Uncle Pete's Nice Film Club
In these stressful times I think we all need a bit of escape, so I’m here to throw a movie a day your way in this, Uncle Pete’s Nice Film Club. Visualise me in a comfortable cardigan, on a rocking chair by the fire. Perhaps it is snowing outside, and children are hallooing on the village green and throwing snowballs. Some manner of floppy eared dog sits at my feet, which are clad in reassuring slippers. A film projector dominates the other half of the study, with the elderly Martin Scorsese teetering on a small step-ladder, squinting myopically as he attempts to thread in an old Preston Sturges film reel or something while that old shrill house-keeper who throws her apron over her head in every 1930’s movie comes in with the tea.
Yes, Nice Film Club has your back and is tracing relaxing (although secretly scurrilous) patterns upon it.
Today’s Inaugural Nice Film is…
Ruggles of Red Gap
Starring the great Charles Laughton, Ruggles of Red Gap is something of a forgotten gem of a film. It boasts one of those implausible high-concept comedic set-ups that shrugs its shoulders at appeals to logic and just goes for it. Laughton plays a gentleman’s gentleman, Ruggles, a valet to the somewhat nice-but-dim Earl of Burnstead who gambles him away over a game of poker to a pair of nouveau-riche Americans. Ruggles has no option – for some reason – but to go along with this development and thus finds himself employed by a husband and wife from a small town in Washington State – practically frontier territory in this year of 1908.
What follows is the most adorably amusing adventure, packed with zinging one-liners, on point slapstick humour and a surprisingly sweetly affecting little tale about a man finding himself. The film has a keen eye on the absurd, and the jokes are sharp but not mean-spirited, which cuts through any cloying sentimentality that could have hindered the film. Laughton is a delight and with his staring and hugely reactive eyes housed in a body initially rigidly restrained by a sense of deportment, he recalls some of the double-take mannerisms of Brent Spiner’s performance as Data. What makes the character of Ruggles – and Laughton’s performance – so fun is that it doesn’t hammer on one joke and instead spreads its wings to feature him bouncing between his sense of studied dignity and his gradual ‘corruption’ by the coarse-grained but lovable Americans he counts as his new friends.
The film has its fair share of quiet, beautiful little moments as well – the highlight of which is an unexpected recitation by Laughton of the Gettysburg Address which is one of the most brilliant heartfelt moments I’ve seen in film.
Director Leo McCarey packs the film with great character actors, all of whom get a moment to shine. Of special note is Mary Boland as Effie Floud who, in her efforts to make a gentleman of her raggedy-wild husband Egbert, puts in a gloriously arch, high-strung performance. Personal favourite also is Roland Young as the Earl of Burnstead, who gets some of the best lines and who potters through the film like a more aged, more distracted Bertie Wooster. The film builds towards a deeply satisfying and rousing ending that in the great ongoing theme of classic 1930’s movies presents a triumph of the little man.
Ruggles of Red Gap was a modest hit in its day and Laughton always considered it to house his favourite performance and film-making experience. It is also name-dropped in the film Barton Fink. It’s a delightful warm blanket of a movie and is available for a rental fee on both Amazon and YouTube. Happily it’s a pretty good print and the sound is crisp and clear, so all the comedy beats come through fresh.
I award Ruggles of Red Gap Five Crisply Laundered Tuxes / Ten Gallon Hats out of Five.