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An Englishman abroad
on 4 July 2012
"My father was a gentleman's gentleman... and his father before him. And from that heritage of service miraculously there comes a man. A person of importance, however small. A man whose decisions and whose future are in his own hands."
Rarely revived and never on UK TV, Leo McCarey's 1935 version of Ruggles of Red Gap was the third to reach the screen in just 17 years, but it's hard to imagine the other versions topping it. It's not a particularly credible plot, with Charlie Ruggles (not actually playing Ruggles despite the film literally having his name on it) `winning' Charles Laughton's reserved and soft-spoken gentleman's gentleman from Roland Young's vaguely lubricated English aristocrat and taking him out West with him, where his socially ambitious wife Mary Boland hopes he'll have a civilising effect on his wardrobe and manners. Naturally the opposite is the case, with the initially quietly horrified Ruggles the butler finding the Land of Opportunity - and widow Zasu Pitts - much to his liking...
The comic misunderstandings and mistaken identity shenanigans are pretty much standard issue and the comedy generally more restrained and understated than expected, yet it's such a charming and delightfully good-natured film it's practically impossible not to embrace it. Ruggles the actor has the down home commonsense speak-yer-mind nature to carry off a part that could potentially be irritating thoroughly likeably, while Laughton's quiet, buttoned down performance is a marvel of understated depth, doing so little yet revealing so much. At heart there's not much to the film, but thanks to the increasingly overlooked Leo McCarey's wonderfully restrained direction it's a very pleasing mixture of the accessible sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch and a rather more unfussy take on the populism of Frank Capra that hits all the right spots without hitting the audience over the head in the process.
Eureka's UK Blu-ray and DVD combo does the film justice with a very decent transfer, no fewer than three separate radio adaptations with Ruggles and Laughton, and audio recording of Laughton reciting the Gettysburg Address as per one of the film's most popular scenes (one that would get the film banned in Nazi Germany where the government didn't want any of that created equal guff polluting Aryan minds), and a booklet. There's also an interesting 17-minute interview with Laughton's biographer Simon Callow, who draws interesting parallels with the way the actor's own background in the family's hotel business (where Osbert Sitwell described him as looking "like an actor playing a waiter") and hatred of the British class system influenced both his approach to the film and his decision to take American citizenship.