(U.S., Leo McCarey)
This is simply the finest comedy of the year, featuring Charles Laughton in another superb performance. (For those who pay attention I chose Laughton as the best actor in 1933 for his work in The Private Life of Henry VIII and as best supporting actor in 1934 for The Barretts of Wimpole Street.) Like most great comedies Ruggles has something to say beyond its attempt to make us laugh. It celebrates the freedom and opportunity the United States offers to all comers (as long as they are white of course, more on that later), over the antiquated socio-economic rigidity of Europe. Sure McCarey and screenwriter Walter DeLeon may lay on the American Dream stuff a bit thick, but the movie still reminds us of the ideals that have helped to make this country so great even as small minds tried (and still try) to undercut them.
Charles Laughton plays Ruggles, a gentleman’s gentleman who is lost by Lord Burnstead in a poker game to the uncouth and unrefined cattle(?) tycoon from the American West. Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles) is mortified at the idea of having someone serve him and insists on treating Ruggles as an equal, much to Ruggles’ initial discomfort. But Egbert’s wife Effie (Mary Boland) sees Ruggles as crucial for sprucing up her embarrassing husband and raising their social standing in their hometown.
When the Flouds take Ruggles back to Washington State, Ruggles begins to shake off the metaphorical shackles that have bound him his entire life. Since Egbert treats Ruggles as his equal everyone in town assumes Ruggles is a British gentleman, not a valet. Ruggles, much like many new Americans, begins to understand that he is no longer under obligation to a repressive social system and the man blossoms, eventually opening up his own business and initiating a romance with a local woman (played by Zasu Pitts).
This movie doesn’t challenge the veracity of the American Dream, the assumption that we have more opportunity for advancement than the crumbling empires of Europe, but reifies it. But even in 1935 this wasn’t entirely true and today even less so, when for the first time since World War II, we will have a generation that will be poorer than the generation before it. And it parrots the unintended irony of the American Dream: that while everyone slaps Ruggles on the back and tells him he is just as good as the richest man in town, no one considers bestowing the same treatment on the Black maid or the Chinese cook. In fact, at one point someone offhandedly observes that there used to be a restaurant in town owned by a Chinese man but someone shot him because he didn’t know how to cook ham and eggs correctly. (“He was always doing something Chinese to them.”) I’m not sure that it would be correct to read this as an implicit critique of the racial limitations of the American Dream; the filmmakers appear to be as clueless on this matter as the characters in the story.
Despite these ideological problems, Ruggles is still a wonderful movie. Laughton’s performance is spot on, perfectly capturing a stuffy valet with a long repressed sense of humor and worth. It is well worth seeing, just be prepared for a heavy dose of American Exceptionalism.