Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)
On first viewing this seems an unlikely choice for a conservative film list. Charles Laughton plays Marmaduke Ruggles, a proper British butler whose dipsomaniacal master (Roland Young) loses him in a Paris poker game to a couple of social-climbing American rubes, Effie and Egbert Floud. Mrs. Floud expects Ruggles to instruct her husband in proper manners and appropriate dress, but Mr. Floud sees him mostly as a partner in crime, insisting that Ruggles sit and drink with him. For whatever reason, Laughton plays Ruggles with a kind of bug-eyed vacancy, staring off at some point in space, perhaps to convey the sense that as a manservant he's not entitled to look anyone in the eyes, as if he were their equal. But when the three travel back to Red Gap, Washington, Ruggles is greeted by the locals with democratic bonhomie and soon begins to think about leaving service. Predictable zaniness and madcappery follow before Ruggles proves himself a worthy American and the equal of any man.
This is all handled with the typical, sometimes delightful, gusto of
Hollywood's Golden Age but hardly seems remarkable. Then comes a
scene that is so absurdly moving that it's nearly embarrassing. Sitting
around the local saloon, Mr. Floud, his mother, and the other patrons try
remembering the words of the Gettysburg
Address but are unable to do so. Then, quietly at first,
but with mounting intensity, as all attention focuses on him, Ruggles recites
the speech from memory to a hushed and obviously transported room.
Laughton imbues Lincoln's words with such feeling and such hope that it's
like hearing them for the first time. The realization that this menial,
who has only arrived in America by sheerest chance, has been nurturing
a quintessentially American dream of freedom is improbably but profoundly
touching and elevates a pretty good film into a classic.
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd