Behold Charles Laughton Delivering the Gettysburg Address in its Entirety in Ruggles of Red Gap

The Get­tys­burg Address is the sort of elo­quent speech school­child­ren were once expect­ed to com­mit to mem­o­ry, much as they were required to bring apples for the teacher and dip each oth­ers’ pig­tails in ink. Nowa­days, with ever more his­tor­i­cal ground clam­or­ing to be cov­ered, it’s real­ly only those cel­e­brat­ed open­ing lines that tend to stick. No doubt they’ll show up in the Stephen Spiel­berg-direct­ed Lin­coln bio-pic slat­ed to open lat­er this fall.

Stray back in time for a real refresh­er course, cour­tesy of erst­while Hunch­back of Notre Dame and Shake­speare­an wun­derkind, Charles Laughton. His soup-to-nuts recita­tion of the cel­e­brat­ed speech is the unex­pect­ed high­light of Rug­gles of Red Gap, a 1935 screw­ball West­ern that time has rel­e­gat­ed to the semi-shad­ows. It’s a beau­ti­ful­ly under­stat­ed per­for­mance that man­ages to illu­mi­nate the mean­ing of each and every word. (It also makes me more for­giv­ing of the film’s ear­ly min­utes, when Laughton’s por­tray­al of a very prop­er Eng­lish but­ler suc­cumbs to a sil­ver-can­de­labra-up-the-hein­er lev­el of broad­ness.)

Just as impres­sive is direc­tor Leo McCarey’s deci­sion to set the scene atop a gid­dy vaude­ville rou­tine fea­tur­ing a saloon full of clue­less cow­boys and bar­keeps. It’s a ton of fun.

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