Hugh Herbert — Picture Stealer No. 1 (1936) 🇺🇸

Hugh Herbert |

January 04, 2022

So he took the somewhat less than fifty thousand dollars and the three lines of dialogue — and this is what he did with them. He “stole the picture,” walked away with a majority of the laughs, dominated the best scenes and came out of what was supposed to be a minor funny role with the rating of a star comedian.

by Carlisle Jones

The picture was the box-office hit, “Convention City,” and the actor’s name is Hugh Herbert. Lack of lines was no handicap to Herbert. He can’t remember lines, anyway, and those he improvises are generally funnier than those written for him — even when he writes his own, as he does sometimes.

For Hugh Herbert is a writer as well as an actor. Even so, he isn’t as funny when he writes as when he acts. Just seeing him is enough to send the average audience off into chuckles. It was in a certain picture made a few years ago, called “Goodbye Again.”

A critical studio audience, made up of cutters, a few minor executives and the men who were to make the “trailer” for the picture, saw “Goodbye Again” for the first time in a studio projection room. All of them knew that Warren William and Joan Blondell were playing leading roles in the picture and the confidential reports about the stages were that it was almost certain to be a comedy hit.

The first reel rolled on and off the screen without comment from this “we’ve seen it all before” sort of audience. Then Miss Blondell, in answer to a sound-effects knock on the door, let a stranger into the picture.

He sidled through the door, his head hanging sheepishly from his shoulders, his long nose twitching, his hands fumbling with his hat. The reaction in the dark, little projection room was immediate and amazing.

“Who’s that guy?” demanded a visiting cutter who had seen no part of the picture before.

“That’s an actor named Herbert, explained the cutter who had worked on the film. “Watch him walk away with the picture.”

Hugh proceeded to do just that, excellent though the other performances were and in spite of the comparatively few lines he had to say.

“Where have I seen him before?” asked another.

“He used to be a writer here on the lot. Wrote ‘Lights of New York’ with Murray Roth.”

“Well,” said the visiting cutter, that guy’s really funny.”

Herbert signed a long-term contract with the studio immediately after the completion of “Goodbye Again.” Even so no one at his studio knew just how good he was. He played small roles in two or three feature pictures and one or two shorts and was then called in to be told that he would work next in the picture “Convention City.”

In due time Herbert reported to Director Archie Mayo to talk over his role in the picture. “Are you in this?” asked Mayo. Hugh said he had been told he was.

Together they looked through the script to find his lines. There were just three of them — and two of those were exactly alike.

He threw the script away, as he always does, and reported for work as called. The use he made of this forlorn opportunity to be funny on the screen is one of Hollywood’s favorite anecdotes now. He just stood around — but how he stood! Words in the mouths of the other players were powerless against him. Almost unwillingly the camera seemed to follow Herbert, recording for posterity the comic adventures of a convention-attender attending the wrong convention.

Most comedians are serious-minded chaps at heart. Herbert is different. He is just as funny to talk to over a lunch-table as he is to watch on the screen. He is the butt of most of his own jokes and he has the rarest of gifts among actors, an ability to listen as enthusiastically as he talks.

The very players from whom he loots many of his best remembered scenes, are his closest friends. Perhaps the most frequent victims of the “Herbert look” — that muddled expression which registers with an audience more than any spoken line — have been Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell. Both these young women are scene stealers of no mean ability themselves but they recognize Herbert as the toughest competition in pictures.

Less able comediennes might refuse to work with Herbert. Joan and Glenda are always threatening to desert him but their threats don’t ring true. The three of them are good friends off the set and friendly enemies during the making of a picture.

“How can we work with him?” demands Joan of a perspiring director. “He makes faces toward the camera while we read our lines.”

“He just says what he darned pleases and leaves us up in the air for cues!” wails Glenda.

“It’s too bad,” mumbles Herbert. “Shame I can’t remember lines.”

“You don’t try,” declares Joan.

“Nobody,” snaps Glenda, “can be as foolish as you look!”

Reviewers, columnists, and commentators have stretched the English language all out of shape trying to describe Hugh Herbert’s face. They call it a “horse face,” a “mush mug,” a feather-bed face,” or a “potato pan.” Herbert refuses to be insulted. It is his face, and that face is his fortune because it has a dollar and cents value in any theatre in the world. It is an effective weapon to use against other players in his pictures.

Scenarists on the Warner lot — and on other lots where he sometimes works on loan — have long since learned to leave space in their story-telling for either additional dialogue or spur-of-the-moment pantomime by Herbert. Perhaps if Shakespeare were writing today he would do the same thing. But he didn’t, and the stoutest-hearted actor in the world — and Hugh Herbert is not that — would hesitate to ad lib the lines of that master dramatist.

As a result Hugh probably worked harder for Max Reinhardt in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he played the role of “Snout,” than he ever has before or since in pictures. He had few lines to speak and he was used to that; but those few lines had to be delivered letter-perfect, and he had had no previous experience in a situation of that kind.

As usual he lost his script the first day. He got three or four others during production and lost them in short order. The lines he finally read into the finished production, however, were Shakespeare’s, not Herbert’s.

Only once did he completely forget himself long enough to inject an ad lib into “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was during the filming of the famous rehearsal scene of the players. A bowl of peeled nuts, representing cloves of garlic, stood nearby, a “prop” that has been used in this play for something like three hundred years.

Hugh discovered the bowl during a scene between Joe E. Brown and Jimmy Cagney, and in a pause between lines he broke the silence he had maintained so carefully.

“Hmm,” hummed Hugh, reaching for the bowl. “Nuts.”

But that ad lib line is not to be heard in the finished production.

Hugh Herbert has, according to his own account, been “kicking around in’ pictures since the year one.” He was a voice behind the screen years before the recorded talking picture was perfected, when an ahead-of-the-times exhibitor featured pictures that seemed to talk.

Before that he toured various vaudeville circuits, having graduated from theatre-ushering to acting. His first picture was “Caught in the Fog,” which had a few talking sequences. Then he turned to writing and with Murray Roth turned out the scenario for a short, called “The Roaring Forties.” It outgrew the short stage and emerged finally with a new title, as the first all-talking picture ever made, “The Lights of New York.”

Later he directed Lowell Sherman in “He Knew Women” and still later he wrote the screen adaptation of “The Great Gabbo.” His success was still something less than sensational, however, until Joan Blondell opened the hotel room door in “Goodbye Again” and let a new funny-faced gentleman into pictures.

Source: Screenland, August 1936