Hugh Herbert — Hughie, the Stall Guy... (1936) 🇺🇸

Hugh Herbert |

December 01, 2021

Always put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today — Hugh Herbert motto

by Ruth Rankin

You know him. That funny little guy with a face like a hot-water bottle — Hugh Herbert— the nutsy lawyer in “We’re In the Money,” the popularity contest judge with a bun on, in “Miss Pacific Fleet.” Hughie is the apostle of the futile ineffectual — the one who usually out-smarts the smart boys in the end. You figure he’s a trifle balmy-on-the-crumpet, he entertains bats in his belfry, he is a male Winnie the Pooh for whimsey — and he hopes you keep right on figuring him like that. He really has good sense when he needs it, but you can just overlook that. Hugh is trying to keep it a secret.

He says no actor is worth his salt who hasn’t worked out his “philosophy of life” and doesn’t give it to you hot off the griddle. Hughie is simple, elemental, highly impractical, and he hopes you won’t pay the slightest attention to it...

He believes in doing nothing today that can possibly be put off until tomorrow — says he is a mafiana man. He would love to be a hypochondriac, it’s such a lovely word to have people calling you behind your back, but the doctors won’t let him. The insurance company dealt him a mortal blow by passing him 100%, and he sulked about it all one morning. When he can’t sleep, he gets up and bakes a batch of bran muffins.

If the party gets too erudite and begins swapping book-titles, Hughie stops everything by remarking in a soft, confidential tone, “To tell you the truth, I can’t read.” (To tell you the truth it’s a lot better bet that Hughie has read it than the other people.)

The reason he has managed to keep Rose happily married to him for twenty years is separate bathrooms. When Hughie was a boy, in New York, with four brothers and a sister, not to mention his mother and father, they shared one bathroom. So Hughie made up his mind to be a success when he grew up and have two. He is two and a half times the success he intended to be. He has five bathrooms.

Hughie is in dutch with his brother, who lives in Brooklyn, on account of a process-shot. It was a New York street all right, but Hughie wasn’t there. He was right out on the Warner lot all the time. But when, the picture was shown, it looked exactly as if he were walking down Fifth Avenue. So finally, when he really did go to New York, his brother looked very disgusted and said, “All you hams get big heads, don’t you? Why didn’t you come to see me the last time you were here? I saw you in that picture.”

Ensued argument, explanation with Hughie drawing diagrams of a process-shot. Brother openly and obviously skeptical. Finally he polished off the whole subject by remarking to the distraught Hughie:

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, process-shot my eye. You probably were here and didn’t know it!”

Well, with his own family breaking the ice like that for me, I guess I can tell about the night Hughie got in late and hungry and raided the ice-box. A certain bowl of something that looked good was carefully covered and hidden in a corner. “Uh huh, probably saving it for tomorrow,” tittered our hero. So, lightly tossing away his scruples, he poured on lots of cream and sugar and had himself a refreshment. Conscience bothered him when he went upstairs, and he compromised with it by remarking to Rose, “Best rice pudding I ever ate.”

“What rice pudding?” inquired Rose.

“In the refrigerator,” said Hugh.

“Oh, that was half a can of Vitamont for the pup’s breakfast,” said Rose, going back to sleep. Being married to a comedian seldom keeps her awake as you might think it would. She thought it was merely another joke. Hughie says it was — on him.

It’s nobody’s business how old Hughie is and anyway, he won’t tell. He is one of those men who has no age and it really doesn’t matter. The point is, he is just about the funniest man on the screen today — the funniest in his own line, and he happens to be the only one in it. His humor is distinctly individual, he has the field to himself, he has created his own type of wit — and it is practically all ad lib. The writers give him a general idea of a character and he does the rest. The script might as well say “Enter Hugh Herbert who Hugh Herberts around until the scene is over.”

He can go back to the time he was a bell boy in the Pabst Hotel, where the Times Square Building now stands. Then there was some ushering after school in the theatre where Maurice Barrymore was playing “Roaring Dick,” — thus began a dawning ambition — anyway, he says he caught it from a Barrymore. Then a small part in a melodrama called the “Bells of Hazlemere” in the Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Street Theatre, where he shared dressing room 12B with a calf which also was in the cast.

The funny part of it is, his first successes were in serious dramatic roles. “When I was a kid I loved to make people cry,” Hugh says. In “The Son of Solomon,” he played a pious old orthodox Jew with a long beard, and rated first page stories in three Sunday supplements at once. He was very very young and terribly profound when all this went on. He played Jewish dialect parts for years. His origin is Scotch-Irish, actually. He says your nationality doesn’t matter if you are really an actor. He is a marvelous mimic. There is no dialect he cannot lapse into without a moment’s warning.

Since his theatrical career began, Hugh has written a hundred and fifty short sketches for vaudeville and he wrote (with Murray Roth) the story for the first all-talking picture, “The Lights of New York.” He directed Lowell Sherman in “He Knew Women.” He first met his wife when he wrote a vaudeville sketch for her. Rose said she went to the theatre where he was playing and he had a sore throat, so he sent her out to buy some medicine for it — she certainly thought he had his nerve. She didn’t like him. Hughie says no, she didn’t like him till she found out his salary, and then she married him. Well, all I have to say is, maybe more girls ought to conduct their romances the same way if it will keep them married for twenty years.

Rose operates one of the smartest hat shops in Hollywood and is a stunning looking woman. Hugh says it’s a great relief to him that she goes to business and stays all day, because when she’s home, she’s a natural for those door-to-door sob stories. He says Rose would buy a lace trimmed dustpan if somebody happened to be peddling them.

Outside of his other accomplishments in the major or professional line, Hugh is a pretty fair amateur carpenter, he can hoe a mean garden and give you all the correct horticultural names for things, and he knows his way around the kitchen. It seems like quite a mess of talent to be localized in one comedian, and you don’t find out about all of it until you’ve known him for some time. He ranks Al as a storyteller, too — with gestures.

Hugh and the Missis just bought a ranch out San Fernando way, and are about to build a house on it. They have a hundred and fifty fruit trees, some turkeys, chickens, mutt dogs, and a goat. The goat is really a little kid so far, they call her Puss and she is a gay and playful pet — does tricks. She is so cute the Herberts have started a rage for kids as pets. Margaret Sullavan was out there the other day and wanted to adopt Puss.

Hughie has a swell idea for getting his house built and a lot of us are waiting around to see if it works. Several of his pals brag about what good carpenters they are, so he’s going to invite them out and hand ‘em all a hammer, a saw and lots of nails. He intends to build the bar first, and have plenty of liquid encouragement handy. It ought to be quite a place when they get it finished. He has a huge totem pole out front, so they will be sure to find it. The Herberts will keep their house in town, and perhaps it’s just as well. This one was built when they first arrived and didn’t know many people to help them, so just ordinary carpenters did it. It is large and substantial, very durable. Has a nice Dickens-y atmosphere about it — no jimcracks. One of the nicest houses anywhere around.

Hughie was looking rather peaked there for a while, but he has picked up the last few days, a new sparkle in the eye, a lighter step. I investigated and found out that Joe Lim is gone — Hughie hopes forever!

Joe Lim was the Chinese house-boy, who called everybody “madame,” including Hughie, who could see no reason to object, except, possibly, on the grounds of being the wrong sex. He knew that wouldn’t make any difference to Joe, so why argue. Also, Joe had the confusing habit of naming everybody who called up “Mr. Fee.” It might be Mr. Warner, or Mr. Schenck, or Mr. Mayer, or Mr. Smith — they were all Mr. Fee to Joe. So Hughie went around in a fog most of the time, wondering who really had called him up and if, by any chance, it might have been important.

The pay-off occurred while Rose was up in San Francisco visiting and Hughie invited a few of the boys up to the house for dinner and cards. He left the house that morning, telling Joe Lim he would be home at six o’clock.

Later in the day, discovering he was in some late scenes, he telephoned his house to tell Joe Lim. The conversation proceeded thus: “Ho. Missy Herbert’s residence.”

“Joe, this is Mr. Herbert.”

“Missy Herbert six o’clock, madame.”

“Joe, I can’t get there at six o’clock. I’m delayed at the studio.”

“Missy Herbert not here. Six o’clock.”

“Joe, I’m telling you I CAN’T BE THERE at six o’clock, possibly not until eight!”

“Six o’clock. Missy Herbert,” repeated Joe firmly.

So Hughie hung up and went home as soon as he could. “Anybody call?” he asked Joe.

“No madame, no calls,” said Joe Lim.

Joe Lim doesn’t live there any more. Hugh is sorry, awfully sorry. He really liked Joe, they seemed to have a lot in common. He plays Joe Lim, without the accent, in practically every performance he gives.


Hughie’s a finger twiddler. In moments of greatest stress those fingertips entangle so helplessly, so hilariously.

As the pleasantly “spiffed” judge of “Miss Pacific Fleet,” Hughie is taken over by Misses Forrell and Blondell.

Source: Modern Screen, January 1936