Totally Bitchin’ Dead Guys: Leo McCarey & Charles Laughton
RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935/DVD) and MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937/DVD) Fans of Ricky Gervais’s live shows and his Extras sitcom-within-a-sitcom When The Whistle Blows will immediately recognize the hilariously heartwarming and totally weird tour de force performance by Charles Laughton that grounds McCarey’s best comedy, Ruggles of Red Gap, cuz Gervais pretty much mimics him outright. Being that up until recently I had only known Laughton as the fat dude Tony Curtis bathes in Spartacus and the director of the brilliantly creepy classic Night of the Hunter (a knockout debut that fared so poorly at the box office that Laughton was never allowed to direct another), his turn as Marmaduke Ruggles—an uber-Eeeeenglish turn-of-the-last-century butler that, as a result of a jolly poker game, is sent to serve a new master in the dusty American wild west town of Red Gap, Washington—is a revelation. While Laughton is mostly known for his great success with historical dramas playing the likes of Henry VIII and Nero, Ruggles makes it clear that Laughton was a first rate comic performer on par with Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, etc. It makes one wonder how much if any of that performance came from any collaboration with My New Favorite Director™ Leo McCarey, already a name in 1935 for directing/writing comedies with the Marx Brothers (1933’s Duck Soup), W.C. Fields, and Laurel & Hardy (who he is widely credited for teaming up in the first place).
What put McCarey’s direction head and shoulders above his peers, however, was his knack for coaxing more natural and unaffected performances from his actors than was the norm for that era. You’ll find the finest example of his low-key approach in 1937’s Make Way for Tomorrow, a film about an elderly couple who are separated and shipped off by their selfish and callous adult children that is so unbelievable heartbreaking that Orson Welles once famously exclaimed it would “make a STONE cry!”
In Make Way’s third act (SPOILER ALERT), where the couple is reunited for a final afternoon together in NYC before he’s shipped off to a relative in California and she’s sent to a bleak old women’s home in New York, is heartbreaking, yes, but it is also at times joyful and unabashedly romantic. As their jerk kids wait impatiently for them to return home for dinner before shipping dad to the train depot, the reunited lovebirds rekindle their romance by revisiting the places they saw on their last visit to the city—their honeymoon. This bittersweet afternoon, which covers a good 30 minutes of screen time, will stick with you, whether you want it to or not.
Make Way for Tomorrow was McCarey’s most personal and favorite film, the love of which prompted him to famously accept his 1937 Best Director Oscar for his breezy Cary-Grant-careerlaunching comedy The Awful Truth (released the same year) with a heartfelt, “Thanks for this award, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.”
The tenderness McCarey allows his characters is often devastating. There are some truly breathtaking scenes in Ruggles that would sound schmaltzy if merely described—like a memorable scene where Ruggles, after breaking free of the bonds of generations of servitude and finally making his own life plans for once, emotionally recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address by memory to a saloon full of Americans that have never bothered to learn, much less appreciate, its meaning—but McCarey’s love for his characters is so pure and heartfelt, it’s contagious. Ruggles’s exhilarating final scene made me cry the happiest cry. Give yourself over to this lovely, forgotten little masterpiece. I promise you’ll still respect yourself in the AM.
GRADES: Straight A’s, sucka!