Thursday, January 1, 2015

Big-Hearted Herbert

TCM is going to be showing a bunch of 1930s B movies tomorrow, and a couple of them are worth mentioning that I haven't blogged about before. The first of these is Big-Hearted Herbert, at 7:15 AM.

Guy Kibbee stars as Herbert Kalness, the patriarch of one of those midwestern small cities that populated movies of the 1930s before everybody migrated to California or the South and the place became the Rust Belt. Herbert started at the turn of the century working at the bottom as a gopher and working his way up to the point that he now runs his own successful plumbing supply business. He did all this without the benefit of a fancy college education, and as such he feels that everybody else can succeed too without going to college. That, and without the benefit of lawyers, whose sole purpose he sees as trying to make him pay more to the rapacious tax man.

Meanwhile, at home, Herbert has a kindly wife Elizabeth (Aline MacMahon) and three kids. All of them are about to present problems for Herbert. Alice (Patricia Ellis) is all grown up, and she's met and fallen in love with Andrew (Philip Reed). They want to marry, and Andrew is about to bring his family over to the Kalness place to make the big announcement, but there's a problem: Andrew is going to become a lawyer! Andrew's parents are also of a rather higher social class than the Kalnesses. Not that this is a problem for them, but for Herbert Kalness it certainly is! Elder son Herbert Jr. (Junior Durkin) is in high school, and Dad is planning for him to go into the family business. However, Junior wants to go to -- gasp! -- college! -- and become an engineer. Younger son Robert threatens to eat Dad out of house and home, or at least so Dad fears.

Andrew and his family come over for dinner, and unsurprisingly, the result is a disaster as Mr. Kalness shows himself to be such a blowhard that Andrew's parents are turned off by Herbert's constant talk about "plain living" and ranting about lawyers and college. Who could blame them? Elizabeth, of course, knows that she's married to a man who really is a good guy deep down inside, it's just that you have to get to him in the right way. That opportunity shows itself a few days later when Herbert announces that he's got an important client in town. He's been going on about plain living, so Elizabeth gets the kids together and decides they're going to show these clients what plain living really means. Ultimately Herbert learns his lesson: this is a comedy, and you can't expect anything less. Everybody lives happily ever after and we fade to the end.

Big-Hearted Herbert is a B comedy all the way, but it's well-made an entertaining. When I first watched it, it felt a lot like watching a TV sitcom from 20 years later, lengthened to push the running time past an hour. Indeed, when Aline MacMahon's character gets the idea ot have her and the kids show Dad real plain living, she gathers the kids together and whispers the plot to them such that the audience cannot hear, something that would become a staple on later sitcoms. I can just imagine Lucy Ricardo whispering like that to Ethel Mertz like that on I Love Lucy. Guy Kibbee is good at playing blustery, although some reviewers might find his bluster a bit too much. MacMahon is the emotional center of the family, and she does a good job of portraying the loving and patient mother. Everybody else is good enough, not detracting from the proceedings. Big-Hearted Herbert may never be mistaken for an all-time great movie, but it's more than worth a watch.

I don't think Big-Hearted Herbert is available on DVD, not even from the Warner Archive.

Edit: I misread the TCM schedule; it turns out that Big-Hearted Herbert is in fact available from the TCM Shop as part of a two-movie Aline MacMahon/Guy Kibbee set.

No comments: