Monday, April 13, 2015

Big Hearted Herbert is Guy Kibbee at his most grouchy

By Doug Gibson

"Big Hearted Herbert," 1934 black and white, directed by William Keighly, produced by Warner Brothers and released by Warner Brothers The Vitaphone Corp., 59 minutes. Starring Guy Kibbee as Herbert Kalness, Aline MacMahon as Elizabeth Kalness, Patricia Ellis as Alice Kalness and Phillip Reed as Andrew Goodrich. Schlock-meter rating: 6.5 out of 10,

I love Guy Kibbee movies; the man was made to play the middle-aged business man of the 1930s with a lot of bluster in sight and tenderness hidden; he stars in the only surviving film version of Sinclair Lewis’ homage to the conformist businessman, “Babbitt.” Often playing his wife in his Warner Brothers/Vitaphone films of the 1930s is Aline MacMahon,a  tall, angular actress who seems to get more attractive as the film goes on; she was often the ying to Kibbee’s yang.

“Big Hearted Herbert,” which I first watched thanks to Turner Classic Movies, is not the best programmer that Kibbee made with MacMahon, but it’s a perfect example of the domestic comedies that Kibbee could so effortlessly perform 80 years ago. He stars as Herbert Kalness, grouchy, long-winded successful plumbing supplies business who grouses constantly to his wife, Elizabeth, played by MacMahon, and three kids, Alice, Robert and Junior. Herbert practically worships a dour family photo of his late father that hangs, saint like, in the family home.

It’s obvious Elizabeth loves Herbert, because she has the patience of a saint with her husband, who is so worn out and stressed from hard work and success that he constantly erupts into self-pitying rants at the dinner table about the laziness of his kids, the ungratefulness of the family, the uselessness of a college education and social airs, the importance of hard work and plain living, and so on; he just snaps at everybody. Kibbee is a little more crabby than fussy in this film; he’s rarely been this ill-tempered, but his screen presence, which is geared toward audiences softening at his round countenance, makes it hard to hate him.

Herbert, though, really becomes a burden to his family when he loudly asserts to Junior that he will not go to college, but rather enter the family business and work 10 hours a day like Herbert did. He also erupts at the announcement that daughter Alice is engaged to college man (Harvard no less!) Andrew Goodrich, future lawyer. 

At a dinner with his future in laws, Herbert puts his grouch-mode into overdose, insulting and upsetting everyone. 
At this point, MacMahon’s wife Elizabeth has had enough and arranges a come-uppence for her crabby husband. That occurs when Herbert arranges a dinner party with the family with some of prized business customers. The final act of the film is the most amusing as MacMahon shines as much as, if even more, than Kibbee, who has quite a transformation from the constant grouch character he’s played the first two acts. What happens is that wife Alice arranges the dinner to be as old-fashioned and rustic as Herbert claims his own past life was.

But it’s all in fun, and this is at heart a pleasant, light-hearted domestic comedy; despite Kibbee’s there never any real suspense that things won’t turn out OK in the end.

Today, most remember Kibbee as Governor "Hoppy" in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but some of his best work includes the aforementioned "Babbitt" and the comedic satire "The Dark Horse,' where he plays a simpleton recruited for higher office, pre-dating Peter Sellers in "Being There" by more than 40 years.

You can watch “Big Hearted Herbert” online for free at ( You can watch a great 3 minute trailer at

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