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April Fools: Meet the Baron (1933)

April is for celebrating the fools of filmland. Each Friday this month, we will examine a vintage comedy. This week Adam and Samantha discuss Meet the Baron.

SAMANTHA: The Baron Munchausen and his two servants are lost in the jungle in Africa, and after weeks of surviving, their water supply has dwindled to nearly nothing. The Baron steals away in the night with the remaining canteen, leaving the two men to die. A search party discovers them the next morning and mistakes one man for the Baron, bringing him home a hero.

ADAM: Vat a kast! Meet the Baron has a comic for everyone: Ted Healy and his Three Stooges (Moe, Larry, and Curly—the classic lineup), Jimmy Durante (“the Favorite ‘Schnozzle’ of the screen”), ZaSu Pitts, and Edna May Oliver. The men behind the scenes, director Walter Lang and writers Herman Mankiewicz and Norman Krasna, suggest a respectable MGM picture. But who is this headliner, Jack Pearl? John Dunning’s The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio sums up the flash in the pan (or in his dialect, “flaching een der pants”):

The Jack Pearl Show, commonly known as Baron Munchhausen, streaked across the horizon of early radio and faded just as fast. It was a sensation in 1932 (leaping to a CAB-rated 47.2, and second only to Eddie Cantor in the January 1933 charts) but began its unprecedented plunge even before its first season was finished.”

With a classic mix of English-as-second-language dialect comedy and outlandish tales in the Munchhausen tradition, Pearl tickled the fickle hoi polloi with his rhetorical catch phrase to his doubting sidekick, “Vass you dere, Sharlie?” This is Jack Pearl’s sole starring film—a real treat if you’re a scavenger in the dustbin of comedy.

S: Pearl is very good, funny and likable, and I'm surprised he didn't make more films. Although this is an early entry in Durante's career, his mannerisms and character are already well established. He utters several malapropisms ("This sounds very omunis.") and makes jokes about his looks ("I know I'm not good lookin'. What's one opinion among thousands of others?"). I just love him. He never seemed to change, so if you like what he served up, you know you're always going to be satisfied. The Stooges too have their routines down pat, and used some of the same jokes seen here in their later famous short series.

HEALY: Get the tools. MOE: What tools? HEALY: The tools we've been using for the last ten years. STOOGES: Oh those tools!

Some of the gags you can see coming a mile away, like the ice water to the face, but they're fun nonetheless. We got comedy from a variety of places, dialogue, dialect, slapstick and visual comedy (the Baron's graduation robe is adorned with medals).

A: Yes, the movie uses the shotgun approach to comedy, just blasting out the jokes in all directions. I felt there was a satisfactory ratio of giggles to groans. The gags come so quick that I did have to backtrack over a few sequences. I’m still amusedly puzzled over Pearl and Durante’s—acting as if they stepped in something—in response to Edna May Oliver’s line, “This is no time for innuendo.”

Of all the bright spots in the film, the biggest highlight is the extremely pre-Code musical number for the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields tune “Clean as a Whistle” sung by The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Girls. As strategically placed jets of water obscure anything too naughty, the girls scrub themselves while singing about spending their days just wearing a great big smile! It’s an irresistible, lovely, sudsy, foaming, decadent piece of Hollywood fluff. In fact, the film is most successful when it coasts into the sing-songy, quick montage musical style. It’s similar to what director Mark Sandrich and producer Lou Brock were doing at RKO at the same time with their short film So This is Harris! and the delightfully risqué feature Melody Cruise.

S: I always wondered what that bathing number was from. I saw it in a documentary about pre-code films, so I'm glad to finally find the source. I felt that the "Hail to the Baron Munchhausen" number was impressive too. Sometimes musical numbers in these early films can seem dropped in, superfluous exhibitions of new hit songs, but this one moves the story along and generates a few laughs too.

The great thing about this movie is that everyone gets a chance to be funny. Even uptight Edna May Oliver who mostly plays a straight part gets a few good lines, like, "Girls, if there are any hysterics to have, I'll have them."

A: Zee refiews ver bad! In 1934, The New York Times profiled the results of a marketing firm that solicited opinions from theater-owners throughout the country. Of MGM’s offerings from the previous year, Meet the Baron was one of nine movies that “failed completely” (although this harsh branding was also applied to Treasure Island, Eskimo, and Queen Christina—not bad company to keep). The NY Times’ Mordaunt Hall haughtily opined of the film, “ might have been a good deal more provocative if there had been a little less senselessness to the farcical antics of all concerned.”

Good ol’ Mordaunt wasn’t alone in the derision. The middle-class/middle-America theater owners bellowing in the pages of The Motion Picture Herald joined the pile-on. “If you don’t get the jitters watching Durante and Pearl trying to be funny, well, you can take it,” wrote Warren L. Weber of Ellinwood, Kansas. “Undoubtedly this is the very poorest picture that we ever put off on our patrons. We are still afraid to come out to the front door,” scowled W.J. Bryan of Geneva, Alabama. Mayme P. Musselman of Lincoln, Kansas presented a stark counterpoint by effusively praising the film: “There is a lot of comedy, some smut, but it is entertaining…”

S: The complaints of the contemporaries are different from the ones modern audiences would have. There are a few racial stereotypes here, the most glaring being the performance of Fred "Snowflake" Toones which is brief. I actually got a laugh from the tribal band parading down the street with a sign calling themselves "Scat Kanetta and his Zulu Rascals," a play on real-life bands like Nat Gonella and His Georgians. If you didn't know anything about music from this era, the joke would slip right over your head.

The fast-pacing and zany brand of comedy remind me of Million Dollar Legs from 1932, which fared better with reviewers. It seems that Jack Pearl's popularity was fleeting, so maybe his quick rise and fall had something to do with the lackluster response. By the release of this film in 1933, no one cared anymore. It certainly couldn't be the presence of the established and rising stars also in the cast because none of them were hurt by this film.

A: This may hurt my good moral standing in the community, but I must state the truth: this is precisely my kind of movie. The jokes are quick and cornball. Jimmy Durante is super-charged; his every moment simultaneously conniving and unrestrainedly verbose. His exclamation after getting rudely awakened, “Disturbing me in the arms of Orpheus!,” is now in my personal repertoire. The girls are sweet (ZaSu) and sexy (those glamorous Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Girls). The Stooges may ultimately steal the show (notwithstanding the extraneous Ted Healy) but it’s clear why Jack Pearl was such a star—his schtick…sorry, his schteeken is so vitty! Four stars for the Baron.

S: I give it a solid three stars. Fast-paced, entertaining and full of stars you know and love, multiple viewings of Meet the Baron wouldn't hurt anyone (except maybe those guys out in Ellinwood, Kansas or Geneva, Alabama, but let's be honest, how many of those guys are still around anyway?).

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