Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: MEET THE BARON (1933)

This is Pre-Code cinema:

Walter Lang directed it. David O. Selznick produced it. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Tiffany of Hollywood studios, released it -- and lex10 uploaded the clip. To give you some further idea of Meet the Baron, after the clip ends Edna May Oliver calls the campus plumber of Cuddle College. He is Ted Healy, assisted by his Stooges -- Larry Fine and Moe and Jerry Howard. The last of the three is called "Curly" in the course of the film but is billed under his "real" stage name. They introduced themselves earlier in the picture rowing a gondola through a flooded basement. Neither Healy nor his stooges are much interested in working until they learn that the shower room has gone dry with all the women naked and waiting for water. They must respect the proprieties, however, even though the girls have gotten hold of their robes by the time the plumbers show up. Nevertheless, Healy et al blindfold themselves, promising that they can see nothing through them until Curly spies a dime in a corner. Their prowess as plumbers, of course, is well known to history. It's the funniest bit in the movie, and that's the problem -- Healy and company are not the stars, and the stars are not very funny.

Meet the Baron is one of Hollywood's attempt to exploit the rival medium of radio. The studios seemed to think they could top radio by offering audiences what radio could not: the stars "in person," seen as well as heard. The "Baron" is "the famous Baron Munchausen of the air," identified only afterward as Jack Pearl, who adapted his Munchausen shtick to radio in 1932 and became a phenomenon. The idea is self-evident; the Baron recounted his exploits in a European accent thick with malapropisms to a skeptical interlocutor. Like many radio sensations, Pearl put over a national catchphrase; when challenged by the interlocutor, the Baron riposted, "Vas you dere, Sharlie?" M-G-M's brilliant idea was to deconstruct the radio Munchausen in what proves a kind of origin story. Herman J. Mankiewicz, future co-author of Citizen Kane, and Norman Krasna decided that Pearl's character should not be the "real" Baron Munchausen, whom they imagined as a legitimate world explorer, but the great man's incompetent assistant, lost with him and another aide in Africa for years. When the true Baron abandons his aides, taking their last water with him, the two stooges (for want of a better term) are found by a rescue expedition that mistakes Pearl for Munchausen. Since the rescuers have said they're only interested in finding the Baron, the second stooge, Joe McGoo, convinces Pearl to keep up the imposture. The men become world heroes and are contracted for a lecture tour (that takes them to Cuddle College in scenic Cuddle-on-the-Hudson), including a high-profile radio appearance. To minimize the risk of embarrassment, McGoo insists that "Munchausen" can utter no more than 2,000 words on the radio. At Cuddle, Pearl falls for one of the maid staff (ZaSu Pitts) but faces exposure when the real Baron, who made it out of Africa incognito, learns of the false Baron's fame and decides to confront him. Thanks to an embarrassing letter, Pearl turns back this challenge, but when a cousin recognizes and identifies him as his real self it looks like the end for the famous Baron Munchausen, except that America apparently found him entertaining whether he told the truth or not.

I probably set myself up for a "Vas you dere, Sharlie?" when I say that I can't comprehend Pearl's popularity. The problem, I think, is that seeing is not believing. Like many a radio star, despite any background in vaudeville, Jack Pearl simply lacks screen presence. He really is nothing but a voice, and while that voice could evoke anything the listener might imagine, the reality of Pearl in person is rather lackluster. The deck was stacked against him, however, since M-G-M stuck him with that Pre-Code incubus of comedy, Jimmy "Schnozzle" Durante in the role of Joe McGoo. Followers of the Pre-Code Parade should know my low opinion of Durante by now, but I do have to acknowledge that he tops Pearl in every respect. As a team, they're redundant, since both rely heavily on malaprop humor, probably the least cinematic form of comedy yet one that dominated radio, Pearl being little different in this respect from Amos 'n Andy.  I can understand the appeal of malaprop (as well as dialect) humor in an era when few immigrants were yet fully assimilated into American culture, and I can also see a class element in Durante's use of it as an ethnic social climber trying to sound smarter than he actually is. But that sort of comedy doesn't have anything to stick to now in the 21st century, and malaprop comedians suffer for it. When Durante's dialogue ceases to be funny we're left with an obnoxious narcissist whose raw pushiness may still have appealed to Depression audiences rooting for aggressive survivors but again leaves us cold today. To us, speaking for myself, he simply sucks the air out of any room he's in, suffocating the comics forced to partner with him -- Buster Keaton being his most unfortunate victim. The only performer I've yet seen who could stand up to Durante in this period was Marion Davies. Though her encounter with Durante in Blondie of the Follies is brief, she's able to trump his monologue on Grand Hotel -- Edmund Goulding directed both films -- and a supposed Barrymore impersonation with her own Garbo bit. By comparison, Jack Pearl is helpless against him, while the Stooges cheat. Rather than attempting to top Durante's jokes, they get to throw water in his face and throw him down a flight of stairs.

Of course, while Jack Pearl is long forgotten (vas he dere, Sharlie?) and Durante is remembered by most people as a Christmas cartoon character, the Three Stooges are immortal -- they've just been reincarnated on film, after all. There's a lesson in this. Their and Healy's humor may have been deemed more lowbrow than Durante's or Pearl's, but it's easily more cinematic. Moe, Larry and Jerry don't quite seem fully formed here, understandably given their subservience to Healy. Moe suffers the most since he can't dominate the other two with Healy around, while Curly is the most confrontational toward their boss. Ted Healy was an okay comic character actor and remained so after breaking up with the Stooges and until his mysterious death in 1937, but modern viewers probably can't help feeling that he adds nothing to the act he headlines. He doesn't seem sufficiently superior to the Stooges to justify his power over them; that seems more a matter of pure brute force than the unexplained yet obvious loyalties that hold the Stooges themselves together -- do Moe, Curly or Shemp even acknowledge one another as brothers in any of their pictures? At least in this picture, Healy strikes me as a sort of padrone figure, the sort of fixer who could find work for immigrants in past generations, upon whom his workers might well feel resentfully dependent. Healy reinforces the Stooges in our minds as more essentially working-class comics than many of their contemporaries, but the Stooges work better as a more egalitarian trio despite Moe's bossiness -- he can only ever claim a lion's share of nothing, so while he may play the bully he's never really the master the way Healy seems to be. Only when free of Healy would the Stooges really figure out where they stood with each other in order to secure their place in comedy history. It'd be wrong to say they steal Meet the Baron from Durante -- they don't really have enough screen time to do it -- but it's bound to seem as if they do to modern viewers -- and poor Pearl isn't even in the running. Even ZaSu Pitts doing her proto-Olive Oyl act tops the star of the picture. It's no surprise to learn that Pearl made only one more film for M-G-M. Like Joe Penner, he's proof that radio comedy doesn't translate automatically into film comedy.

Overall, as the clip may suggest, Meet the Baron is as overproduced as you might expect a Selznick production for M-G-M to be. The Cuddle College student body (billed as "The M-G-M Girls") are introduced in an elaborate patter-song sequence with rhyming dialogue in a style briefly in vogue, but the sequence barely seems related to the early African scenes. Especially overproduced is a number marking Pearl's triumphant arrival in New York, highlighted by a singing Statue of Liberty and not one but three Mae West impersonators -- they do the voice and the costume.  Non-Stooge bits of physical comedy are mostly bad. Pearl suffers an interminable ride on a bucking mule in one of the lamest bits. Durante has one good sight gag as he tries to keep track of Pearl's word count during the radio interview; he covers the walls of an office with tallies before thinking to use a convenient adding machine. Meet the Baron is more curio than comedy, since even the Stooges are far from at their best. Nor does anything else in the picture approach the shower scene on the Pre-Code Scorecard. My best guess is that Meet the Baron is mainly for Stooges completists and would-be pop-culture historians. It counts as a chapter in the history of American comedy -- or more accurately as a page turning from one short chapter to a longer one.

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