16 June 2016

Claude Hulbert

Popular stage and screen comedian Claude Hulbert (1900-1964) starred in several minor British films of the 1930s. He was called 'the king of the posh idiots'. Hulbert also scripted a few films, composed some soundtracks, and was a successful radio broadcaster.

Claude Hulbert
British postcard in the Famous Radio Stars series by Valentine's, no. 7122 M.


Claude Noel Hulbert was born in London in 1900 as the son of a doctor. Like his elder brother Jack Hulbert he studied at Cambridge University and was a member of the Footlights comedy club, but didn't take a degree.

He made his professional debut in 1920 and joined his sister-in-law Cicely Courtneidge at the music halls. In the 1920s he started to perform on stage supporting the Aldwych farceurs. He had a hit with the George and Ira Gershwin musical Primrose in 1924 and spent the rest of the decade in musical comedy such as in another Gershwin musical Oh Kay! (1927).

Apart from an uncredited part in the silent Hitchcock film Champagne (Alfred Hitchcock, 1928), Hulbert’s film career really began in the sound era. From 1930 on, he largely abandoned the stage to concentrate on his film and broadcasting career. His screen roles as a silly-ass got bigger by the years.

Hulbert began by supporting Ralph Lynn in Aldwych comedies before he got his first lead in the minor comedy Their Night Out (Harry Hughes, 1933), which costarred Renee Houston and Binnie Barnes. In that year, Hulbert did various films for British International Pictures, often as co-star.

He had the male lead in the comedy Big Business (Cyril Gardner, 1934), co-scripted by Gardner and Hulbert, and produced by Warner and First National. Occasionally Hulbert worked with his brother. In 1934, he wrote the song My Hat’s on the Side of My Head for Jack Hulbert’s song and dance comedy Jack Ahoy! (Walter Forde, 1934).

In 1935 Claude Hulbert had a supporting role in Bulldog Jack (Walter Forde 1935) starring his brother Jack and Fay Wray. This Gaumont International production was a crime film with scenes at the British Museum and the London Underground. And in 1940 Claude would write the song Conga for Jack Hulbert’s film Under Your Hat (Maurice Elvey, 1940).

Claude Hulbert
British postcard, no. 114. Photo: British International Pictures.

Upperclass Twit

David Absolom observes: "Claude Hulbert had a face for comedy - long, wide eyed, and jug eared. That coupled with his sweet demeanour made him the king of the posh idiots." In 1935 he played the lead of Henry Pennyfeather in Hello Sweetheart (Monty Banks, 1935), a comedy co-starring Gregory Ratoff and Jane Carr.

It was a comedy about a naive farmer who looses all to perfidious grifters who convince him to invest in their film and halfway dump him. The farmer though manages to finish the film himself, turning it into a comedy and creating a big success. It is said to have been his most successful solo film of the mid-1930s, but it is now sadly a lost film.

Wikipedia: ‘like most of Hulbert's starring comedies, however, its ambition was strictly small-scale; it seemed that British studios simply didn't see him as a major star.’ His budgets were always limited too, reducing most of his output to a kind of B-movies.

Still, Hulbert had interesting partners in his films, such as Douglas Fairbanks jr. and Laura LaPlante in Man of the Moment (Monty Banks, 1935). Hulbert’s film career got a boost with Wolf's Clothing (Andrew Marton, 1936), in which he starred as the upper-clas twit Ambrose Girling who is a lookalike of a notorious assassin. Hulbert’s female costar was Lilli Palmer, in one of her first roles in Britain.

Claude Hulbert
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. 878. Photo: British International Pictures (B.I.P.).

Bumbling Bridegroom

After some minor parts in comedies, Claude Hulbert had a long series of leads in the late 1930s. He also started to expand his genre repertory, such as the adventure film Hail and Farewell (Ralph Ince, 1936) about sailors on leave, and the crime story The Vulture (Ralph Ince, 1937) about a detective capturing jewel thieves in Chinatown. However, even these films had comical aspects.

Most other leads of Hulbert were in comedies, like Olympic Honeymoon/Honeymoon-Merry-Go-Round (Alfred J. Goulding, 1940), ‘where he played a bumbling bridegroom who unintentionally becomes an ice-hockey star' (Wikipedia). After the war broke out, Hulbert played in war comedies too, like Sailors Three (Walter Forde, 1940), about three sailors who accidentally get aboard a Nazi ship.

In 1941 Hulbert became a popular side-kick for comic actor Will Hay in The Ghost of St Michael's (Marcel Varnel, 1941) in which Hay hunts a killer ghost in Scotland. It took two years for Hulbert’s subsequent role as co-star in the crime story The Dummy Talks (Oswald Mitchell, 1943), starring debuting actor Jack Warner.

In the same year Hulbert was Hay’s sidekick again in the dark comedy My Learned Friend (Basil Dearden, Will Hay, 1943), about a seedy lawyer threatened by a vengeful escaped convict. In the late 1940s Hulbert continued to play in film but his appearances became scarcer and smaller. As a film actor Claude Hulbert was less of a leading man than his brother. Wikipedia: "His films were, at best, modest and moderate, sadly lacking in budget, ambition and spark."

Hulbert resumed his stage work, scoring notable hits in The Hulbert Follies and Panama Hattie. He also excelled as a radio broadcaster, often in partnership with his wife, actress Enid Trevor, whom he had married in 1924. In 1964, Claude Hulbert died in a hospital in Sydney, during a world cruise taken for the sake of his health.

Claude Hulbert
British photo card by Radio Pictorial.

Sources: David Absalom (British Pictures), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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