Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Discreet Charm of Charlie Ruggles

There was a becoming modesty to Charlie Ruggles' career. The critical establishment's recognition of his presence often reflected the scale of his long career.

In 1915, the good, gray New York Times anointed his youthful presence on the Broadway stage with some tepid remarks under the heading "Second Thoughts on First Nights." While acknowledging that he was the brightest performer in
playwright Edgar Selwyn's Rolling Stones, calling him "an adroit farceur, winning in manner, and possessed, it would seem, of a nice sense of nonsense", the
anonymous critic said that his "advent is scarcely a momentous
theatrical event" and he "did not set the Hudson afire with his talent." Thank goodness Ruggles didn't take this faint praise to heart. Perhaps the theater-goer from the Times was merely spoiled by the relatively rich range of acting talent offered by the entertainment world back then. Only in retrospect do the best of the players appear to shine.
Instead of being discouraged by this, Charles Ruggles plugged on, seemingly always eager and game to try to take on a new play or film or medium throughout his life.

Beginning with an unconfirmed appearance in a movie of L. Frank Baum's The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914), he'd already dipped his toe into the new medium of the flickers, just as he would decades later in television, which, thanks to nearly endless rotations of Bullwinkle and Rocky, The Andy Griffith Show & other series, he became familiar to Baby Boomers and their children too.
Born in 1886 in Los Angeles and growing up in the San Francisco area, Charlie and his younger brother, Wesley Ruggles, who would become a movie director, were attracted to the theatre from an early age. His early life was marked by tragedy when his mother was shot by an armed bandit in his family home, reportedly when she stepped between her husband and the robber. Despite this, and his surviving parent's requirement that he try to become a pharmaceutical salesman prior to becoming an actor, he apprenticed in stock companies on the West coast, specializing in playing older characters from an early age. Ruggles toured extensively throughout America, eventually becoming known as a reliable comic supporting actor with a distinctive, hard to describe but memorable voice, (rather like a creaking garden gate hinge). Later years of radio, as well as film and later tv work would also help hone his ability to modulate that voice beautifully to express a range of emotions and keep his listeners in any audience with him. His uniquely identifiable voice would become his signature throughout his career.

As I was reminded several days ago when TCM broadcast a forgotten little programmer, Murder in the Private Car (1934), Charlie Ruggles could make comic bricks with very little straw indeed. This illogical time-killer, which paired him with a sprightly Una Merkel, allowed Ruggles' affable charm, verbal dexterity and light touch to deny the banality of the cliché ridden script (complete with a lost daughter of a multi-millionaire working as a telephone operator) to raise the picture to an entertaining level. Depression era audiences were already very familiar with the actor's abilities. In a period when cherished character actors such as Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles were audience draws along with the stars, Charlie's seemingly hesitant and timorous portrayals were regarded with affection by audiences.
Whether appearing in an elegantly crafted Ernst Lubitsch film such as Trouble in Paradise (1932) or Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight (1932), (seen on the left with a very soignée Myrna Loy) or Howard Hawks' brilliant Bringing Up Baby (1938) or in a series of fourteen fitfully funny domestic comedies with Mary Boland (seen below at the right with Charlie), the actor delivered his neatly polished performances with a captivatingly casual air. His versatility as a supporting player lightened everything from a 1939 pastiche of a Russian musical in Balalaika with Nelson Eddy to an early '60s sex farce with Sandra Dee, called I'd Rather Be Rich (1964)--all made more palatably entertaining by his honeyed voice and gentle presence. He was often asked to play put upon, hapless and occasionally beaten men, (a character that probably evoked a feeling of sympathy among struggling audiences in the '30s). Yet there was invariably a remarkably consistent equanimity to his portrayals. Playing henpecked husbands, butlers, valets, rejected suitors, or occasionally lecherous fellows, he remained a man who hung onto his civilized identity--sometimes by a thread. Ruggles seemed to derive real pleasure from his portrayals of would-be lotharios the most; gently mocking the unprepossessing, not so rampant male of the species.
A small man, Charlie was almost always dapper in appearance, (that irresistible photo of him in character for a forgotten film with the cat at the right notwithstanding). The only time that I can recall seeing him play a thoroughly disagreeable sort was in the very interesting noirish Western, Ramrod (1947), directed by André de Toth, and starring his then wife, Veronica Lake opposite Joel McCrea. The director cast Ruggles as a dictatorial and manipulative father trying to force his daughter (Lake) into a loveless marriage with neighboring rancher Preston Foster. (Interestingly, the director also cast the bilious milquetoast boss of tv's '60s maid, Hazel, Don DeFore, as a hothead with a gun in this odd, but compelling little movie).

The only other film in which Ruggles seemed to be in an ill-fitting role was in the bizarre pre-code, Murders in the Zoo (1933), featuring Charlie as a sort of amateur sleuth/zoologist witnessing the mayhem wreaked by a disturbing Lionel Atwill . Watching him in this cult favorite, it appears that Charlie was apparently encouraged by the director, A. Edward Sutherland, (or was it just the Grand Guignol script?) to overplay his annoying character to provide some comic relief for the audience from the gruesome events of the plot. Fortunately, such missteps were relatively few--or blessedly forgotten.

Later, when he began to appear as a likable, very understanding member of the older generation, as a paternal Otis Skinner in such movies as Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944) or an avuncular cousin to Bette Davis' twins in A Stolen Life (1946), and eventually a truly lovable grandfather in The Parent Trap (1961) and in the seemingly "lost" gem, The Pleasure of His Company (1961), his characteristic bemused manner mellowed into wisdom. There's a particularly well done, seemingly casual scene when Hayley Mills embraces Ruggles affectionately in The Parent Trap (1961) after hercharacter returns from summer camp. She lingers, examining his features and memorizing his scent of tobacco and peppermint. Startled by her attention, he blusters through the moment, obviously touched but embarrassed by her explanation that she is simply "making a memory" of him. It's a lovely moment, played with just the right instinctive mix of sentiment and humor.
Recent years have enabled us to "make memories" of Charles Ruggles anew with the releases of the Lubitsch, Mamoulian, and Howard Hawks' delightfully effervescent movies on dvd. One film that deserves mention is among Charlie Ruggles very best.
It is seldom broadcast and, unfortunately little known to many. Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) directed by Leo McCarey (who also directed Charlie in the memorable Six of a Kind) was the third film adaptation of Harry Leon Wilson's novel.
(The "Ruggles" in this film's title refers to the name of the character played by Charles Laughton, not to the actor, Charlie Ruggles). The difference here was the addition of sound, Charles Laughton's masterfully amusing British Galatea to Charlie Ruggles' unaware American Pygmalion, and the intoxicating blend of observant humor and--believe it or not--a spiritual awakening--all rendered by director Leo McCarey at his very best. Set in 1908, Ruggles' character wins the valet (Laughton) of a British nobleman (Roland Young, who's delightful) in a poker game in Paris. Charlie Ruggles, who plays one Egbert Floud, has been brought to the City of Light by his overbearing wife Effie, (Mary Boland) to have his frontier rough spots sanded down. Once Egbert acknowledges that when his wife "gets riled up she'd fight a rattlesnake and give it the first two bites", he accepts the indignity of traipsing around the boulevards dressed "like [a] bantam rooster before he was run over" with his new watchdog Laughton. Soon, of course, Egbert's refusal to treat Laughton as anything but his boon companion and absolute equal leads to complications, especially after dragging the valet home back to America, and the wild and wooly frontier town of Red Gap in Washington state.
Gradually, as Laughton undergoes a spiritual awakening that culminates in a beautifully done recitation of the Gettysburg Address in a barroom by the Englishman--the native Americans, interestingly, cannot remember the speech--Charlie Ruggles' character also asserts himself, restoring "democracy" to his marriage to the dictatorial Mary Boland. The writing and playing of all the actors in this film are quite delightful. The uncharacteristically blustery role that Charlie Ruggles plays could easily have seemed overdone in the hands of another, less deft actor. Barely recognizable behind a walrus mustache and leaving the sentiment to the Laughton character, Ruggles shows a lovely balance between
buffoonery and underplaying, contributing just the right note to the overall ensemble.
I'd recommend this film to anyone, especially in an election year, since it has more to say about the things that make America and Americans endearing and maddening than a thousand editorials. The civics lessons enshrined in Ruggles of Red Gap are delivered with a light touch, illuminated with a tolerant love of characters and their differences, and blended with a spirit of conviviality and spontaneity that are all too rare.
Thank goodness for small favors and really guilty pleasures: Disney pictures such as The Parent Trap, Son of Flubber, The Ugly Dachshund, the cherished Bullwinkle and Rocky show and those seemingly endless rotations of the often winning The Andy Griffith Show, the numbskull humor of The Beverly Hillbillies and other programs on TVLand. Without these enduring artifacts of the Baby Boomers' childhood most of us would never know who Charles Ruggles was today.
Those lucky enough to have caught his appearances on television shows from the sixties, (his voice-over work as Aesop in the "Aesop's Fables" segments in the Bullwinkle and Rocky Show is still particularly droll), will always pause if you catch a word of his characteristic speaking voice or dimpled, good-natured face. The rest of us, who have only discovered his sublime work in movies from the '30s on, continue to rediscover Charlie Ruggles' gentle charm.


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