Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Big Hearted Herbert (1934)

May, 2023

Warner Bros., 1934. Director: William Keighley. Screenplay: Lillie Hayward and Ben Markson, based on the play by Sophie Kerr and Anna Steese Richardson. Camera: Arthur L. Todd. Film editor: Jack Killifer. Cast: Aline MacMahon, Guy Kibbee, Patricia Ellis, Helen Lowell, Phillip Reed, Robert Barrat, Henry O’Neill.
            There’s been a good deal of talk in recent months about Warner Bros.—as well there might be, for 2023 marks an important centenary in Warners studio history. The company had already existed for years, but 1923 was the year the brothers shifted gears, obtained a large bank loan, and proactively started the process that would ultimately transform Warner Bros. into a major Hollywood powerhouse. No film enthusiast needs to be reminded of the hundreds of unforgettable motion pictures that issued from the studio in succeeding years, a profusion of treasures that included a high proportion of all-time cinematic classics.
            High on that list of classics is Gold Diggers of 1933, a widely beloved musical that concentrated a wealth of Hollywood’s top talent into an exhilarating, perfectly crafted gem of the genre. I’ll be writing more about that film soon, but in the meantime, this column tends to focus on obscure or forgotten films—and Gold Diggers is anything but obscure! Here, instead, I’ll be looking at a minor, often-overlooked picture, one of several that emerged in the wake of Gold Diggers’ fabulous success.
            Much of Gold Diggers’ appeal is derived from the song-and-dance teaming of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Theirs was an irresistible chemistry, first showcased in the earlier 42nd Street, and Warners would go on to reteam Dick and Ruby in five more musicals during the next few years. In the meantime, Ruby’s fellow “gold diggers,” Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon, were also reteamed with their onscreen partners from this film. Joan Blondell and Warren William emerged, in the closing scenes of Gold Diggers, as an unlikely but intriguing romantic couple—and, sure enough, Warners proceeded to pair them again soon afterward. Smarty, a Blondell/William vehicle released early in 1934, qualifies as a late pre-Code and has an offbeat appeal of its own. (Seen today, however, it’s somewhat disquieting—not for the innuendo that must have aggravated the censors in 1934, but for the script’s tacit acceptance of what would be recognized today as domestic violence.)
            The third member of the “gold digger” trio, Aline MacMahon, is sadly underappreciated and overlooked today. She didn’t fare much better in her own time; her “romance” with Guy Kibbee in Gold Diggers is played strictly for laughs—comic relief in a film that is already primarily a comedy. But someone in Warners management much have recognized MacMahon’s versatile acting ability, for she turned up in a variety of offbeat roles and vehicles (one of which I’ve highlighted in an earlier edition of this column). As for her teaming with Kibbee in Gold Diggers, that too must have been recognized immediately as a fortuitous pairing. The two players did enjoy a harmonious natural balance onscreen, one that was not bound by specific character types. Their scenes together in Gold Diggers, with MacMahon as a predatory seductress and Kibbee as her helpless, bumbling prey, are a delight to watch, but the two were soon reteamed in several minor domestic comedies built around utterly dissimilar characters.
            Big Hearted Herbert, an undeniably slight family comedy, illustrates just how entertaining such a film can be in the hands of seasoned players and filmmakers. In the title role, Kibbee is seen as the blustering patriarch of a small-town family, forever complaining, criticizing, insisting, forbidding. His children, long since accustomed to his ways, chafe occasionally under his heavy-handed rule, but submit out of (sometimes grudging) respect. Never having attended college himself, Kibbee’s character rails loudly against  college “idlers”, reserving his respect for plain, self-made manual workers like himself—setting the stage for a clash of wills when daughter Patricia Ellis turns up with a fiancé who is not only a college graduate, but a Harvard man.
            Balancing Kibbee’s thoroughly unpleasant character is Aline MacMahon as his wife. Top-billed in the cast, MacMahon delivers a delightful portrayal of the calm, loving, level-headed center of the household, the glue that holds the family together. Thanks to her nuanced performance (not to mention a sensitively written script), she seems to float serenely above the petty domestic squabbles—neither oblivious to her husband’s diatribes nor cowed by them. She provides her children with loving support, and at the same time manages Kibbee’s outbursts without ever openly clashing with him. And when at last he goes too far, she finds the perfect way to teach him a lesson. Her solution, which I will not describe here, involves no rancor or bitterness, but rather is hilariously entertaining. And it leads to a satisfying resolution of the plot, and an ending of surprising and unforced sweetness.
            This year, as we celebrate the Warner Bros. centenary, it’s entirely appropriate to single out the studio’s famous textbook classics. But the film enthusiast who looks beyond those milestones to the forgotten, lower-profile efforts will be pleasantly surprised to find just how entertaining some of those films can be. Big Hearted Herbert is only one example.

J.B. Kaufman