Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Jack Pearl, The Baron Munchausen of the Air

Few early American radio comedians shone as brightly and burnt out as quickly as Jack Pearl, aka Baron Munchausen. Pearl rose from stage stardom to radio superstardom to film stardom and back to square one in the space of about three years. Not even Joe Penner, the very definition of a one-note 1930s radio comic, fell as quickly from public favor as Pearl. Previously a multi-talented vaudevillian and Ziegfeld headliner, Jack Pearl's radio notoriety rested on his skillful characterization as Baron Munchausen, the famous German teller of tall tales, and his joke-laden attempts to convince his skeptical stooge Cliff Hall, aka "Charlie", of his exploits were practically Pearl's entire radio act. Following every utterance of disbelief from Hall, the Baron would counter with a stern "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" as in:
BARON: Vunce I vas traveling through the Sahara desert, und I met a man mit two heads!

CLIFF: A man with two heads? That's ridiculous, Baron.

BARON: Vass you dere, Sharlie?
The premise of his 1932-33 series was slight, but it allowed Pearl ample opportunity to display his appealing personality, his skill at dialect, and his razor-sharp timing, no more or less than was demanded of other early radio stars such as Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn (and Joe Penner got away with even less). In 1933, Jack Pearl's fame had reached such heights that he was summoned to MGM, the most prestigious studio in Hollywood, to star in his first feature, Meet The Baron. MGM, in a radio comedy two-fer, had just recently signed Ed Wynn, also at the peak of his radio fame, to appear in The Chief. Of MGM's two 1933 radio-movies, Meet the Baron is the better. The Chief, as abrasive and contrived a comedy as MGM ever made, was so soundly panned by audiences and critics that Wynn wouldn't appear in another live-action film until The Great Man in 1956. Meet the Baron, on the other hand, had charm and some genuine laughs, easily one of the best comedies MGM made in the early 1930s. Pearl plays the Baron as a phony named Julius who, egged on by his pal Jimmy Durante (a teaming that made sense!), cons his way into a speaking engagement at the all-girl Cuddle College. MGM surrounded Pearl with better known faces such as Edna May Oliver (as the College Dean, naturally), Zasu Pitts (Pearl's love interest), and Ted Healy and his stooges who create havoc as the university's not-so-handymen. Even Pearl's old vaudeville comedy partner Ben Bard appears as "Charlie". Pearl's second starring feature for MGM, Hollywood Party (1934), was a legendary disaster in its own time having been helmed by six different directors with a script that was being rewritten almost daily. It was intended to be MGM's comedy answer to their own all star dramatic feature Grand Hotel (1932), but without a strong narrative thread to hold everything together, the film remains little more than a string of weak comedy blackouts with most of the comedians standing apart from each other (Ted Healy and his stooges and Laurel and Hardy interacting?? The mind reels). This time around, the Baron is genuine and has been summoned by fading jungle movie star Shnarzan (Jimmy Durante) to deliver live lions to his party as a publicity gimmick. The talents of everyone involved are wasted with the exceptions of Laurel and Hardy who were fortunate enough to have brought their own director and material with them from Hal Roach. The film even resorts to near-plagiarism with a scene quite a bit more than inspired by the "Hooray For Captain Spaulding" number from the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers (1930).

Ben Bard and Jack Pearl perform their vaudeville
double act in a DeForest Phonofilm of 1926

After appearing in this critically-denounced curiosity, Pearl returned exclusively to the airwaves where he found himself rapidly fading from favor. By September of 1934, his second series, pulling in half the audience of his first, was cancelled. For the next seventeen years, Pearl would struggle to regain the fame he had enjoyed but to no avail. Although he was never really out of work on radio, new series such as Peter Pfeiffer (1935), Jack and Cliff (1948), and The Baron and the Bee (a Munchausen-themed quiz show, 1952), weren't exactly the kinds of vehicles Pearl needed to make his mark in the new character-driven radio comedy world of Jack Benny and Bob Hope. While Ed Wynn found new fame in the 1950s and Joe Penner continued in B comedies until his death in 1940, Jack Pearl was consigned to the radio doldrums for the rest of his career. Pearl's biggest handicap as a performer was his apparent insecurity. Reluctant to give up a "good thing", he continued to fall back on the "liar and stooge" format even as audiences were tuning him out in droves. He refused to experiment or grow as a comedian believing to the end that his German shtick was the key to his success. In the mid-1930s, Jack Benny himself warned Pearl that he was overusing his catchphrase and suggested he give it a rest for a few weeks. "Are you out of your mind?" replied Pearl. "'Vass you dere' is the biggest thing on my show! The listeners can't wait for it! If I don't do it each time, they'll be disappointed!" Pearl's inflexibility is amply illustrated in a bit of newsreel footage excerpted in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's 1987 documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. Likely dating from 1933 when both Keaton and Pearl were under contract at MGM (and sharing Jimmy Durante as co-star), the two comedians appear dockside after an ocean cruise. Pearl is determined to use Buster as his disbelieving stooge in an umpteenth rehashing of his radio shtick, but Buster is having none of it. He deliberately sabotages the bit, apparently after having told Pearl before the camera started rolling that he would play along. Poor Pearl is incapable of recovering after Buster throws him off.
PEARL: Un dere in the middle uv de ocean vas my Aunt Sophie! (waits for straight line, doesn't receive it) Und vat do you think she vas doing there?

KEATON: I haven't the slightest idea...

PEARL: Light-housecleaning! (angrily) Vy don't you say something??
At the end of the clip, Pearl becomes so frustrated that he growls and grabs Buster's face in mock violence. In the coming years, I imagine he felt much the same towards the audience that had deserted him.

Jack Pearl died December 25, 1984.

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Blogger Kevin K. said...

I'm one of the few people who enjoy "Hollywood Party." I think with a studio more in synch with weird humor -- Paramount, say -- it would've been a classic. (Notice how even the lighting changes from scene to scene as each hapless director takes a turn salvaging it.) Any movie with Jimmy Durante doing a proto-rap song about reincarnation deserves a viewing by movie fans.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous carry on luggage size us airways said...

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7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a student at the Sorbonne in Paris and I am preparing a thesis on David O'Selznick and the radio...I read with interest the comments made on this blog about Jack Pearl and Baron Munchausen; can you tell me if there are similarities in the plot between the radio show and the movie, Meet the Baron? Is it the same story? Are there common dialogues?

Thank you very much for your attention.

Best regards

4:11 AM  

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