Made no less than four different times, Leo McCarey's 1935 incarnation of Ruggles of Red Cap remains by far the best remembered and most admired adaptation. McCarey was quickly asserting himself as a master of comedy, having already helmed several Laurel and Hardy shorts as well as the Marx Brothers Duck Soup. For this film, he once again worked under Paramount and with a perfectly realized cast. His jabs were taken at the upper class, a topic that most down and out Americans found no trouble laughing at. Charles Laughton is therefore perfectly cast as the supremely tight British butler. His transformation is perfect, and even by the end where he's become "Americanized" he's still the British man at heart.
The film begins when his Lord Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young) loses him during a game of poker to a travelling oil millionaire from the "boom town" of Red Cap, Washington played by the ironically named Charles Ruggles. His wife Effie (Mary Boland) wants Ruggles to make a gentleman out of her husband that still wears checkered suits, cowboy hats, and has a mustache he's been growing for 19 years. However after a disastrous attempt at civilizing him, it turns out to be Ruggles who gets the education. Seeing his extreme akwardness as Egbert makes such a radical demand as to have Ruggles sit at the same table as him, are where Laughton works best. Before long he's not just at the same table, but drinking, and finally hopping on Egbert's back yelling "whoopee".
Ruggles ideas of America, particularly the west are characterized by images of stagecoach's and scalping Indians. He finds however that in the ancient sociology of depression era cinema, people are people. In the case of some of them, like Jackson (Lucien Littlefield) they're just plain bad. However the "real" people of the town make Ruggles feel at home, and encourage him to realize his independence. Ruggles is a direct parallel of US independence. Puritan settlers came over to the US, established colonies, and gradually lightened up and broke from British tradition and rule. So too does Ruggles come over, loosen up, make something of himself, and dismiss his British heritage and the "loyalty" his family has been steeped into for generations of servitude. Not surprising then that Ruggles is the one person in town who knows the most about American ideals, reciting the whole of Lincoln's Gettysburg address in front of a speechless crowd of drunken cowboys.
Everything in the film works wonderfully. Even when the Earl comes to Red Cap, he feels the charm of America, or rather the charm of a Dance Hall girl Nell Kenner (Leila Hyams). The two work there way through a clumsy duet in charming fashion, and before long, they buy into the fast paced American way of life by getting engaged the same night they meet. Everything is different, and in the eyes of McCarey better in the US. This films' idea of attacking the snobs worked wonders for American audiences, and its a shame that in 1952 McCarey would be responsible for making the most blatantly anti-communist film of Hollywood with My Son John. At least at this point in time, he spoke more for the people, that huddled mass, and do it yourself America. Laughton may have given his best performance here, and few classic comedies can reach this level of greatness.