Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ruggles of Red Gap

1935, US, directed by Leo McCarey

Although the French writer's name isn't mentioned anywhere in either the film or the original novel by Harry Leon Wilson, Ruggles of Red Gap is suffused with the spirit of Tocqueville. Indeed, although the film is often remembered for the recitation of the Gettysburg address, it's even more effective as a demonstration of Tocqueville's belief in the essential equality of Americans, and hence it seems no accident that the book and film begin in France and that we encounter America through the eyes of an overseas visitor, the eponymous Ruggles (Charles Laughton).

The scene with the Gettysburg address - an addition to the original story - also exemplifies the marvelously subtle transitions from comedy to drama to pathos that Leo McCarey so ably manages throughout the film, frequently harnessing Laughton's most subtle actorly instincts to achieve his effects. The recitation itself emerges from a scene of near knockabout comedy, as the (American) characters desperately try to remember the words of the address - only for their English visitor to trump them all.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that some Cahiers critics compared Claude Zidi's film Deux rather favourably to the work of McCarey, noting particularly what they viewed as assured transitions from one mode - comedy - to another - melodrama; that contention seems the more absurd after a viewing of one of McCarey's most sublime achievements.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States