Watching 1939: The Family Next Door (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  The Family Next Door (1939)

Release date:  March 31, 1939

Hugh Herbert, Ruth Donnelly, Joy Hodges, Eddie Quillan, Juanita Quigley, Benny Bartlett, James Bush, Thomas Beck, Cecil Cunningham, Frances Robinson, Delmar Watson (uncredited)

Studio:  Universal Studios

Director:  Joseph Santley

Frazzled plumber George Pierce (Herbert) doesn’t make quite enough for his family. His wife, Rose (Donnelly) worries that their lack of money will prevent their oldest daughter Laura (Hodges) from catching a wealthy husband. The family’s home is badly in need of repair and their furniture is old. In an effort to look like they are in the social scene, Rose rents fancy furniture for their home to throw a party, and also invests in a construction deal her son Sammy (Quillan) is in. Rose’s cupid plans for Laura backfire, the land Sammy was sold is faulty, and her two youngest children (Quigley, Barlett) are constantly in trouble.

1939 Notes:
• Hugh Herbert was in was in four films released in 1939
• Benny Barlett was in nine films released in 1939
• Ruth Donnelly was in three films released in 1939
• Joy Hodges was in four films released in 1939
• Eddie Quillan was in six films released in 1939
• Juanita Quigley was in two films released in 1939
• Frances Robinson was in 14 films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Spooks the dog is in the movie; better known for his role as Daisy in the “Blondie” films.
• The movie was meant to be the first of a film series. However, this was the only film.
• The director was originally announced as Frank Strayer, according to a Feb. 10, 1939, news brief.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
In 1939, several series films got their start: “Maisie,” “Henry Aldrich,” “Mexican Spitfire,” and “Sherlock Holmes” just to name a few.

Others, like “The Family Next Door,” didn’t quite make it off the ground.

This brisk, 60-minute comedy features comedian Hugh Herbert, who was popular for his “woo woo” phrase and confused demeanor. Here he plays a befuddled plumber who is pushed around by his wife, played by Rose Donnelly, whose top concern is to marry off their oldest daughter, played by Joy Hodges.

Herbert was a top comedian at Warner Bros. in the early 1930s; acting in some of their top films including “Footlight Parade” and “Dames.” Each time, his character was largely the same – not sure which end was up and had his signature “woo woo” phrase.

While Herbert was still in several films in the late-1930s and 1940s, his career was slowing up. For example, Herbert was in nine films released in 1933, 10 films released in 1934 and only four in 1939.

While Herbert is technically the star of “The Family Next Door” (1939), I didn’t feel like he was given much to do. And while he sometimes drives me nuts in some of his movies, he didn’t seem as bad here – maybe because he didn’t have many lines. The film even begins with a sweet moment of him making something for his daughter, played by Juanita Quigley.

Truthfully, the true lead is Ruth Donnelly as Mrs. Rose Pierce. Donnelly has the most lines and scenes as the social-climbing mother and wife – the story truly revolves around her.

Joy Hodges plays the daughter who needs marrying off. I am not as familiar with Hodges, but she reminded me vaguely of Lucille Bremer, who would come on the Hollywood scene in the 1940s. The other children, Eddie Quillan, Juanita Quigley and Benny Bartlett feel like they are wasted. Quigley has very little screentime.

I find “The Family Next Door” filled with more cringe-worthy situations than comedy. For example, Mrs. Pierce throws a fancy party to impress a potential suitor and his wealthy aunt. While she’s putting on airs, the family’s cracking ceiling falls in on the party.

While this hour long film isn’t unpleasant, I also can’t see it as a series film. The frantic, social-climbing comedy got uncomfortable and old pretty quick.

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