Sometimes I watch movies that are universally considered “good.” I know, I think it’s weird too.
This is the second movie (technically third, but one appears to be lost) based on the 1915 novel by Harry Leon Wilson. And it is quite ridiculous. Basically an American couple from Red Gap, Washington, win a British butler in a game of Poker. The wife prefers to keep Ruggles as just a butler, but the husband has this weird notion that people are equal and therefore treats Ruggles that way. Eventually Ruggles comes to agree with this and sets up a life for himself in Red Gap, all while getting up to serious misunderstandings and hijinks. It is all around good fun, even if at times it is a little odd.
So what’s odd about it? Well, apparently all Americans are extremely stereotypical Texans, no matter where they are from, unless they are from Boston. If they’re from Boston, they’re stuck-up assholes. But everyone else in America? From Texas. And all people are created equal…except the one Chinese guy who opened a Chinese restaurant and was gunned down in the street for it apparently. The movie is a product of its time, and Ruggles sees the best of America while occasionally also pointing out the worst (for instance, he comments that America is the “land of slavery” early on). There is also a moment of humorous ignorance that the Americans have towards their own history which leads into the most powerful scene of the movie, which brings me to an interesting cultural highlight.
You see, this movie is partly responsible for why the Gettysburg Address is now so very popular within the American psyche. At a pivotal moment in the film, when all of the Americans in the bar realize they don’t know the Address, Ruggles reveals he has memorized it while studying American history and then rises and performs it. The actor who played Ruggles, Charles Laughton, was apparently so moved by the words contained therein that it took him a day and a half to finish the scene because he kept openly weeping whenever he would recite it. Laughton incorporated the Address into his stage performances and performed it for audio recordings and on radio afterwards.
The end result of this strange fusion is perhaps a movie purely about America, at times vapid and insipid, often lowbrow and low class, but yet still heartwarming and inspiring for just what a single man of any position in life can accomplish once he realizes that his value is the same as every other man’s, regardless of birth or station. It does contemplate the bad, but it shows us what we can be when we are at our best. It’s a message that I don’t think should be lost on us.
The movie-going public of the 1930s agreed, and Ruggles of Red Gap was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. In 2014, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Not bad for a comedy, eh?