Cautionary tale level #1: Throughout the 20th century and beyond, show business has been littered with entertainers who succeeded in one medium or another but washed out in movies. From Fannie Brice to Frank Fay (Broadway), to Andrew Dice Clay to Howard Stern (shock comedy), they were either too hot, too cold or just plain lacking that indefinable something that makes a movie star.
|Jack Pearl: From radio|
superstar to obscure blog topic.
|Jimmy Durante looks to God to get|
him off the movie.
Story aside, Meet the Baron is merely one long clothesline on which Pearl hangs his feeble jokes. A scene consisting of a radio interview with the Baron and Charlie has some historical interest to showbiz mavens, being an accurate replication of Pearl's show. Sample exchange: Munchausen is explaining how he was able to fly over the North Pole even after running out of gas. (Try to hear him in your head with a vaudeville-style German dialect.)
MUNCHAUSEN: I stayed up for six months longer.
CHARLIE: Without fuel? But that's impossible, that's against the law of gravitation!
MUNCHAUSEN: I know, but this was before the law was passed.
That other comedians in their prime -- Bob Hope, Stan Laurel, Chico Marx -- would probably get a chuckle with that same bit from today's audiences proves Eddie Cantor's theory: 90% of success in show business in likability. Jack Pearl is annoying. (The extras in the background appear genuinely amused -- people were more easily entertained during the Depression.)
|The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Girls try to|
wash off the stench of Meet the Baron.
Ultimately, the problem lies with MGM itself. The studio wasn't good at doing zany like Paramount, nor did it capture the flair for musicals like Warner Brothers. It was kind of like the spoiled rich kid who tries to fit in with the popular crowd at school, but without changing his tux.
In retrospect, the most fascinating thing about Meet the Baron is that producer David O. Selznick and one of its six writers (six writers!), Herman J. Mankiewicz, would later go on to Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane respectively. As co-star Jimmy Durante might say, "It's unexplicable, I tells ya!"
This brings us to Level 2 of our cautionary tale. While studios signed flash-in-the-pans like Jack Pearl, they often couldn't see real talent before their eyes. Humphrey Bogart bummed around Warner Brothers for almost a decade when he finally landed his first major lead in High Sierra. Bette Davis was dropped by her first studio, Universal, for lacking sex appeal. And before Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson was just another cog in Roger Corman's exploitation assembly line.
And so, too, Meet the Baron gives us a glimpse of an act that MGM briefly had under contract but not really knowing what to do with, the Three Stooges. At the time, they were still working with Ted Healey, the comedian who put the act together in vaudeville several years earlier. Billed, naturally, as Ted Healey & His Stooges, "the boys" are a welcome relief to an otherwise dreary enterprise.
|Ted Healey & His Stooges, along with Edna May Oliver, welcome the Baron to|
Cuddle College. If only they aimed a little closer.
Whether fishing in a flooded basement, avoiding work by playing cards or tearing up Munchausen's room, the Stooges, a year away from starting their legendary run at Columbia, have their act down cold, albeit with some nominal differences. Healey has the ringleader role that Moe would eventually play. Curley ("Jerry" in the credits) is often crosseyed and barefoot. Only Larry is fully formed, tossing out sly one-liners under his breath with consummate skill.
They're even involved, if only tangentially, in Meet the Baron's funniest line. Edna May Oliver, the Dean of the college, warns them that if they don't do as she says, they'll "feel my wrath," allowing Healey to chuckle, "Don't try to bribe the boys!" And of course it's always comforting to hear this familiar exchange:
TED: Boys, get the tools.
MOE: What tools?
TED: The tools we've been using the last ten years.
STOOGES: Ohhh, those tools!
Just why that bit, repeated throughout the Stooges' career, makes guys of my generation laugh no matter how many times we hear it, I'll leave for the experts to analyze. Indeed, their scene in the school basement is so much funnier than anything else in Meet the Baron that I suspect Healey and "the boys" wrote it themselves.
till convinced that his Munchausen shtick was what the people wanted, Pearl wandered in and out of radio until 1952, probably asking a new, metaphysical question: "Am I here, Sharlie?"
The original 1933 trailer for Meet the Baron. Leave it to the marketing geniuses to shoehorn in "Vas you dere, Sharlie?" at least three times, while omitting the funniest Stooges bits: