#621) The Battle of the Century (1927)
OR “Pie Anxiety”
Directed by Clyde Bruckman
Written by H.M. Walker
Class of 2020
The Plot: Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy team up as, respectively, the boxer Canvasback Clump and his unnamed manager. Clump is handily defeated by the brawny Thunderclap Callahan (Noah Young), and the manager signs an insurance policy in which he receives the money if Clump is injured. An attempt to get Clump to slip on a banana peel escalates into the titular battle: the pie fight to end all pie fights.
Why It Matters: The NFR’s rundown is mostly an examination of the film’s status as lost-and-found, though they do call the short “a classic” and single out the “renowned pie-fighting sequence”.
But Does It Really?: We all know why we’re here; “The Battle of the Century” was lost for decades, with enough bits and pieces showing up throughout the years to warrant a restoration (more about that in “Legacy”). Historical significance aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I love me some Laurel & Hardy, and the two are in fine form with their trademark physical slapstick and mugging. The film has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and the pie-fight finale earns its reputation as the best in movie history. As with many movies on this blog, I am grateful to the tireless efforts of film historians and preservationists who rediscovered “The Battle of the Century” and got the film into the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: While obviously not their only NFR entry, this is a good place to discuss the origins of Laurel & Hardy. Stan Laurel got his start playing music halls in his native England, arriving in the United States as part of a theater tour. In 1926 Laurel signed with Hal Roach Studios as a gag writer, director, and occasional actor. It was here that he started working with Roach company player Oliver Hardy, a native Georgian who was pursuing a Hollywood career after the Florida film industry started to buckle. Although the two appeared together in the 1921 short “The Lucky Dog”, and both appeared but share no scenes in 1926’s “45 Minutes from Hollywood”, they were not paired together until 1927’s “Duck Soup” (no connection to the Marx Brothers movie) and became an immediate hit with moviegoers. “The Battle of the Century” was their 16th film together, and the 6th official “Laurel & Hardy” short.
- The print I watched of “Battle” was the UCLA restoration, which begins with an explanation of the film’s condition. The film proper opens with the musical score punctuating Leo the Lion’s silent roars with a honking sound. As another comedy legend would say, “Oh, a wise guy, ay?”
- This movie comes out swinging with a great joke where Laurel’s boxing moniker is “The Human Mop”. I laughed out loud pretty much through all of this movie.
- No offense to Noah Young, the actor playing Thunderclap Callahan, but boy is that a face that takes some getting used to. He looks like Fredric March turning into Mr. Hyde.
- Apparently Lou Costello makes an early film appearance as a ringside spectator. From what I can tell, Costello was working as an extra at MGM at the time, so I guess that scans?
- Even in a silent film, I can hear Laurel’s whimpering and Hardy’s exasperated outbursts.
- In the restored print, there is only one scene missing, with surviving still photos utilized to fill in the gaps. The scene in question involves longtime character actor and equally longtime racist Eugene Pallette, so maybe that footage can stay lost.
- The second reel begins with a pretty solid banana peel gag, with Hardy trying to get Laurel to slip so he can collect the insurance money on him. Even a simple raising of the stakes helps elevate a banana peel gag. Speaking of classic comedy bits…
- The old pie-in-the-face gag dates back to vaudeville and music hall, popularized by British theatre impressario Fred Karno (who a young Stan Laurel once worked for). The first known instance of a filmed pie gag is in the 1909 short “Mr. Flip” with Ben Turpin. While Turpin’s pieing was a hand-held attack, Mack Sennett is the one who allegedly popularized the pie throw in his films. By the time “Battle of the Century” came around, the pie-in-the-face gag was already a comedy cliché. Stan Laurel proposed a pie fight for this film and while initially met with hesitation from Hal Roach, convinced him with the added hook to “give them so many pies that there will never be room for any more pie pictures in the whole history of the movies.”
- With all this context out of the way, man oh man does that pie fight not disappoint. A pie in the face is never not funny to me, and the whole sequence brilliantly escalates, throwing every conceivable gag at a relentless speed. The story goes that over 3,000 pies were freshly baked by the Los Angeles Pie Company to be thrown in this scene. And Laurel confirmed in his later years that those were actual pies being thrown, as opposed to the common substitute of whipped cream in a tin plate.
- Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy continued to work as a comedy duo on stage and screen for the next 25 years. Laurel & Hardy are represented elsewhere on the NFR with their shorts “Big Business” and “The Music Box“, as well as the feature film “Sons of the Desert“.
- Throwing a pie in someone’s face is still a go-to comedy staple (although non-consensual pieing is a crime in several countries, including the U.S.). Everybody from Soupy Sales to Bugs Bunny has thrown a great big custard pie in someone’s face. Even I got into the act a few years ago, planting a cream pie on my manager’s face to celebrate – appropriately enough – Pi Day.
- Yes, there was an attempt to out-pie fight this movie with an even more epic battle in Blake Edwards’ “The Great Race”, but it is debated if that film used as many pies as they claim (4,000 by their estimate, though some of that is set dressing and not actually thrown). Having just re-watched the “Great Race” pie fight, I must say it lacks the overall frenetic energy of the “Battle” pie fight, though Jack Lemmon is clearly having a blast.
- As for this film’s status as a lost film: For many decades, all that was known to survive of “The Battle of the Century” was a three minute edit of the pie-fight, preserved by Robert Youngson for his 1957 compilation film “The Golden Age of Comedy”. Around 2012, film collector Jon Mirsalis came into possession of Youngson’s film library, as well as that of the late preservationist Gordon Berkow; a combined collection of over 2300 films. While cataloguing this collection, Mirsalis discovered Youngson’s complete second reel of “Battle of the Century”, pie fight and all. This, with the addition of a near-complete first reel discovered in the 1970s, marked the rediscovery of the presumed-lost film. “The Battle of the Century” received a restoration through UCLA and the Smithsonian, and was screened for the first time in 2015.