In a 1952 obituary, the Los Angeles Times called Hugh Herbert the “woo woo” man of movies, a reference to one of Herbert’s characteristically goofy exhortations and moves, all honed in years of vaudeville where he wrote, acted and directed in hundreds of sketches in the 1910s and early 1920s before relocating to Hollywood in 1927.
In 86 films from 1927 to 1951 for Universal, Columbia but mostly Warner Bros., Herbert covered a gamut of roles, from rich swells to down-and-out vagrants and everything in between—professors, doctors, businessmen, gangsters and detectives. The one thing each character had in common was Herbert’s befuddled, comedic mannerisms: chuckles, mumbles, rolled eyes, fluttery hand gestures and phrases like his trademark “woo woos.”
Most of his movies were B-pictures — he was in 52 films during the 1930s alone. Rarely a lead, Herbert appeared with the likes of W.C. Fields and Marlene Dietrich and was directed by Oscar winners Busby Berkeley and Preston Sturges, but he tended to be involved in their less prestigious ventures. He was a recognizable face, but never an indelible star.
An example of his work — and the reaction to it – is seen in the Ruby Keeler-Dick Powell vehicle “Colleen,” which several movie historians site as Herbert at his best. In a March 1936 review in the New York Times, though, Herbert gets a scant, single mention at the end of the article: “The real hero of the occasion, however, is the inevitable Hugh Herbert as the nitwit Uncle Cedric who tries to adopt the gold-digging Joan Blondell and is responsible for every laugh in the picture.”
Hugh Herbert’s career in a nutshell: All the laughs, but little of the glory.
— Christopher Smith for the Los Angeles Times March 1, 2010