While visiting Paris in 1908, an American couple wins an English butler, Ruggles (Charles Laughton), in a game of poker. The wife, Effie Floud (Mary Boland), hopes that giving her husband, Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles), a personal manservant will help him rise into a more sophisticated lifestyle that she is trying to achieve by throwing snooty parties. They take Ruggles back to their small, but growing town in Washington, Red Gap, where Ruggles tries to keep Egbert in line. Instead of running a small errand to the newspaper, Egbert stops in at a local beer bust and Ruggles reluctantly has to follow. There, he meets Mrs. Judson (Zasu Pitts), a widow serving food at the party. As the two dance, Egbert drunkenly refers to Ruggles as “the Colonel” sparking rumors that peg Ruggles as a war hero.
After the whole town thinks Ruggles is a prestigious guest at the Floud’s house, he enjoys the taste of being somebody rather than somebody’s servant. He realizes that now that he is in America, he can aspire to be his own person with his own set of American dreams. With his culinary skills, Ruggles decides to open up a restaurant, but Effie needs him to serve at another of her pompous social parties. He becomes conflicted on whether to take a big chance on the restaurant or stay in his safe, respectable line of servitude.
Egbert and Ruggles are polar opposite characters, which makes their friendship all the more fun and meaningful. Egbert is a wonderfully nice hick who enjoys his ridiculous looking full checked suits and would rather get loud and drunk in a Paris cafe than step foot in any of their art museums. He is a regular cowboy and Effie is desperately trying to mold him into a gentleman. Ruggles has come from a family of servants and finds that a fine lot in life. He’s quiet, disciplined and doesn’t look like he knows how to have a good time for himself. When Egbert treats Ruggles as more of a friend than a servant, it baffles Ruggles at first. He has been taught his place is below his employer, but it seems Egbert doesn’t see it that way saying they are equal.
At one point in the film, Ruggles and Egbert are in the local saloon, trying to convince Ruggles to strike out on his own. Egbert tries to remember what Lincoln said at Gettysburg, but can’t. The questions is passed to all the cowboys around the saloon, but no one can remember what it was that Lincoln said. Finally, Ruggles stands up and recites the entire Gettysburg Address, an inspiring speech that all these free, rabble-rousing cowboys seem to take for granted. It’s ironic how Ruggles, the foreigner who has led a life of servitude, knows this by heart while the men settling the west less than fifty years past the time of Lincoln can’t remember one word, yet they use the line “all men are created equal” whenever they see fit.
All in all, Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap is a cute film full of many fun moments. It’s so nice to see Charles Laughton as such a lovable good guy in the same year that he plays two notorious villains. Once an honest smile crosses that round face, I could not picture him as either of the dastardly characters he can also be. If you’re not sure if you’ll care for Ruggles of Red Gap, there’s no risk of waisting a precious spot on your Netflix cue, since it isn’t available there. The movie can be found on YouTube.
“When people think you are someone, you begin to think you are.”