easy to change ones stripes, especially when it might affect the flow of whiskey and back-slapping with the boys). Ruggles of Red Gap is always entertaining, sharply written and directed, and features superb performances from all three leads. Its mix of comedy and drama is smoothly handled by McCarey, and warrants more attention than it’s received in most film circles. And if it’s not quite Make Way For Tomorrow…really, what is?