While her husband was alive, Nellie Rimplegar (Mary Boland) and her family enjoyed a happily carefree life living together in a beautiful mansion with lots of money. But after her husband’s death, Nellie was left in charge of managing the family’s money and, unfortunately, Nellie isn’t too savvy about investing and their money and soon, it’s all over — the Rimplegar family is shocked to suddenly hear that they are flat broke.
The family has to cut down on all their extravagances, but Nellie’s adult children band together and all set out to get jobs. Elizabeth (Claudette Colbert) gets a job in a shoe factory despite her lack of experience, Ed (Tom Brown) lands a job as a lifeguard, Kenneth (Wallace Ford) keeps working as a legal clerk until he can pass the bar exam, and Douglas (William Bakewell) gets an acting gig. They don’t have much at all, but they do what they can and quickly start to adapt to their new lives as ordinary working class folks.
Meanwhile a couple of family friends move in with the family. One is Ronald (Hardie Albright), Elizabeth’s writer boyfriend who is completely out of touch with reality. He’s recently been kicked out of his apartment and Elizabeth allowed him to come live with the Rimplegars, but even with the family’s woes, Ronald refuses to look for a job or pay rent. And then there’s Dr. Alan Stevens (Richard Arlen), who moves in under the guise of helping out, but he really just wants to be close to Elizabeth.
Three Cornered Moon is a delightful little comedy. Not as strong as other Depression-era comedies that directly deal with the Depression like Gold Diggers of 1933, but it’s still very enjoyable and noteworthy for being an early precursor to some of the zanier screwball comedies that were about to become widely popular in the not too distant future. It’s the sort of movie I can easily see why Depression-era audiences would have enjoyed. It showed how ridiculous the behavior of wealthy people could be, but when they get taken down a peg, they’re likable enough to root for them. Although I was more interested in the movie for Claudette Colbert, Mary Boland stole the show for me; I really got a kick out of her as the gloriously over-the-top and eccentric family matriarch.
When Texas ranchers Egbert (Charlie Ruggles) and Effie Floud (Mary Boland) take a trip to Paris, they end up returning with butler Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton) in tow. Egbert had won Ruggles from the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young) in a poker game and the status-seeking Effie hopes having Ruggles will help her uncouth husband become more refined. Ruggles does his best to get Egbert to adopt a posher lifestyle, but Egbert refuses to treat Ruggles like a servant and in the end, it’s Ruggles who starts adapting to some of Egbert’s ways of life.
When the Flouds return to their hometown of Red Gap, Washington with Ruggles, Ruggles ends up being the talk of the town when everyone gets the idea that he is a man of distinction. Ruggles also starts to fall in love with local woman Prunella Judson (Zasu Pitts). After Effie’s brother-in-law fires Ruggles, he considers leaving town, but after having a chat with Egbert and Egbert’s mother-in-law, decides to give up being a butler to open a restaurant in Red Gap.
For the first time in his life, Ruggles is living for himself, not for somebody else. But then, Effie gets word that his former master, the Earl of Burnstead, is coming to town to ask Ruggles to work for him again. Effie plans a big party to impress the Earl and is thrilled to be hosting someone so elite, but there’s just one thing missing from the party — Ruggles. When Ruggles finally arrives, he tells the Earl about his plans and rather than being upset, the Earl is happy for him. In fact, the Earl is happy to be there for opening night of the restaurant, which is a big success.
Ruggles of Red Gap is one of those movies that was acclaimed in its day, but unfortunately doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves today. Director Leo McCarey found just the right mix of comedic and heartfelt moments. Charles Laughton reciting the Gettysburg Address is an absolute must-see moment. And I absolutely loved the ending of Ruggles reacting to the outpouring of support from the town at the opening of his restaurant. The entire cast was excellent. Charlie Ruggles was hilarious and Mary Boland was so perfect as the status-seeking Effie. The only thing I was disappointed by was the fact that Charlie Ruggles and Roland Young don’t get much screen time together just because I couldn’t get enough of them together in This is the Night.
I very highly recommend Ruggles of Red Gap. It hits every note just right.