Paris 1908, and one English manservant, Ruggles (Charles Laughton), is about to receive life-changing news, though not what he would necessarily want to hear. His master, George the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young) happened to meet a pair of Americans the previous evening, they got to sharing a tipple and someone brought out the cards. As George explains to him, apparently there's this thing called bluffing that he turns out not to be so good at, and, well, there's no nice way of putting it, Ruggles, you've been lost in a bet, and now have to pack your bags for the United States. He is none too pleased about this, but as his lowly position dictates he must abide by his master's commands, and braces himself to meet his new employers...
America meant a lot to Laughton, he thought it was a wonderful place and all the "Land of Opportunity" and American Dream business was something he bought into wholeheartedly. It was likely for that reason Ruggles of Red Gap was his favourite of his own movie roles as it came along in his career when he was seriously considering becoming American himself, plus he was given the opportunity to recite The Gettysburg Address to a barroom full of hushed local drinkers, which he considered one of the highlights of his screen appearances, and it's true to say it is a charming scene, though that word summed up much of the film's appeal. Back in the nineteen-thirties, this was lauded as an instant classic.
Its star has fallen somewhat since, with plenty telling you it's not as funny as it was cracked up to be way back when, but if there are no real belly laughs, there were plenty of chuckles for the indulgent viewer, especially with this talented cast, a scene stealer each and every one yet working together for the benefit of the humour, not to mention the message. We may have begun our story in France, but after some business of getting to know Ruggles' new employers, we headed over to what in the manservant's view must be the Wild West where he will be beset by tribes of Indians on the warpath. That it did not transpire to be that at all was one of the inductions he had into becoming a normal person.
During those Paris sequences, Ruggles resigned himself to being at the beck and call of the rough (in his outlook) Americans, Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles, somewhat confusingly for those glancingly familiar with the film) and his wife Effie (Mary Boland), who hopes the valet will spruce up her husband's ways and make him more of a gentleman. When she sends them off to the Louvre, Ruggles is quietly horrified that Egbert wants to visit a bar instead, and not only that but have him sit beside him at the same table too (!), which is never done. The class system was clear, and Britain was emerging wanting in comparison to its cousins across the Pond, for what Egbert and his countrymen were committed to was the equality of mankind, and this point was rather laboured over the course of the rest of the comedy.
But not so much that director Leo McCarey's leanings towards sentimentality were overbearing, they were neatly tempered by a warm-hearted approach to the characters who were never looked down on, no matter how different they were in demeanour. Once Ruggles was in the States, he is mistaken for a house guest of the Flouds, and a Colonel no less, which he is initially disturbed by yet then begins to get to like as the notion that he should be nobody's servant, but instead his own man in all things, enters his mind and it's an addictive idea he wants more of. He even gets romance on his mind with Zasu Pitts, and being well versed in cookery makes her scones to accompany her cup of tea. What was particularly nice was that he did not utterly change his personality, he adapted it to the fresh circumstances, so his experience as a valet was not squandered, and the interaction between the characters, with Young showing up again and enjoying a lovely scene of improvisation with thirties cult leading lady Leila Hyams on the drums, made up for the fact that maybe it wasn't quite as hilarious as it had seemed on its debut. It was sweet, really.