Shockingly modern and the most politically enlightened (and enlightening) comedy of the 1930s, Leo McCarey’s winning quasi-Western is a model of Hollywood broad strokes coalescing into a sophisticated whole. It starts with a bunch of ugly Americans hee-hawing their way through 1908 Paris—they’re yokels on a trip abroad. Across town, refined Ruggles (Laughton), a manservant, has just learned that he has been “lost” by his ashamed British employer in a game of poker. Now in the custody of ornery nouveau riche Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles, a gem) and his putting-on-airs wife, Effie (Boland), the butler is bound for America, a place he imagines as overrun by shirtless Indians surrounding the wagons.
Going through the changes, Laughton is magnificently fluid: fey and fearful at first, then (via a drunken escapade) playful and quietly subversive as his new community mistakes him for a highborn English colonel while Effie fumes. The best is yet to come, though, as the warm town of Red Gap and its ingrained Lincolnite independence charm the foreigner, inspiring Ruggles to dream of opening—you simply can’t improve on this—a bar and grill. With the egalitarian warmth of Jean Renoir (himself a huge fan of the film), director McCarey spoofs stereotypes while investing them with knowing asides. The only characters singled out for scorn are those who would reinforce class divisions; delightfully, one of them literally gets his ass kicked.
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