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Ruggles of Red Gap

Ruggles of Red Gap

ZaSu Pitts got one of her best comic roles and a rare chance to snag the leading man's heart in the 1935 Western comedy, Ruggles of Red Gap. Of course, being ZaSu, she wasn't about to go into a final clinch with Clark Gable, but what leading man Charles Laughton may have lacked in looks, he more than made up for in talent. A rare comic outing for him at the time (though he had excelled in showing the comic sides of such characters as Henry VIII and the Emperor Nero), the film was one of his biggest hits and gave him the role he would often claim as his favorite. Yet Pitts almost missed the chance to participate in this classic. Laughton actually wanted stage star Ruth Gordon cast as the small-town cook who ends up marrying a gentleman's gentleman won by a local rancher in a card game.

After winning praise for more serious roles, Laughton specifically requested that Paramount cast him in a film version of Harry Leon Wilson's novel (which had been adapted to the stage as a musical in 1915). The story had already been filmed twice before as a silent, first with Taylor Holmes and Virginia Valli in 1918 and then with James Cruze directing Edward Everett Horton and Fritzi Ridgeway in 1923.

For his first feature comedy, Laughton wanted to work with only the best, so he specifically requested Leo McCarey as his director. McCarey was the man who had teamed Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and had been instrumental in shaping their comic personae. Wanting that kind of comic inspiration behind his work, Laughton worked closely with McCarey and various writers on shaping the screenplay and developing comic business for his character. When he felt his character wasn't sufficiently British, he asked the studio to import an old friend, British writer Arthur Macrae. Although not credited, Macrae wrote some of Laughton's best lines in Ruggles of Red Gap.

Laughton didn't get his way on everything, however. He wanted stage actress Gordon cast as the Widow Judson, but whether Paramount turned him down (Gordon had only been in one film, as an extra in the 1915 silent The Whirl of Life) or she was unavailable (she was appearing on Broadway as the film was shooting) is not clear. But Pitts, an established eccentric comedienne known for her fluttery gestures and bewildered line readings, was an inspired choice.

Paramount definitely had an interest in casting Charlie Ruggles as the rancher who brings Laughton West and Mary Boland as Ruggles' wife. The studio had invested in the two as a comic team after scene-stealing performances as married couples in The Night of June 13th and Evenings for Sale (both 1932). Their first starring vehicle together, Mama Loves Papa (1933), had been a surprise hit. They would be teamed 14 times in all. It almost became 13, however, when work on another film threatened to pull Ruggles from Ruggles of Red Gap. Sidney Toler, best known for playing Charlie Chan, was signed to replace him, until delays on Ruggles made the original casting possible.

Laughton caused the delays. He was due to start Ruggles of Red Gap when he returned from MGM, where he had briefly played Micawber in David Copperfield (1935) until leaving the role by mutual agreement (he was replaced by another Paramount star, W.C. Fields). But he had shaved his head for the role, requiring a wait while his hair grew back in. Paramount asked MGM to pay for the delay. Then, during rehearsals Laughton had to be hospitalized for a rectal abscess, a painful condition that required weeks of treatment and continued to plague him through filming. Macrae and Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester, tried to divert him with stories of their visits to professional wrestling bouts and Aimee Semple McPherson's revival meetings. And Fields, hearing of the ailment, wired him, "HOPE THE HOLE THING IS BETTER."

Despite his discomfort, Laughton turned in an inspired performance. At the film's climax -- and in tribute to Laughton's adopted country -- Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address to his new neighbors in Red Gap as the camera moves over the visibly moved listeners. The scene was a huge hit with audiences, often drawing applause at screenings. It also was responsible for bringing Abraham Lincoln's speech back into prominence at a time when it was not widely known. The scene so moved Laughton that it took him a day and a half to film it without breaking down. He would continue to perform the Gettysburg Address, as a closing day tribute to co-workers on Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and, later, as part of his tours delivering dramatic readings.

Ruggles of Red Gap turned out to be a triumph for all involved. Reviewers were thrilled to see Laughton in a sympathetic, comic role. Writing in The New York Times, Andre Sennwald raved, "Ceasing his normal traffic with Dr. Freud and the devil, Mr. Laughton gives us a pudgy, droll and quite irresistible Ruggles who reveals only the briefest taint of the Laughton pathology." The film was cited, along with Mutiny on the Bounty, when the New York Film Critics voted him their first award for Best Actor. It also provided a boon for McCarey, who used it to move into major pictures. The following year he would direct Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937), which brought him the Oscar® for Best Director.

The film would remain popular through the years, becoming a television staple when Paramount sold its library to the new medium in the '50s. By then, the studio had a new Ruggles to promote. Bob Hope co-starred with Lucille Ball in a loose musical remake, Fancy Pants, in 1950. In 1957, the television anthology Producer's Showcase presented a new musical version with Michael Redgrave as Ruggles, teaming with Jane Powell, David Wayne, Imogene Coca, Peter Lawford, Paul Lynde and Hal Linden.

Director: Leo McCarey
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon, Harlan Thompson, Humphrey Pearson
Based on the play and the novel by Harry Leon Wilson
Cinematography: Alfred Gilks
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Robert Odell
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Principal Cast: Charles Laughton (Marmaduke Ruggles), Mary Boland (Effie Floud), Charlie Ruggles (Egbert Floud), ZaSu Pitts (Mrs. Judson), Roland Young (George Van Bassingwell), Leila Hyams (Nell Kenner), Maude Eburne (Ma Pettingill), Lucien Littlefield (Charles Belknap-Jackson). BW-90m.

by Frank Miller

Simon Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor IMDB



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