Friday, July 8, 2016

Ruggles of Red Gap

On the occasion of MoMA's Leo McCarey retrospective, screening July 15-31, I've received permission to post an essay on McCarey's great Ruggles of Red Gap that was originally written for UK home video distributor Masters of Cinema's DVD release in 2012.  This essay (edited by Craig Keller, who supplied the British English) serves pretty well as an overview of my thoughts about McCarey's cinema.

Despite the impression it gives of having been spontaneously generated by its performers, Ruggles of Red Gap is a literary adaptation, and a tolerably faithful one at that. Harry Leon Wilson’s 1915 novel of the same name, first a Saturday Evening Post serial, was successful enough to spawn a Broadway musical, with a Sigmund Romberg score, and two silent movie adaptations: the first made by Essanay in 1918; the second by Famous Players-Lasky in 1923, with the talented James Cruze directing and Edward Everett Horton playing Ruggles.

Leo McCarey, whose most intense creative period was kicked off by the 1935 version of Ruggles, told Peter Bogdanovich that he had “changed the whole thing – except for the basic idea” of an English butler going to the American West. Though McCarey owns the finished work as decisively as any director has ever owned a film, his path to originality was more surreptitious than he remembered. Wilson’s novel, written as Ruggles’ first-person account of his journey to the American dream, turns out to be the source of a great deal of the film’s memorable dialogue: we find there Egbert’s catchphrase “I can be pushed just so far and no further”, his penchant for calling Ruggles “Bill” and “Colonel”, the “intense pleasure” that Ruggles takes in the goldfish’s “silent companionship”, and too many other phrases to count. The relationships in the novel undergo compression in their passage to the movie: the English peer George and his brother the Earl of Brinstead become a single character, now called the Earl of Burnstead; Egbert and his cousin-in-law Effie are reconfigured as husband and wife, eliminating the middleman Senator Floud (a useful change that the Cruze film seems to have innovated, judging from synopses); Effie and her social competitor Belknap- Jackson are united as part of the same family. Nonetheless, a great many incidents in the movie, big and small, are drawn from the book, sometimes in great detail, as in the Parisian bender that introduces Ruggles to American social equality. Only near the end of the movie is Wilson’s plotting definitively abandoned: the celebrated Gettysburg Address scene, George and Nell’s “ditto boom” courtship, and the finale at the Anglo- American Grill have only vague antecedents in the novel.

Despite the quantity of material drawn from the novel, all the characters in McCarey’s movie are greatly changed from their literary versions, even as they speak the same words and perform the same actions. Wilson’s Ruggles, whose first-person commentary necessarily makes him a less fluid and mysterious creation than his movie counterpart, displays a priggishness and narrowness that McCarey and his writers (including Walter DeLeon, who had worked on several previous McCarey films) play down: indeed, a number of Ruggles’ benighted observations about the cultural defects of the French are placed in the mouths of Egbert and other ugly Americans. The filmmakers’ desire to soften Wilson’s slight anti-British bias is even more apparent in the character of George, who in the book is a rather harsh and irrational master to Ruggles, and not nearly as charming in his social lapses as his movie counterpart. Egbert is transferred to the screen more directly than are the British characters, though Wilson first shows him as a rather dour figure, whereas McCarey immediately strikes a keynote of vulgar ebullience that the novel cannot hope to equal, confined as it is to Ruggles’ perspective.

Though Ruggles kicked McCarey up to the major leagues, both as a Hollywood player and in the long view of cinema history, it’s far from an unannounced event in his career. His relatively spotty resumé in the early 30s includes completely successful films like the 1930 Part-Time Wife (starring Leila Hyams, whose appealing turn as Nell Kenner in Ruggles was one of her last roles before bowing out of the film business the following year), a hit in its day, little seen in recent decades. And before that, McCarey had established a distinctive voice in the series of shorts he made with Charley Chase, and then served as supervising director for the silent films of Laurel & Hardy, a team that he is said to have brought together. McCarey’s films with Chase and Laurel & Hardy experiment with daringly slow rhythms not seen in other silent comedy; by the time of the Laurel & Hardy films, the lapses in pacing are sometimes so pronounced that they edge over into the conceptual. These elongated pauses in McCarey’s silent work are inevitably the result of a character reacting to a comic incident with perplexity or a paralysing frustration. The effect is transformative: instead of an exclusive focus on what is making us laugh, McCarey inserts into the film a surrogate audience whose drawn-out reaction is used to modify our own reaction.

Character-based comedy though it may be, Ruggles of Red Gap shows McCarey committed to the comic techniques of the silent era. Even the most leisurely, dialogue-intensive scenes are often punctuated by bits of goofy physical business – like Ruggles fumbling the sugar bowl lid when he learns that George has gambled him away to the Americans. As McCarey and his writers start building scenes around some action or event, they emulate classic gag structure whenever possible. Egbert’s barbershop ordeal, a simple business in the novel, is staged as an elaborate deception that results in each side of Egbert’s droopy moustache being clipped without his permission, leading to the topper of Egbert inflicting the same damage on the barber, his delight at the revenge erasing his anguish over his loss. The exhilarating scene where Egbert and Jeff Tuttle stage an embarrassing reunion celebration in a crowded Paris street is designed around a gradual escalation of impropriety, with the oblivious Americans proceding from back-slapping to riding each other like horses, then to ever-louder Indian whoops and yahoos, with the severity of the Parisians’ reactions increasing accordingly. After the Americans coerce Ruggles into joining their drinking spree, McCarey creates an elaborate and satisfying pay-off to the running comic theme of Ruggles and Egbert stubbornly insisting that the other pass first through each door they encounter. The inebriated Ruggles restages the usual Mexican stand-off at the door of their carriage; then exits the carriage through the far door and comes back around in a failed bit of stealth; then lapses into childish stubbornness and refusal; then, when Egbert has finally given up, majestically holds the other man back and enters first.

It’s fascinating that McCarey sweats over a scene like this as if he were still building laughs for Laurel & Hardy, even as he fully exploits the benefits of dialogue to craft detailed and unusual characterisations. One doesn’t feel a clash between particularised observation and the universal language of gags and comic effects – perhaps because McCarey finds ways of placing even individualised traits in a universal context. Few characters in McCarey’s films are burdened by so much psychology that they cannot be pressed into service at a moment’s notice to represent the audience’s perceptions and emotions.

Many of the qualities of McCarey’s style originate in the craft of silent comedy, at least as he practised it:

  • McCarey has a marked tendency to work in master-shot two-shots that create a space in which the performers can stretch out. Quite often – as in the first scene of the movie, of Ruggles awakening George – one two-shot will simply be replaced by another, without particular concern for the elegance of the cut. (One sees the same effect a few moments later, when George greets the visiting Egbert.) Most scenes in the film eventually include close-ups, but these too are in general deployed rather casually, without a strong sense of the closeups marking a dramatic high point. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that the wonderful “ditto boom” scene, with Nell Kenner flipping between exasperation and affection as she teaches George to play “Pretty Baby” on drums, is not an unbroken two-shot. In fact, it cuts occasionally between two uneasily matched two-shots of the couple, with a few resorts to close-ups of George. But the relaxed improvisation levels out peaks and valleys, and no strong dramatic concept governs the decisions to cut. One senses in McCarey a lack of interest in Griffith’s editing syntax. He’s not in rebellion against the industry’s formal conventions, and there are moments in Ruggles where his découpage adheres to the classic Hollywood model: the set of closeups after Ruggles’ first “Yahoo!” in the Paris café; much of the climactic Gettysburg Address scene; the alternating one- shots in the final scene that serve as a reprise for the cast. But, as a rule, McCarey lingers on one-shots with the same leisure that wider master shots enjoy, and the rhythm and tone of scenes remain more or less unchanged by découpage. The work of orienting the viewer or signalling key moments is generally accomplished by other methods, as I’ll discuss later.
  • The rhythmic dead zones that were so distinctive in the context of silent comedy evolve into something of a McCarey signature in the sound period. Vigorous conversations suddenly give way to pockets of silence: by refusing to use découpage to create rhythm, McCarey leaves the performers without a safety net. Even in the middle of a comic set piece, McCarey is always happy to let the silence grow. Recall how Ruggles’ first, unexpected “Yahoo!” in the café scene, which rouses us from the stupor that we had been sharing with the inebriated characters, is followed by an endless series of reaction shots. George’s uncontrollably stiff upper lip results in periodic conversational breakdowns in all his scenes; here, the comic conception of the character forbids ellipsis. Among many other possible examples, pride of place goes to Ruggles’ kitchen conversation with the unpredictable Mrs. Judson, the normally voluble characters taking turns at dragging out their bewildered reactions to each other’s eccentricity.
  • Some commentators have described the acting style in McCarey’s films as naturalistic; but in fact McCarey’s actors exaggerate their speech and gestures a great deal, almost all the time. Charles Laughton’s performance as Ruggles is a collection of broad signals that are sometimes controlled (the rapid roll of his eyes at any absurd utterance before he returns to a deadpan), sometimes outrageous (the flounce of his walk). Likewise, Charles Ruggles’ brilliant turn as Egbert is a pastiche of American Westernisms, down to the peculiar narrowing of all his vowels; his pleasure in cutting up for his friends conveniently locates the actor’s barnstorming demeanour within the social fabric of Red Gap. McCarey simply doesn’t want anything to slip by the audience, and more often than not the actor is the one entrusted with the task of broadcasting the character’s effects.
  • Ruggles is built around the pleasure in anti-social behaviour that was so central to McCarey’s silent comedy, though that pleasure manifests here in a less violent form. Wilson’s story, liberated from the confines of Ruggles’ first-person narration, becomes a celebration of the New World’s vulgarity and energy. The affection that McCarey and his writers bestow upon the representatives of the Old World (Wilson is not quite so charitable, or perhaps not quite so concerned with the British box office) does not change the audience’s formula for pleasure, which comes at the expense of European and Europeanised social restraint. Egbert’s garish checked suits give the film its first shot of visual energy; and no sooner does Effie take them away than Egbert and his equally crass pal Jeff Tuttle disrupt Paris with their wild reunion. The ethos of the Ugly American does not go unquestioned – disturbed Parisians glare at the American party, with good cause, in cutaways and from the backgrounds of shots – but the Americans’ glee is transmitted directly to the audience through McCarey’s orchestration, and then extended through Ruggles’ rather alarming liberation from propriety. (The butler even makes a grab for Effie as his inhibition bottoms out, though someone in the editing room clearly decided to mute that effect, finding a cutaway that ends Ruggles’ groping almost before it begins.) More than once in the Red Gap section of the film, McCarey turns crowds of Westerners into a delighted audience for Egbert’s showboating, with the clear intention of inducing movie audiences to roar along with each crest of unruly laughter.
All these elements of style point toward a distinctive relationship with the audience that McCarey cultivates. Quite often in McCarey’s films, as observed above, the audience’s presumed or desired reaction is inserted directly into the movie. Sometimes this insertion is rudimentary and not especially worthy of note, as in the many scenes where one character’s amused reaction to another is played up as a sort of laugh track. A slightly more sophisticated instance is the scene in which Egbert becomes teary-eyed at the farewell of Ruggles and George, and makes an effort to cover the weakness by pretending to look at a painting. Egbert’s reaction, which follows the already pathos-laden farewell scene, receives a separate emphasis: surely the structural purpose of this coda is to shape, or narrate, the audience’s response, using Egbert as an audience surrogate to control the tone and duration of the sentiment. The bit of characterisation that McCarey adds – Egbert is a softie but has a reflex male instinct to hide his tears – seems to be a cover for the core mission. Another example of this strategy is the scene in which Effie and Belknap-Jackson are unable to fire Ruggles because of the newspaper story that mistakenly represents Ruggles as a visiting aristocrat. All the while the dismissal is in progress, the sympathetic Ma Pettingill, who has discovered the newspaper story, cackles to herself, building comic suspense. (“You will,” she replies when Belknap-Jackson says he doesn’t see what’s so funny.) When Ma springs the news, she lets loose with endless peals of laughter; McCarey lets the effect lapse when he sees fit, but revives it at scene’s end with a cut to Ma ascending a staircase in the background while still cracking up. If the audience doesn’t laugh along, it’s not for want of prompting.

Where McCarey’s penchant for representing the audience within the film really gets interesting is when it comes into conflict with some other agenda and must be modified:

  • The previously mentioned scene of the Americans disrupting a Paris café is staged in front of a surrogate audience of passers-by and customers, who serve two incompatible functions. On one hand, they turn the Americans’ crass but liberating display into a theatrical performance in the round, reflecting our spectatorship back to us. On the other hand, there is an aspect of affront and insult to the Americans’ antics, and some of the Parisians in the cutaways have clearly taken offence. Our excitement at the breakdown of social restraints is perhaps greater for having been labelled as anti-social and destructive.
  • The Gettysburg Address scene, singled out as the film’s high point in both contemporary and modern commentary, is blatantly staged as theatre, with McCarey gradually surrendering all pretense of naturalism and having Ruggles stand and face the rapt crowd like an orator. The cowboys in the bar represent us in an obvious sense: the presumed audience is also American and unable to recall what Lincoln said at Gettysburg. But they are also the same ragtag, ugly bunch of extras and bit players who have been deployed throughout the film as a comic exaggeration of the uncouth American Westerner. The memorable, almost Dreyer-like reverse shots of the men watching Ruggles, filling the frames from foreground to background, show an audience that cannot quite be identified with us, that looks almost like a gallery of criminals and mental defectives, that is rescued from comic status only by the content of the scene.
  • Shortly afterwards comes the delightful episode in which Ruggles, Egbert, Ma Pettingill, and Mrs. Judson sit at a bar and try to find a name for the restaurant that Ruggles will open. Members of the group take turns throwing out ideas, with the others coalescing as a surrogate audience and rudely killing each suggestion with a loud chorus of “No, no.” McCarey’s comic coup here is to bring Egbert’s heartfelt but incorrect aesthetic sense (already demonstrated in his unshakable love for his checked suits and droopy moustache) into conflict with his function in the group ritual: When his excited nomination of “the Golden Horse Chophouse” is shouted down, he defends his dream: “Why? Why? Can’t you just see a golden horse squattin’ up there on the roof?” The ritual is completed as Ruggles confidently pulls the correct answer, “the Anglo-American Grill” (a clear sign of the movie’s bipartisan stance: in the novel, Wilson declared a victor by calling the bar “the United States Grill”), out of the ether, to general approval. But the visionary Egbert will not be appeased: “I still think it oughtta be called a horse’s something.”
McCarey’s love of representing the audience within the film in various ways amounts to a filmmaking credo, growing out of the craft of silent comedy, that creates structure and emphasis out of the raw material of the performer caught in the blank stare of the camera. Though McCarey is willing to exploit the techniques of classical Hollywood editing in a pinch, there is a fundamental opposition between his way of shaping the audience experience and the découpage-based approach that was perfected in studio filmmaking of the ’30s. If classical Hollywood technique gave the filmmaker the freedom to regulate the fiction via a layer of form that could be superimposed onto script and performance, McCarey in essence declines to exploit this freedom, holding instead to the old-fashioned, hard-won craft of building form out of behaviour, like a farmer who is too set in his ways to use a motorised plough. If the effect sometimes looks crude or primitive on the surface, that’s a natural result of rejecting progress. But all great creators have a bee in their bonnet somewhere, and the techniques of the past can look positively revolutionary in a modern context – especially when no one else remembers how to do that stuff anymore...

© 2012 Dan Sallitt / MoC


dm494 said...

Thanks for posting yet another graceful, perceptive essay, Dan. I think I've gone through most of the pieces you have up on your home page, and, since I've only seen three of his films, it's a challenge that I usually pass up to assess what you're saying about Naruse in your book on him. Have you written anything about La Cava, whom I always think of, probably for no good reason, in conjunction with McCarey?

But about the specifics of this post: are you arguing that McCarey builds the visual form of his movies from the performances of his actors? That's what it sounds like when you say that he prefers to determine the form from behavior rather than imposing editing patterns on the performances from which the latter derive their structure and their meanings. Your view that the performances in McCarey are to some extent exaggerated, not naturalistic, lends support to that reading, since it suggests that the actors' emphases in the two-shot imagery towards which McCarey gravitates make the points that would otherwise be supplied by sequences of shots that move smoothly from wider shots to dramatically intensifying or detail-isolating close-ups.

Speaking more generally, do you think that McCarey, continuing into the 1930s a silent comedy tradition of "presentational" visual syntax, set a precedent for film comedy, which, in the U.S. at least, has been the one genre in which many of the best directors have lacked much of a visual gift, let alone a strong sense of space? From your assertion that McCarey's style appears "primitive" to us only in a retrospective way, it's clear that you aren't necessarily imputing a lack of visual finesse to McCarey (and "primitive" doesn't mean unvisual, anyways). I'm only wondering whether McCarey's relative indifference to the seamless spatial continuity and narrative/dramatic effects of analytical editing significantly helped to create a sense among filmmakers specializing in comedy that, so far as their genre of choice is concerned, visual technique is not a matter of great importance.

Dan Sallitt said...

Hi Drew. I am indeed arguing that McCarey likes to use performance to position the viewer with regard to events or behavior within the film, and that this is the sort of work that is often done with narrative tools like camera position, decoupage, etc. I would *not* want to argue - and I may have given this impression - that the way McCarey uses performance for formal purposes depends on the static two-shot or on a refusal of cutting or of purposeful framing. The scene from The Awful Truth that I discuss in this a_film_by post depends entirely on cutting, and yet the nature of the performances shifts our identification in small but important ways.

Don't think of McCarey as influential: his visuals feel distinctive to me in their occasional and willful neglect of prevailing craft! Sometimes one can recognize McCarey just from his odd decoupage.

I've written very little about LaCava:

dm494 said...

Thanks for the clarifications about McCarey, Dan. I guess the most important take-away from your writing here is the centrality to McCarey's style of his practice of using characters in his films as substitutes for the audience.

Dan Sallitt said...

Yeah. And sometimes - as with the "slow burn" from Laurel and Hardy shorts, which I think of as McCarey's mark - the means are so minimal that one sees how this practice grows out of primitive technique.