Tonight i’d like to write and share a little bit about The Battle Of The Century… Not particularly episode 21 of Boardwalk Empire, but the ‘pie-throwing’ colossal of all time. Having started rewatching the entire Laurel and Hardy collection of films (chronologically) and having finished John McCabe’s Mr Laurel & Mr Hardy, I felt it was very necessary to share a chunk from something very important. The following read, is very fascinating.
In an essay of films, The Golden Age, Henry Miller speaks of The Battle of the Century:
And after thousands of slap-stick, pie-throwing Mack Sennett films, after Charlie Chaplin had exhausted his bag of tricks, after Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, each with his own special brand of monkey shines, came the chef d’oeuvre of all the slap-stick, pie-throwing festivals, a film the very title of which I forget, but it was among the very first films starring Laurel and Hardy.
This, in my opinion, is the greatest comic film ever made – because it brought the pie-throwing to apotheosis. There was nothing but pie-throwing in it, nothing but pies, thousands and thousands of pies and everybody throwing them right and left. It was the ultimate in burlesque, and it is already forgotten.
But not quite.
One day at the studio while the gag men were sitting about discussing plot lines, someone came up with an idea for a film for Laurel and Hardy. The plot was a thin one but the idea man suggested an embellishment. “We could even slip a few pies into it and -” He was hooted down. Pies, after all, were pies. that was early Sennett, mid-Chaplin, and late everybody. This was 1927, an enlightened age. Despite this general reaction, Stan pondered the idea and brought forth what he hoped would be a variation good enough for consideration. “Look,” he said, “if we make a pie picture – let’s make a pie picture to end all pie pictures. Let’s give them so many pies that there will never be room for any more pie pictures in the whole history of the movies.”
His idea was accepted on general principle and gag men went to work. At the same time the purchasing agent brought the pies. Miller’s recollection was not exaggerated. There were thousands and thousands of pies, and they were real pies, not studio substitutes. They were custard, cherry, blueberry, raspberry, coconut, banana, and lemon cream – the works. A total day’s output of The Los Angeles Pie Company was purchased – four thousand pies. The pies were ready, but even a pie picture to end all pie pictures needs a plot. Stan puts it in his own words:
“For some good reason that I can’t think of at the moment, we decided that this should be a fight picture, and for that reason, and because of the gigantic pie conflict in it, we called it The Battle of the Century. Hardy is my manager; I am a prize fighter. A packed arena. I came out for the first round and get knocked out cold with one blow. Fade out. Fade in. The arena again, only now it is completely empty. I am still out on the deck. Hardy is leaning on ringside, looking into the camera and showing plenty of weariness. Fade out. Next day, we’re sitting on a park bench, looking miserable. A guy passing us (played by Eugene Pallette) is an insurance agent and he suggests to Hardy that he should take out an insurance policy on me as I am very likely to get hurt and that means money in the bank. It’s a cut-rate insurance company he owns. The company gives $500 at a two-buck fee for a single broken leg or arm. Hardy borrows the two dollars from me and pays up (Hardy has taken the guy aside so I can’t hear any of this). Hardy then takes me for a walk around town trying various methods to get me in an accident. He walks me under ladders where construction is going on, and he gets conked instead. He passes a fruit stand and buys a banana. As we are walking along, he peels it and throws the skin in front of me so that i’ll slip on it. I unknowingly step over it. He picks it up, drops it in back of him, and leads me around to walk on it again – and, of course, he slips on it and crashes to the ground.
“We come to a bakery shop with a pie wagon standing in front. Hardy drops the peel for me on the sidewalk there, and the pieman comes along with a big tray of pies, and slips on the peel. He’s covered with pies. As he clears his eyes, he happens to see Hardy pushing the banana into my hand, and realizes that Hardy is trying to put the blame on me. An argument starts, ending up with the pieman pushing a pie in Hardy’s face. I resent this and push a pie in the pieman’s face. Hardy laughs at this and the guy instead of hitting me back hits Hardy with another pie. At this point, a stranger passing by tries to stop the argument, and gets the pie in the face, too. Gradually, one by one, other people get into the argument until finally the entire street, a full block, is pie-crazy. Everybody is pie-throwing happy. The camera goes up to take a panorama view of all these people throwing, throwing, throwing. There are pies thrown into a dentist’s office, in windows, out of them. Nothing but pies – thousands of them. Then a cop who, of course, is all covered with pie arrests us and is taking us away, but he slips on the banana peel – and he falls down a manhole for the finish.”
That, as nearly as words can do it, gives a very full picture of The Battle of the Century. It is one of the great comedy films of all time, and today it leads a lonely life in the vaults of the Hal Roach studio.
It is written on Wikipedia(and many other sources) that The Great Race paid homage to early Mack Sennett films with a grand Pie Fight =
The pie fight scene paid homage to the early Mack Sennett practice of using a single thrown pie as comedic punctuation, but to a greater degree it was a celebration of classic movie pie fights such as Charlie Chaplin’s Behind the Screen (1916), The Battle of the Century (1927) starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and The Three Stooges’ In the Sweet Pie and Pie from 1941. In his script for The Great Race Edwards called for a “Battle of the Century-style pie fight”. Though Edwards used 4,000 pies over five days, many of these were used as set dressing for continuity. Laurel and Hardy used 3,000 pies in only one day of shooting, so more are seen flying through the air. Leonard Maltin compared The Great Race pie fight to The Battle of the Century and determined that Laurel and Hardy’s pacing was far superior; that the more modern film suffered from an “incomplete understanding of slapstick” while the 1927 pie fight remains “one of the great scenes in all of screen comedy.”
Pie-fighting has been such a significant part of history. Industrial Squid’s ‘A Pie in the Hand’, talks a little bit about the history of pie fights.
In 1909, Ben Turpin was hit in the face by a pie in the film Mr. Flip. He rather deserved it as he trundled from establishment to establishment, tickling and goosing all the girls on the neck or cheek, looking for some affection, taking it where he could. He hit on the telephone operator, the girl behind the bar, the manicurist, and the lady barber, all to be done in by a prop from their specific trade (he gets shocked, sprayed with seltzer, sits on a pair of scissors, and thoroughly brushed with shaving cream, respectively.) In the last scene, undaunted, he tried his hand on the girl at the lunch counter and swiftly received a pie in the face. One of the classic and gold standard of all sight gags was born as this is said to be the first film to capture this gag.
Depending on who you ask, the first custard-pie-in-the-face on screen occurred in the comedy A Noise From the Deep (1913), in which Mabel Normand, playing a farm girl, throws a pie into the Pie-hole of the ever funny and rotund farmhand Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
The final scene that was filmed yet cut from the end of Dr. Strangelove, in which everyone in the war room engaged in a pie fight. Apparently, Kubrick cut the scene due to the fact that everyone looked to be having too much fun and it ultimately didn’t fit the tone of the film. Accounts vary as to why the pie fight was cut. In a 1969 interview, Kubrick said: “I decided it was farce and not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film.” Critic Alexander Walker observed that “the cream pies were flying around so thickly that people lost definition, and you couldn’t really say whom you were looking at.” Nile Southern, son of screenwriter Terry Southern, suggested the fight was intended to be less jovial. “Since they were laughing, it was unusable, because instead of having that totally black, which would have been amazing, like, this blizzard, which in a sense is metaphorical for all of the missiles that are coming, as well, you just have these guys having a good old time. So, as Kubrick later said, ‘it was a disaster of Homeric proportions.'”
The Guardian even posted a short article a few years ago on the ‘Culture of Custard Pies’ (in the wake of the Rupert Murcoch pie incident).
In 1970, rock critic Lester Bangs wrote a review of the Stooges’ album Fun House in which he spent the first 6,000 words musing on the divide between artist and fan. The only real way of judging an artist’s worth, he decided, was to fling a custard pie in their face and see how they responded. Alice Cooper, he noted, had reacted to his own on stage pieing by gleefully rubbing the custard into his pores, and Iggy Pop would no doubt similarly thrive off the mayhem. Bangs predicted that most big stars (George Harrison, Richie Havens, Led Zeppelin), however, would simply storm off the stage in a huff.
Pies have been flung in many areas of culture. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow includes a custard pie fight between passengers on a plane and an air balloon. Terry Johnson’s play Dead Funny had people flinging pies during a wake for Benny Hill, juxtaposing the slapstick with the less comical topic of a marriage breakdown.
Just as a well-flung pie could enliven a staid live performance, so pies injected new energy into children’s TV when the phantom flan flinger ran riot on Tiswas. Comedy is the natural home of the custard pie, of course. Laurel and Hardy’s Battle of the Century, described by the Guardian’s Xan Brooks as “the ur-text of custard pie movies”, could keep Gregg’s in business for years, while Buster Keaton worked tirelessly on the art of the perfect pie chuck.
Of all the pie fights in history, no one better than Laurel and Hardy have ever pulled off such an iconic feat. The closest comparison in my own memory was that of a pickle The Three Stooges got into, In the Sweet Pie And Pie.
Greenbriar Picture Shows created a posting last year detailing the many battles, Laurel and Hardy were faced throughout their film chronology. Brilliantly written, the article takes you through the scenes of wild fire where all things happen to go wrong, but all so right, for the boys. I have to re-post it here =
Laurel and Hardy’s Battles Of The Century
Someone asked John Ford to name his all-time favorite movie and he said Battle Of The Century with Laurel and Hardy. Now I don’t know if Ford was on the level or having sport with an interviewer, but he wasn’t alone for long remembering the comic duo’s skirmishing, not only with pies, but any prop or implement handy. In fact, the title itself, Battle Of The Century, was more generic to all of (at least silent) Laurel and Hardy than specific to a 1927 comedy where pastry were extensively tossed. Follow-ups built on Battle’s momentum by pitting the boys against tit-for-tat humanity that fought not only with custard, but mud, soup, torn trousers … anything that could strip away decorum.
And so it was that Laurel and Hardy first seized a public through mutual destruction. Exhibitors would describe their subjects in terms of “another Battle Of The Century.” They had slowed the pace of two-reelers on one hand, and ramped levels of violence on the other, and make no mistake, early Laurel and Hardys were violent, many of their shorts ending in mass combat. Where shin-kicking and pants-ripping was funny between Stan and Babe, imagine a screenful of extras brought into the melee. The greater a crowd’s laughter, the grander scales went. Two Tars saw lines of cars demolished toward a horizon’s infinity, with Laurel and Hardy giving better than they got.
Theirs were some of the loudest silent comedies going for carnage shown. Theatre sound-effect techs surely ran wild on these. I’d like knowing whose suggestion it was to make reciprocal wreckage an ongoing format (Leo McCarey?). Best evidence of how Laurel and Hardy were perceived by their audience came with a brace of personal appearances at San Francisco’s Fox Theatre in November, 1929. Reviews of the team’s stage performance indicate rough-and-tumble nearly equivalent to a wrestling match, Laurel and Hardy de-clothing not only each other, but bandleader Rube Wolf and stooge plant from the audience, Charlie Hall. All were forcibly stripped of outerwear and in Hall’s case, tossed into the orchestra pit.
Fans today might be shocked if they could go back and see such coarse play as Stan and Babe engaged for a 1929 crowd conditioned by L&H shorts to expect comedy as extreme contact sport. Each night found them exiting the stage in tatters. The Laurel and Hardy of later, and by comparison, genteel touring, came a long road from this. Did a stock market crashing just ahead of their Frisco brawl have anything to do with L&H ferocity on stage? I’m guessing roughhouse played out to avoid its going stale, and besides, arrival of sound would permit emphasis to be spread along not just physical, but verbal, ground.
June 1929’s Men O’ War is a best illustration of this, its initial two-thirds given to spoken back-and-forth between Laurel/Hardy and girl acquaintances met in a park. There is a soda fountain routine that plays mostly in dialogue, Laurel and Hardy’s voices so ideally suitable that, from here, you’d not imagine them any other way (would 30’s patronage have sat for old L&H silents?). It’s only a final third of Men O’ War that harks back to take this/take that of prior approach, primitive sound recording and a stationary camera rendering much of this awkward and not a little forced (then why is Men O’ War one of my favorites of all Laurel and Hardy?).
The two-fro format worked better in brief once talkies took, and less than that for features they’d do. Not that battles of the century were abandoned. Popularity of 1934’s Them Thar Hills and follow-up Tit For Tat was welcoming back of happy days with Laurel and Hardy unplugged and going again to the mat with old adversary Charlie Hall. So many tricks now in their bag enabled the team to eschew reliance on such singular approach however, thus song (Pardon Us), a children’s story (Babes In Toyland), even dancing on occasion (Way Out West). Age would have made the rugged stuff unseemly in any event — these weren’t the Three Stooges, after all.
Later touring (as above) saw Laurel and Hardy using a desk and chair in their Driver’s License routine, and even a hospital bed for a sketch in which Hardy was immobilized, but still able to put across the gags and repartee. 1939 patronage, as opposed to 1929’s, would probably have been alarmed to see Laurel and Hardy tearing away the other’s trousers on stage. Had those ten years made comedy a kinder and gentler pursuit? When the boys turned back clocks in the forties by sparring with Edgar Kennedy in Air Raid Wardens, said reunion played like rose-hue nostalgia.
Silent shorts of violent yesteryear were in any case vault-bound and not to be re-seen until Robert Youngson put back the Battle Of Centuries label on now old-time act Laurel and Hardy in 1957’s The Golden Age Of Comedy. Youngson’s compilations and availability of mute shorts on 8 and 16mm made new generations realize just how wild and wooly Laurel and Hardy once were. Youngson saw increased appetite for cut-loose slapstick and made The Further Perils Of Laurel and Hardy (1967) all about The Great Soup, Water, Mud, and Furniture Fights the team had waged back when.
The compiling producer did in fact turn clocks back to 1929 setting when Laurel and Hardy were bywords for battling. It was sound marketing and I well remember Further Perils’ sustained hour-and-a-half of tit-for-tat mayhem. These fights to the last goo were what Blake Edwards had in mind when he dedicated The Great Race and its epic pie war to Stan and Oliver. With their silent shorts currently out of DVD print, and no revival in sight, even The Further Perils Of Laurel and Hardy stays withdrawn, presumably for keeps. There is but occasional glimpse when TCM runs a packet of L&H silents during late-night. These are Library Of Congress polishes with best-ever quality on several of the titles (Two Tars never looked so good as here), making anticipation all the keener for UCLA’s promised restoration of the whole Hal Roach Laurel and Hardy canon.