Jack Pearl is little remembered today, but in the early days of radio he was famous for playing Baron Munchausen, a character with a thick German accent who would recount ludicrous adventures he claimed to have had, responding to skepticism by asking “Vass you dere, Charlie?” which soon became a national catchphrase.
Pearl’s Baron Munchausen was based loosely on a fictional character who was based in turn on a real 19th century Baron Münchhausen. The real Münchhausen was well known as a teller of wild stories about his military career in the Russian army fighting against the Turks. It’s likely that he never meant the stories to be taken too seriously, only meaning to entertain his audience.
But his accounts later inspired some published stories and eventually to an English-language book by German-born writer and scientist Rudolf Erich Raspe, who had fled to England to escape prosecution for theft. Raspe’s book was popular enough to be pirated in an expanded edition and later translated into Raspe’s own native German with yet more additional stories. For more, see the Wikipedia article on Baron Munchausen.
At the start of this ultra-lightweight MGM musical, Jack Pearl and Jimmy Durante are left to die in the jungle by the “real” Baron Munchausen, but are fortunately rescued by explorers who mistake Pearl for the baron. Fearful of being abandoned again (the rescuers seem a bit dodgy), he and Durante play along. Soon Pearl, still pretending to be the baron, is the toast of New York, where he’s interviewed on the radio and invited to lecture at Cuddle College, a women’s school upstate.
There Pearl develops a romantic crush on chambermaid ZaSu Pitts while the whole college is menaced by its janitorial staff consisting of Ted Healy and his Stooges. The Stooges are credited as Larry Fine, Moe Howard, and Jerry Howard, this being I believe the first screen appearance of Jerome Howard, the Stooge latter known as Curly. It wasn’t the first appearance of the Stooges, however; they had previously guest-starred in Rube Goldberg’s Soup to Nuts (1930), reviewed here, with Shemp as the third Stooge.
Meet the Baron is mainly a mass of gags interrupted by some songs, but despite having been directed by Walter Lang (The King and I, There’s No Business Like Show Business) and co-written by such famous names as Herman J. Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane, The Pride of the Yankees), Norma Krasna (Indiscreet, White Christmas) and others, it’s not very good.
There is one very memorable musical number, however: The college students, played by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Girls, sing, dance, and shower in a vast science-fictional shower room, which is exactly my sort of shower room. The scene is way too short so I had to watch it several times, to study the cinematic techniques and so forth.
There are also some moderately amusing bits here and there. For example, at one point Durante and Pearl are taking shelter from Stooge mayhem under a bed and an annoyed Durante says, “Humiliatin’, that’s what it is! Under a bed and no husband in sight!”
Here’s the trailer:
Here’s a clip showing Pearl, Durante, Ted Healy and His Stooges, and ZaSu Pitts sounding a fair amount like Olive Oyl:
Incidentally, while ZaSu Pitts (full name Eliza Susan Pitts) was a popular comic actress in silent and sound films and on television in the 1950s, she also played serious roles, including a celebrated one as the female lead in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924). Alas, I’ve never seen that film, and in fact only dozen people saw von Stroheim’s original cut running over nine hours that no longer exists. A four-hour restored version is supposed to be remarkably good, however. She also had a major role opposite Stroheim in the film Wedding March (1928) as part of a romantic triangle with Faye Wray (best known for a later romance with King Kong). These interconnections reflect Atkinson’s Law of Connectedness: “Everything relates back to mayonnaise.”
Anyway, for serious students of cinema, here’s the science fictional shower scene I mentioned, which demonstrates that the Hays Office didn’t strictly enforce the vile Motion Picture Production Code until the following year: