Ruggles of Red GapJune 8, 2012
So, there’s this movie, Ruggles of Red Gap. It’s from 1935 and it stars Charles Laughton, and I’ve seen it a couple of times and it’s pretty great. And it turns out that it was adapted from a book, also called Ruggles of Red Gap, and that the book, written by Harry Leon Wilson and published in 1915, is in the public domain. I was pretty excited to find out about that.
And it’s…well, it’s good. Really funny. The movie is more gentle; the book has a touch of that thing where you feel like the author may not have much love or respect for any of his characters. If it was a television show, I wouldn’t be able to watch it. As a book, I like it. Parts of it are hilarious. But I never entirely warmed to it because there was nothing warm in it.
It is really, really funny, though. Ruggles is the manservant of the Honourable George Vane-Basingwell, and he’s definitely got a bit of the Jeeves thing going on — you get the impression right from the beginning that the Honourable George isn’t really capable of taking care of himself. And if Ruggles isn’t half as smart as Jeeves…well, it’s possible that George isn’t as smart as Bertie Wooster, as evidenced by the fact that he loses Ruggles to a couple of Americans in a game of cards. The Flouds come from somewhere out west, possibly Washington. There are three of them, and Senator Floud — a state senator — is the least important. Ruggles has a little more respect for social climbing Mrs. Effie and a lot more horror of Cousin Egbert, who is nominally his new employer. It’s really Mrs. Effie that’s in charge, and she wants Ruggles to try and give Cousin Egbert a little tone. And he tries, but it’s hard — Cousin Egbert can be forced into spats and gloves and things, but he won’t enjoy it, and he’s apt to rebel at inconvenient times and, you know, get Ruggles drunk. In the most guileless way possible. So there are already a few cracks in Ruggles’ facade when they start for the United States.
This is basically the story of Ruggles’ transition from a snob who looks at everything in terms of London (he describes his arrival in Red Gap as follows: “Through their Regent and Bond streets we went, though I mean to say they were on an unbelievably small or village scale, to an outlying region of detached villas that doubtless would be their St. John’s Wood”) to an American who buys into the idea of America. His first reaction to The Declaration of Independence is that it’s “snarky,” but by the end of the book he’s happily reciting it to the local Chamber of Commerce. And it almost works really well, except that sometimes the change reads less like a gradual transition than a back and forth.
And then there’s the plot, which hinges on Cousin Egbert’s fondness for nicknames. The Honourable George, because of Egbert’s fundamental misunderstanding of English titles, is “Judge.” Ruggles, for no apparent reason, is alternately “Colonel” and “Bill,” although his first name is actually Marmaduke. And when Egbert introduces him to people as “the Colonel” on his first night in Red Gap, people come away with the impression that he’s the Flouds’ guest, not their servant. So not only does he have to adjust to America, he has to find a place for himself in it, since his old place is closed to him and his new one can’t be occupied honestly. Wilson plays the situation for laughs as much as possible, and mostly it works, but it also requires Ruggles to be ignorant and slow on the uptake. And, well, fair enough. But it did kind of leave a bad taste in my mouth at times. And when Wilson does veer into the realm of people having feelings, he’s not entirely successful.
So, yeah, it’s not amazing or anything. But it is pretty good.