It’s Paris in the spring of 1908. The mumble-mouthed, rather sheepish Roland Young admits to his manservant Ruggles (Charles Laughton) he’s gone and lost him in a poker game. He was terribly good at the art of bluffing. A little too good as it were.
The kicker is the folks he’s handing him off to, vacationers from rural America! Ruggles does a deadpan double-take upon hearing he might be sent to the United States: the land of slavery. His former lord helpfully interjects a fellow named Pocahontas helped put an end to that.
The husband, played by Charlie Ruggles (Coincidentally, sharing his name with one of our characters), is Egbert Floud, a man of the land, totally at odds with hoighty-toighty Parisian high society. He has no qualms about his heritage. In fact, he’s darn proud of it. Handlebar mustache and all.
His wife (Mary Boland) is positively obsessed with social status — tone and Joyeux de vie — and acquiring Ruggles so they might gain a new sophistication. When her husband learns they are about to have a servant, his voice is exasperation personified.
She makes him go off to get some culture, and he proceeds to drag his new manservant along to the nearest gin joint. He’s not a man beholden to any kind of hierarchy. Everyone is a neighbor and a friend. It’s quite unsettling to Ruggles at first, if not a totally novel concept. He’s never had cause to fraternize with Americans before.
Charles Laughton, eyes lolling about in his head, makes it one of the funniest situations I’ve been privy to in some time. To call him robotic is doing him a discredit. He’s so stiff it emphasizes his propriety and his station in life. He’s quietly beside himself performing his duties with these fits and starts. Then, he’s subsequently crawling inside his skin at the cavalier indecency of what he’s being subjected to; he’s too well-mannered to dissent of course.
Except the punchline is how easily he mellows in the company of Egbert and one of his buddies. The alcohol flows, they take to a carousel and wind up crashing Effie’s grand dinner party royally swacked, Ruggles most of all. Mrs. Floud attempting to apologize to the guests with her infantile French. It signals a change and the mistress of the house starts to disdain her help for leading her husband astray — even if it’s decidedly the other way around.
But the great departure happens and with it comes Ruggles fateful arrival in Red Gap, a place he’s no doubt been dreading for some time. For him, it’s a distant incarnation of America and their antediluvian ways.
What a surprise it is that he makes a striking first impression. Everyone seems to take an instant shining to him as Egbert walks him around to introduce him to all his pals, bestowing him the good-natured nickname “Colonel Ruggles.”
He catches the eye of Mrs. Judson (Zasu Pitts) after complimenting her meat sauce. Meanwhile, the editor of the local paper takes an interest in this regal gentleman with military rank, ready to write an entire spread about him on the spot. Almost instantly he’s become a local celebrity.
He is quite taken with the life and the normally raw, rough and tumble lifestyle takes a genuine shine to him, at least the good honest folk who still have a love of the land and earthier ways. Ironically it’s the aspiring elites — like Effie Flowd — who are turned off by him, whether through misunderstanding or jealousy. He has breeding they can never hope to have.
The best part of Laughton’s performance is how he’ll slyly “break character” as it were, getting drunk on the town in Paris, stirred on by his jovial company, and then later giving a particularly aggravating man named Belknap-Jackson a kick in the seat of the pants in retaliation (the other man did it to him first). It’s these wildly conceived digressions making the movie for me because Ruggles suddenly breaks out of the convenient archetype we have for him as a gentleman’s gentleman.
I grew up watching (and reading) a lot of Jeeves and Wooster after all, where the comedy is born out of the continually failed plans and romantic miscues of the dopey protagonist. It’s his man Jeeves who must use his acumen to rescue his master from inevitable social suicide.
The beauty of this narrative is how it poses one obvious scenario before devolving into something else. Far from being a story of class clashes, it is a fish-out-of-water tale turned on its head. Ruggles is gradually transformed into a new man, exercising unheard-of freedom over his own life. He becomes a man whose future is entirely in his own hands, and he’s totally taken with the ideology of America.
One day he is unceremoniously fired by his rival just as he was sitting down with an improving book on the 16th president of the United States. At first, you think nothing of it — the book he’s reading. However, most crucially he rectifies his former historical blunder. It was not Pocahontas who had a part in freeing the slaves but Abraham Lincoln.
In the local saloon, he is reminded of who his friends really are and he, in turn, reminds them what their country is really about. What’d Lincoln say at Gettysburg? Everyone’s asking everyone else and nobody knows. Even in 1935, arguably in earshot of someone who could have been there, it’s still a fickle generation far too easily forgetting the past.
It’s easy to feel a bit tentative about themes of Lincoln as a white savior. That he single-handedly fixed the problems of America. That he was a martyr for a cause. But the movie never quite says any of this. I’m putting words into its mouth. What it does suggest is the egregious sin slavery engendered on American soil. Thus, it’s not totally Pollyanna.
Instead, Ruggles stands up and evokes the words of the great emancipator. I need not recite them and could not, but they instill in the people of Red Gap what are nation is called to — exemplifying the principles meant to set this land apart. It’s a sober reminder that it’s sometimes those on the outside who recognize the great luxuries we are afforded and must give us pause.
The final act keeps on riding these same waves with the grand opening of Ruggle’s new restaurant, offering two major developments. First, there is the return of the Earl of Burnstead — honored guest of the Flowds — who shows up late to announce his marriage to a local girl. Ruggles, having quite enough of the conceited Belknapp-Jackson, boots him soundly out of his establishment with added relish.
However, as a result of his unseemly behavior, Ruggles thinks his reputation and his business are finished for good. And yet he goes out the kitchen’s swinging doors to hear “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” not for the Earl but for him! If the Gettysburg address is the first moment of immense pathos, this is the crescendo — the camera turning to the reactions of all the town — these folks who all are part of his adoring crowd. They sing and smile and clap for him.
In my own sentimentality, I couldn’t help but think of George Bailey’s own serenade as all his friends gather around him to lift him up. There’s the same kind of communal exultation and the joy of being beloved by the company around you. It leaves Ruggles almost speechless. So Egbert pushes him through the swinging doors so he can snatch a kiss from his best girl.
I’m not sure I believe in love at first sight, regardless, I was positively charmed by this picture. The cast feels impeccably crafted to fit together, teasing out the comedy and making the story develop into a full-bodied piece of humor and All-American tenderness. It takes caricatures and stereotypes and somehow molds them into the most honorable and lovable ideals.
However, in the context of the times, Leo McCarey’s comedy — his first removed from the very particular influence of The Marx Brothers — feels more like a precursor to Preston Sturgess than a Capra picture. There’s the influence of the pure zaniness of the scenario, with the social elites being brought down a few pegs. Moreover, it feels like there’s a sense, this hope and hankering for America and humanity as a whole to still be something we can believe in.
The farce is of the most good-natured variety. Far from being vitriolic, we laugh with those we were meant to laugh with and laugh at all others who more than deserve it. It might be a simple, idealistic world, but sometimes it’s nice to believe that a gentlemen’s gentleman can make something of himself — like a well-respected pillar of society in Red Gap, Washington. It works because the gags give way to something more.
For a first-time comedian, Charles Laughton is superb. But he’s hardly a one-man show. That’s the beauty of it. There’s a kind of genial comedic utilitarianism to the proceedings where all can be involved — audience included.