Great comedy, funny, I loved the hell out of it. Katy liked too.

Ruggles (large-faced auteur Charles Laughton) is a butler for the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young: Topper in Topper and Uriah Heep in David Copperfield). The Burnstead family and the Ruggles family have been in the same Earl/butler relationship for centuries. Along comes the American New Rich to shake things up: wild-west Egbert (Charlie Ruggles, still recognizable by his eyes over the thick mustache) and his haughty wife Effie, who win Ruggles in a card game and move him from Paris to Red Gap, Washington, USA. Egbert treats Ruggles as a buddy rather than a servant and keeps calling him “colonel”, so when they arrive in Red Gap, Ruggles is mistaken for an important guest in Egbert and Effie’s house, and Effie has to keep up the charade to avoid embarrassment. Ultimately there’s no escaping embarrassment for stuck-up Effie, and Ruggles takes advantage of the goodwill he’s acquired in town and the sense of freedom imbued by the American West to open his own (assumed successful) restaurant, cuddle (implied) with his sweetie (also implied) boot his rival out the building, and get publicly applauded at the end.

Ruggles is a great character. He’s not exactly the typical stuffy butler who gradually learns to relax – he seems from the start to have an inner life, and he adjusts relatively easily from selfless servant to personable entrepreneur. Overall much funnier class commentary than in The Rules of the Game, yet you don’t hear Cahiers du cinema all calling this the best film ever made. Based on a play and filmed a few other times, including a silent with E. Everett Horton as Ruggles, and in technicolor with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. McCarey directed this soon after a Marx bros. movie and before a Harold Lloyd movie. Appropriately, we watched it soon after a Marx bros. movie and before a Harold Lloyd movie (neither one by McCarey, sorry bud).

character Ruggles (left) with actor Ruggles (right):

Besides being a great director, Charles Laughton was in everything from Whale’s The Old Dark House to Kubrick’s Spartacus. Silent star turned successful comedy/drama character actress Zasu Pitts is Ruggles’ dark-haired love interest, and Leila Hyams (also a silent star, best known for playing the nice girl in Freaks) is a blonde singer, a hot young society gal. I wanna say that Lucien Littlefield (Scandal Sheet, The Bitter Tea of General Yen) played the asshole who tried to keep Ruggles down.

I always feel like I’m missing something when I watch a movie by one of the Great Classic Hollywood Auteur Directors like Hawks. But I didn’t worry about it much this time… worried instead about the mild sexual undertones of a movie where the leading man is helping search for the leading woman’s kitty, while she is helping search for his bone. No wonder they fall in love completely unprovoked in the final scene.

Grant is a timid professor working on his dinosaur skeleton, engaged to marry an uptight girl, and Hepburn is a completely free, intelligent but breezily unaware-acting rich socialite determined to keep Grant occupied enough that he can’t get married. They were both wonderful in this, and the writing is super, and it’s a joy to watch, but as Katy pointed out, it’s a little TOO screwball. Grant stutters nervously and Hepburn talks over everybody and there’s just no stopping or even slowing down. It’s a blessing that there’s no incidental music cluttering up the soundtrack further. So it’s a bit tiring to watch, but still a magnificent comedy.

IMDB says the movie was a flop, and Hawks and Hepburn both lost jobs because of it. A missed reference to The Awful Truth, and I can’t believe neither Katy nor I noticed that George was the same dog as Mr. Smith in that movie. Grant and Hepburn were both terrific, and Charlie Ruggles (again playing a major) was funnier than in the Lubitsch pictures. Also good: a monocled german named Fritz (Fritz Feld played bit character parts in hundreds of movies) and Aunt Random (80 year old May Robson). Among the Hawksian favorite themes (via Senses of Cinema) found in the movie: nicknaming (KH starts calling CG Mr. Bone), screwing with gender conventions (KH has the more masculine, take-charge character) and social norms.

Wikipedia says it was (arguably) the “first work of fiction, aside from pornography, to use the word gay in a homosexual context.”

Didn’t learn a terrible lot from P.Bog’s audio commentary, but gained a greater appreciation for the movie just by watching (actually listening) to it again, with Peter going on about how great everything is. One gem: “It’s easier to watch on a big screen because you see it bigger.”

One of my favorite 30’s movies – a sheer delight. Thief meets thief, they shack up, scheme to fleece rich woman, thief shacks up with her, love triangle ensues, thieves get away together in the end. Bookmarking naughty/cute scenes where the thieves impress each other by showing off the stuff they pickpocketed from each other during whatever they were doing together before the camera turned on.

Thieves Like Us: Miriam and Herbert

My two favorite people, maybe just out of recognition from The Smiling Lieutenant, were thief Miriam Hopkins (the princess of Flausenthurm) and major Charlie Ruggles (the friend from whom Maurice steals his modern girl). Miriam is really terrific… maybe I’ll check her out in Design for Living, Becky Sharp or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sometime. The lead male thief was regular-looking Herbert Marshall (star of Angel and Murder!, later in Angel Face and Duel in the Sun), the duped perfume CEO was dark-haired Kay Francis (of Scandal Sheet and The Cocoanuts), and another duped rich guy who, along with the major, is trying to marry Kay was Lubitsch regular Edward Everett Horton.

Great, sophisticated intro scene when the thieves first meet, both pretending to be some fake rich person in order to steal from each other. Actually I think the very first scene was E.E. Horton explaining to the cops how he got his wallet stolen by a fake doctor – in the end he publically identifies Marshall, now hired as Kay Francis’ assistant and lover. Miriam Hopkins is hired as a secretary so they’re both inside the house, but only get away with $100k and a pearl necklace instead of the intended $800k+.


Most interesting part of the movie was when rich (but goodhearted/generous) Kay is offering a high reward for her missing purse, having the forty-some purse-carrying hopefuls gather in her foyer, receiving them one at a time (each announced by the butler) in an upper-class, highly inefficient manner. A crazy-haired Russian-accented Trotskyite waits his turn, then comes in with no purse just to berate a woman who would spend so much on a purse during the depression, shouting “phooey, phooey and phooey” at her. This is when thief Herbert makes his opportunistic entrance, talking to the “radical” (as labeled in the credits) who then leaves peacefully but still angry. The radical is sort of a comic character, with his wild hair and repeated “phooey”s, but the movie seems careful not to ridicule him, and lets him have the last word, owning up to the fact that our main characters are too extravagant for their own good, voicing some of the resentment that audiences at the time must have felt. The Russian was Leonid Kinskey, who ten years later played one of Rick’s employees at the CafĂ© AmĂ©ricain in Casablanca.

Kay Francis threatened by communism:

Nice, well-researched audio commentary points out the title card (words displayed progressively over shot of a bed = “Trouble In [Bed]”) and tons more. Beginning of 1930’s Month for Katy and myself starts with a bang.

Naughty Lubitsch:

EDIT 2016: Eight years later, Katy does not remember 1930’s Month, nor this movie, so we watched it again.