Charlie Ruggles — He was “Ruggles of Red-Eye” (1931) 🇺🇸
But now, “Stew good to be true,” says Charlie, scoring in sober roles.
by Hazel Hairston
Does the screen public want its favorites to be versatile?
Charlie Ruggles is going to find out. For the past two years he has played nothing but “drunk” roles. Now, in his first starring picture, “Girl Habit,” he doesn’t take a single drink.
He played so many souses that he had a perpetual hangover!
“Playing such parts is no easy matter, either,” he said to me the other day. “It’s hard enough to distinguish one character part from another without having them all scrambled together as ‘just drunks.’ Getting the various roles lubricated with hooch in various ways is no simple parlor trick.”
If you inquire how he manages to enact the parts so realistically, he’ll tell you, “playing ‘drunks’ is just like anything else in acting — it’s 70 per cent intelligence and 30 per cent imagination.”
From his first talking picture, “Gentlemen of the Press,” Ruggles took to drink. Then came “The Lady Lies,” “Young Man of Manhattan,” “Oueen High,” “Roadhouse Nights,” and “Her Wedding Night.”
In each picture he was highly praised by fans and critics alike for the veracity which he put into his impressions.
And strange to say, not one of his admirers has written and asked that he “sober up!” They like him drunk. Maybe it’s because he never gets sloppy and falls down, or lies in the gutter. He is always the amiable “drunk” whether he is society Beau Brummel or newspaper reporter. And his audience is always for him rather than against him.
Ruggles enjoys character work thoroughly. He thinks it is the nicest kind. He played juvenile roles on the stage for eight years — then someone spotted him as a character man. They stuck whiskers on him, and for several years he played old men. It wasn’t until he was quite grown up that he was again given youthful roles.
And in the meantime he was on the road to becoming a “funny man.” He discovered that it was easy for him to make people laugh. He can’t explain the evolution from character man to clown. It has caused him a lot of worry.
“Because I always make ‘em laugh on the stage or screen I am supposed to be funny all the time,” he lamented. “It gets monotonous. After all, I have my serious moments.
“I haven’t been to see a doctor for more than twenty years — I’m afraid! If I went into his office about to die, I could never convince him of the fact. He’d take one look at me and say: ‘Why, if it isn’t Charlie Ruggles!’ and burst out laughing.”
Ruggles looks much the same off the screen as on. His shoulders are very broad and muscular. His hair is light brown, almost sandy. His eyes are very blue, though he would probably tell you they were gray. As for height, he stands five feet seven inches, an adequate height for his 150 pounds. His mustache is scarcely noticeable. He worries because it grows so sparsely and because it remains very light. He darkens it for stage and screen work. He has finely chiseled features and a charming voice.
Most of the year he spends on a farm on Long Island. He hates the city and comes in only when business necessitates it. He says he lived on the same farm for sixteen years (discounting the time he spent on the West Coast or on the road) and the neighbors didn’t know him until he began screen work. He does his own gardening and owns the two-acre place at which he spends so much of his time. There are no cows or chickens there. Instead, there are canary birds and dogs by the score.
He calls each by name. There are Boofy, Tufftoo, Wickie, Lambie, Sasparilla and a great many more whose names the writer cannot recall. It’s evident, however, that Flip, the wire-haired terrier, Onery, the favorite canary, Oxso, the police dog, and Cocky, the parrot, get the actor’s main attention.
But these names — how did they originate? Ruggles can’t explain it. He says he “just calls ‘em.”
This “amiable drunk” describes himself as a “ham-and-eggs-for-breakfast-lambstew-for-dinner” kind of person. No frills for him. Milk and cookies are his favorite repast. Often at night he drinks a quart of milk before retiring.
“It keeps my cheeks rosy,” is his excuse for it.
Sherry wine is his favorite drink, next to milk. Strawberry ice-cream, or vanilla with chocolate sauce, is his choice of desserts. He likes to read modern fiction — but never in bed. He has to be fully dressed and shaved before becoming involved in any activity. One of his pet peeves is the comic strips — any of them. He goes wild when someone asks him if he has the slightest idea what is going to happen to Joe Doaks or Billy Glutt in a particular comic strip. Inherently no swearing man, he swears at that. Yet some of the most famous of comic strip artists have been his close friends.
Though always suitably dressed for all occasions, he doesn’t go for clothes in a big way. He says they are merely “something to cover the fair body.”
He is by nature sympathetic. Because of this, he feels that he would have made a successful physician. He gets a kick out of sympathizing with people for any reason. His friends take advantage of it and tell him “All.”
Says he hasn’t had a battle of any kind for years and years. Has scores of friends. His return to the studios after a few weeks’ absence is a regular homecoming celebration.
His silliest moment happened not long ago, while he was acting in “Girl Habit.” One scene had to be filmed on Fifth Avenue in the Fifties. Ruggles was required to wear dark glasses, walk with a stick, and carry a tin cup. He was panicky while doing it — afraid that someone he knew would recognize him.
He was disappointed that he didn’t get even one coin in the cup. So he doesn’t think he’ll pursue it as a career.
He dislikes being stared at. He abhors tactless people. He’d rather be tactful than President. And he boasts that he is willing to try anything once. That probably accounts for the varied roles that have been assigned to him.
Al Woods, the producer, called him into his office years ago and inquired if he could sing.
“I’ll try,” Ruggles told him. “All right, let’s have a sample,” was the response.
He sang part of the chorus of Oh, What a Pal Was Mary, but was soon interrupted.
“Don’t!” the producer pleaded. “Please!”
Later Ruggles was called in and given a part in the play Woods was producing.
“But you didn’t like my singing,” he began.
“That’s true,” Woods admitted. “But you’re to read your lines — not sing ‘em.”
He hasn’t attempted vocal renditions since.
But he points out that by attempting anything, you might “hit” once in awhile. Often what an actor thinks is bad, a director likes.
Undershirts are taboo in his wardrobe. It started back in Leadville, Colorado. It was during his days, and nights, of “one night stands.” He was learning “David Garrick” and “East Lynne” while playing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Camille.” And his laundry failed to come back in time. Out he went in search of fresh linen. All the stores were closed, except one. Unfortunately this store carried only long red flannels. In despair Ruggles decided to purchase a suit.
“But the smallest we have is size 44,” the clerk told him. And he wore size 32!
He bought a size 44.
By employing a pair of scissors and innumerable safety pins he thought he had altered the garment successfully. But after one matinee performance he cast it aside in disgust. He has never worn an undershirt since.
Being a horse fancier, he once purchased some race horses. This venture ended with the sudden illness of one of his prize mares, Goldbar, through bad treatment by a drunken trainer. Days and nights between performances he spent at the animal’s stall. Finally he sent her back to the pastures. Charlie denies, however, that they gave him all those drunken roles because he has “vet” ideas.
Naturally Ruggles likes the theatre, but he attends purely from an educational angle, he explained. “The Green Pastures” is his favorite play of the past year — and the Pulitzer Prize judges have agreed with him.
All kinds of sports appeal to him, though handball is the most fascinating. He is recognized as one of the outstanding handball players in the country. For several years he held the championship of the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Boxing and swimming come second with him.
He is the only actor in his family; his brother Wesley Ruggles is well known as a director. Wondering where his liking of the theatre originated, Charlie decided once to investigate the family tree. The only Ruggles he could locate with theatrical connections was a man who lived during the Stuart reign. He wrote a play and had his head chopped off because of it Charles decided to stick to acting.
Aviation appeals to him. The first time he flew any distance — from New York to the West Coast — he was scared to death until the nonchalance of a woman passenger put him to shame.
Superstition is unknown to his nature. “Horrorscopes,” palmistry, and handwriting analyses bore him.
He’ll confess rather shyly that he is “terribly grateful for just being alive.” He expects you to think him silly for saying it. But he claims that he held the same attitude even when the breaks were not on his side.
Ruggles almost had the career of a pharmacist. That was the choice of his family. At fifteen years of age he was working in his father’s wholesale drug house, when a friend began to sing to him. of the glories of the footlights. He joined a stock company in Los Angeles; played there and in San Francisco. Later he joined the Oliver Morosco forces and acted split bills in Long Beach, California; El Paso, Texas, and spots in between.
His first New York appearance was in “Help Wanted.” Then came “Rolling Stones,” which established him with New York audiences. He played in “Canary Cottage” for two years, supported by Trixie Friganza, Eddie Cantor, and Thomas Meighan at various times. The Morosco Company, you’ll recall, was the training school also for Bert Lytell, Lewis Stone, and others who later achieved film fame. After a fling on the road in “Hawthorne of the U. S. A.,” the play that Douglas Fairbanks made famous, Ruggles came to New York to open at the Morosco Theatre in “Canary Cottage.” Then he went to the Messrs. Shubert and played in the “Passing Show of 1918,” and then in “Tumble Inn.” He had the lead in Edgar Selwyn’s “Rolling Stones,” and also played for a long time in “The Tick Tock Man of Oz.” With A. H. Woods he went in for a career of bedroom farces, including “The Girl in the Limousine,” “Ladies’ Night,” “The Demi-Virgin,” and “Lonely Wives.” At one time he was leading man for Agnes Ayres in motion pictures, long before talkies came around.
If you ever have the good luck to have luncheon with Charlie, ask him to tell you about the rabbit venture he undertook. To hear his detailed version of it is to provide yourself with enough laughs to last you a week. Briefly, he had always liked rabbits. Ordering an imported pair of Belgian hares from Wyoming, he decided to raise a few. In a few months the farm threatened to be overrun with rabbits of every color, shape and size. Ruggles, amazed at the productivity of* the one pair, discontinued the experiment when the offspring totaled 167! “I never cared for mob scenes,” he explains.
Gary Cooper looked fit as a whole string ensemble when he returned recently from his European vacation. Gary will make his next picture in the East.
Driven to drink! Ever since “Gentlemen of the Press,” Charlie Ruggles’ screen job has been to see the world through the bottom of a glass. But now he can be himself again — and his favorite drink is milk!
Source: Screenland, October 1931