A wildly popular musical comedy star of stage and screen in the 1930s, Jack Hulbert has since been dismissed by some critics as a ‘light entertainer’ who ‘can seem tirelessly jaunty company.’ During the peak of his film career, Hulbert ranked high in popularity charts. In 1933 he was voted the top British male star in audience questionnaires and 1936 he was the third most popular British star based on domestic box office returns. He starred in fourteen films across the decade.
Jack Hulbert was born in Cambridgeshire in 1892 to a doctor. He studied at Cambridge where he joined the Cambridge Footlights. His brother Claude Hulbert, who was eight years his junior, followed the same trajectory. Both brothers became two of the first Footlights alumni to reach acting success and fame. After Cambridge, Jack Hulbert got a role in a theatre production, playing opposite Cicely Courtneidge. The couple married in 1916 and stayed together for the rest of their lives, often working together on stage and screen.
After completing his war service, Hulbert returned to his career in variety theatre and produced and acted in numerous stage productions across the West End. During the 1920s, British films were still silent and therefore did not provide a suitable medium for comedy stage stars like Hulbert and Courtneidge, who depended on witty dialogue and song-and-dance numbers to win over their audiences. Further, until the adoption of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, very limited numbers of British films were being produced at all.
By the start of the 1930s the couple found themselves in debt due to financial mismanagement. As the British film industry was at the same time transitioning to sound, the time had come for Hulbert and Courtneidge to make the leap to the silver screen. Their first appearance was as themselves in Elstree Calling! (1930). As implied by the title, this film was a series of separate sketches performed by popular entertainers supposedly broadcasting from Elstree studios north of London.
After Elstree Calling! Hulbert moved into narrative fiction films, and increasingly worked separately from Courtneidge. In common with other popular comedy stars of the period, such as George Formby and Gracie Fields, Hulbert usually played characters called Jack. The titles of some of his films, such as Jack’s the Boy (1932), Jack Ahoy (1934), Bulldog Jack (1935) and Jack of All Trades (1936) worked to eliminate the difference between the actor and his characters even further.
Hulbert’s persona was a confident and likeable middle-class charmer who was able to be both comic and romantic. . His films ‘appear to exist primarily for the display of [his] talents as singer, dancer and comedian.’ In Jack of All Trades, he plays a likeable chancer who is looking for a job. After striking up an acquaintance with Lionel, a bank clerk (played by Robertson Hare) Jack starts showing up at Lionel’s office and pretend that he works there. His pretence is so successful that he ends up convincing the bank bosses to build an entire new shoe factory. The scenes where Jack and Lionel present their proposal to the Board, all of whom approve the plans because they are too embarrassed to admit that they have no idea what they are being shown, still have the power to resonate with modern audiences. The final third of Jack of All Trades, however, descends into fast-paced slapstick action typical of Hulbert films with a lot of physical comedy.
Hulbert singing ‘Where There’s You, There’s Me’ in Jack of All Trades
A similar tension between narrative and apparently stand-alone action can be found in Bulldog Jack, a film satirising the extremely popular Bulldog Drummond book and film series. Bulldog Drummond was a fictional, highly successful police inspector. At the start of Bulldog Jack, Jack Hulbert’s character accidentally crashes his car into Bulldog Drummond’s, injuring the latter and making him bed-bound. When the young daughter of a jeweller asks for help because her father has fallen victim to a gang of thieves and blackmailers, Drummond asks Jack to pretend to be the famous ‘Bulldog’ and take on the case.
Again, the first section of the film gives plenty of space for comedy and romance, before the action-packed climax set in the London Underground. The criminal gang have set up their headquarters in a disused Underground station, and the gang leader hijacks an Underground train in an attempt to get away. Jack ends up crawling over the top of the train carriages, like a true action hero, to stop the train. Prior to this final chase, Bulldog Jack uses sped-up shots of Jack and his friends chasing the criminals up and down the spiral staircases of the Underground station.
By the mid-1930s the use of sped-up film was quite unusual; it was a device much more often used in the ‘cinema of attractions’ that pre-dated World War One. Jack Hulbert’s films did not fully conform to the conventions of narrative filmmaking. Instead, they applied techniques from earlier film genres and from the variety stage onto the long-form fiction film medium. Although this allowed Hulbert to perform in a similar mode across his stage and film productions, as a result his 1930s film work can jar to modern audiences and make it more challenging to understand Hulbert’s enormous popularity at the time.
Elstree Calling! can be viewed on YouTube.
 James Chapman, ‘Celluloid Shockers’, in The Unknown 1930s: An alternative history of the British cinema, 1929-1939, ed. Jeffrey Richards (London: IB Tauris, 1998), p. 91
 Brian McFarlane, ‘Jack of All Trades: Robert Stevenson’, in The Unknown 1930s, p. 164
 Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010) pp. 160-161
 McFarlane, ‘Jack of All Trades’, p. 163