Comedy’s Sweet Weapon: The Cream Pie
By DAN BARRYJULY 8, 2015
Ah, the thrown pie. Among the sweetest delights in life is the sight of an airborne cream-and-crust concoction finding purchase. It is the great leveler, a puncturing of pretension, and those who find pie throwing beneath their refined comic sensibility deserve nothing more than a lemon meringue treat, smack in the kisser.
So it is with unrestrained glee that we share the news of the recovery of a long-missing portion of the greatest pie-throwing fight ever recorded, far superior to the pastry melee of “In the Sweet Pie and Pie,” a 1941 Three Stooges short, or the baked-goods battle in “The Great Race,” a 1965 comedy with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
That, of course, would be the epic custard conflagration in “The Battle of the Century,” a 1927 Laurel and Hardy short that dispensed with 3,000 pies, thrown not with abandon but with slow-burn precision, heightening the comedic effect.
For several decades, the 20-minute, two-reel classic has been missing its second reel, which provided most of the logic for why dozens of people were pelting one another with pastries. Film historians have puttied the gaps in “Battle” with explanatory title cards, but these could never replicate Laurel’s look of thought-free innocence, Hardy’s frown of eternal exasperation.Photo
“The Battle of the Century” from 1927 with Laurel and Hardy. Credit MGM, via Photofest
“It’s been a holy grail of comedy,” the film historian Leonard Maltin said of the second reel. “And that’s not overstating the case.”
But in June, Jon Mirsalis — prominent toxicologist by day, respected film collector and scholar by night — mentioned in passing at a film conference in Virginia that he had come upon the second reel of “The Battle of the Century.”
“There was an audible gasp in the room,” Mr. Mirsalis recalled. It was as if the audience had just been smacked in the face with a — you know.
Before we get into the details of Mr. Mirsalis’s gasp-inducing discovery, which was first reported by Silent London, a website dedicated to silent films, here is some context about the filmic art of pie throwing.
The first thrown pie in the face dates to the Mack Sennett era, probably to a 1913 Fatty Arbuckle short called “A Noise From the Deep.” Pow, some pastry to the mug, and there it was: An innocuous dessert being used as a weapon, leaving stains of cherry, perhaps, but not of blood.
“A visual non sequitur,” Steve Massa, a film historian and author, calls it. Absurd. Anarchic. Funny.
By the late 1920s, though, a pie fight was akin to shooting a man in the seat of his pants and having him jump up and down. The comedy cliché had become so familiar, Mr. Massa said, that it recurs more frequently in the collective mind than in actual film.
Those who have spent a lot of time contemplating thrown pies generally agree that the humor depends entirely on the setup — the raison d’être for that in-the-face moment. Mr. Maltin cited as an example a 1931 comedy short called “Good Pie Forever,” in which a young woman and her boyfriend drive around Brooklyn hitting people — newlyweds, policemen, judges — with pies.
That was it: Driving around, hitting people with pies.
“It is a dreadfully unfunny short,” Mr. Maltin said. “The mechanics of it are all wrong, as well as the comedic fundamentals.”Photo
Scenes from “In the Sweet Pie and Pie,” a Three Stooges short film from 1941. Credit Columbia Pictures
Every once in a while, though, certain special ingredients — fundamentals, context and personality — were blended to create a sublime treat.
In 1927, Hal Roach Studios paired the veteran comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy to create what would become the most beloved comic duo in cinema history. Among their first films that year was a parody of a recent boxing match in which Gene Tunney defeated Jack Dempsey after a referee’s controversial long count.
The gag writers came up with a story line that called for Laurel to lose a “long-count” fight, after which his manager, Hardy, would try to collect on an insurance policy by having Laurel slip on a banana peel (a cliché by then as well). One writer halfheartedly suggested the inclusion of a pie fight, eliciting groans.
But Laurel saw possibility. He later told John McCabe, the author of “Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy: An Affectionate Biography,” that he imagined a kind of Pie Armageddon: “Let’s give them so many pies that there never will be room for any more pie pictures in the whole history of the movies.”
So Hardy drops a banana peel intended for Laurel in front of Ye Olde Pie Shoppe. A pie deliveryman slips on the peel and reciprocates with a pie to Hardy’s face. Hardy throws a pie in return, only to connect with a young woman’s derrière. She turns, receives another in the face, takes her time wiping the goo from her eyes, and stomps over to escalate matters.
Soon pies are hitting everyone: a man in a top hat; a patient in a dentist’s chair; a sewer worker peering from a manhole; a lunch-counter patron; a man preening after his shave and haircut; a woman tending flowers. At one point, Laurel is inside the pie deliveryman’s truck, filling orders for cream-coated people seeking sweet revenge.
“The greatest comic film ever made — because it brought the pie-throwing to apotheosis,” the novelist Henry Miller once wrote. “There was nothing but pie-throwing in it, nothing but pies, thousands and thousands of pies and everybody throwing them right and left.”
With the advent of sound in the late 1920s, silent films became their own cliché and disappeared from movie theaters, including one that featured the pie fight of the century.
Thirty years later, the filmmaker Robert Youngson cobbled together a retrospective called “The Golden Age of Comedy.” During his research, he made a print of the negative of the second reel of “The Battle of the Century” but used only a few scenes of the pie fight in his documentary.
The nitrate negative fell apart and was thrown out. The first reel, which had also been missing, resurfaced in the late 1970s, allowing a new generation to see Laurel’s long-count antics in the ring. But the second reel appeared to be lost forever, its pie-tossed absurdity reduced to the few snippets chosen by Youngson.Photo
Natalie Wood in “The Great Race” from 1965. Credit Warner Bros., via Photofest
In the rarefied world of film enthusiasts, collections are bought, sold, donated, divvied up, passed on. After Mr. Youngson died in 1974, three collectors, including a New Jersey lawyer named Gordon Berkow, bought his library. Mr. Berkow died in 2004, and his family eventually entrusted his collection of more than 2,300 films to Mr. Mirsalis, the toxicologist-cum-cinephile, who had been a friend of Mr. Berkow.
Mr. Mirsalis had these four tons of movie reels trucked to his home in California’s Bay Area — though, in a scene that reminded him of another Laurel and Hardy classic, “The Music Box,” the truck struggled to navigate his neighborhood’s steep hills.
He gradually began working his way through the collection, opening the canisters one by one, loading a reel onto a projector, and watching the long-dead come alive again. The more obscure silents — a Charlie Chase, a Lupino Lane — he might keep; the more obvious he would sell to another collector or maybe a customer on eBay.
When Mr. Mirsalis found a can labeled “Battle of the Century, R2,” he dismissed it as just another chopped-up version. “Ho hum, this isn’t going to be worth much,” he remembered thinking. Earlier this year, though, he threaded the reel into his projector, threw a switch and sent black-and-white specters dancing across a white wall.
As he took in the sight of Laurel and Hardy walking down a street, Mr. Mirsalis realized that something was not quite right. He had never seen this particular moment. Nor the one with a banana seller. Nor the lead-in to the pie fight — “What causes the pie fight,” he said.
His first, colorful response is best left to silent film. His second was, in retrospect, a little naïve, along the lines of: This is cool, but there are entire lost features in this collection.
Mr. Mirsalis had underestimated the Laurel-and-Hardy factor.
Few knew of his discovery until June, when Mr. Mirsalis delivered a talk at the annual “Mostly Lost” film workshop in Culpeper, Va., at which film experts and aficionados gather to help research and identify films in the Library of Congress’s collection.
While discussing his work with the Berkow Collection, Mr. Mirsalis mentioned that he had found all of the second reel of “The Battle of the Century.” He said the audience’s blown-away reaction signaled that even he hadn’t realized the significance of his find.
“I didn’t anticipate what the reaction would be,” he said. “Afterward, I was mobbed with people asking: ‘What are you going to do with it? What are you going to do?’ ” he recalled.
Plans are underway to restore and reunite both reels, which until now have been like Laurel without Hardy. And, perhaps in a year or so, we will see for the first time in nearly a century the pie fight to end all pie fights. Or, as Mr. Mirsalis put it:
“The pie fight, as intended.
Youngson, who won several Academy Awards for his short films, specialized in compilations made with old stock and newsreel footage—daredevils, firemen, failed airplane designs, and the like. For his first feature, The Golden Age of Comedy, he was stitching together scenes from the silent film comedies and wanted The Battle of the Century’s legendary pie fight. He had footage transferred from volatile nitrate to safety stock—but, according to every report, only printed the specific footage he wanted, not the entire second reel. Once he was done re-editing it for his film, he threw out what he didn’t use. So when audiences were finally reintroduced to the film, it was with new cuts and wipes, and a hokey 1950s documentary voiceover.
Shortly after The Golden Age of Comedy was released, the Battle negatives decomposed so completely that they were junked. Only Youngson’s version remained—and he hadn’t printed the first reel at all. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when financier Earl Glick purchased the rights to the Hal Roach library before discovering Roach didn’t actually have copies of most of the films he’d just bought, that anyone even realized how much had been lost. To make good on his reckless investment, Glick funded a global search for prints of the lost film library, but there was no sign of the film’s second reel. In 1979, the first reel did show up: Now modern audiences could finally see the part of the film that contemporary audiences didn’t care about, but not the great pie fight of legend.
It turned out that first half was pretty good! The first reel is no 3,000-pie battle, but it’s surprisingly well-directed and funny. In fact, except for the not-yet-invented Vertigo dolly-zoom, the knockout punch that floors Laurel is remarkably similar to Sugar Ray Robinson’s in Raging Bull, though finding a direct line of influence from Clyde Bruckman to Martin Scorsese is a matter of conjecture. But that was all she wrote for The Battle of the Century; the second half was lost to history forever—just one of those second-law-of-thermodynamics things.[Epic pie fight from The Battle of the Century.]
Just six of the 3,000 pies thrown in The Battle of the Century.
Until this weekend. All these years, a copy of the second reel was apparently sitting unnoticed in the personal collection of Gordon Berkow, a film collector and an amateur preservationist. At the time of his death in 2004 his collection included more than 1,400 prints, which eventually made their way into the hands of Jon Mirsalis in the summer of 2014. Mirsalis began slowly working through the canisters, cataloging and logging the state of each print and deciding which to keep and which to sell. Almost certainly destined for the sell pile: a canister labeled “BATTLE OF THE CENTURY R2.” Prints of Youngson’s edit were common—in fact, Mirsalis already owned one—and the complete second reel, as everyone knew, had crumbled to dust in the ’60s. Mirsalis only recently got around to inspecting the film, an experience he described over email. When he opened the canister, he found twice as much film as he’d expected wound around the reel:
… but sometimes Gordon had other things spliced onto a reel, so I didn’t think much of it. I put it on the projector and I see Stan and Ollie walking down the street. I assume someone is about to get hit with a pie, so I wait… and wait… and wait… and realize there is a whole set of gags playing out before we get to the pie fight. I’m figuring that my memory is just bad so I keep watching, we go through the whole pie fight, and then it’s the end of the reel. That’s when it hits me that I just watched all of R2.
The print in the canister had probably been struck for Robert Youngson during the production of The Golden Age of Comedy—Berkow, along with William K. Everson and Herb Graff, bought Youngson’s personal collection of prints. Mirsalis thinks Berkow made the same mistake he did, assuming Youngson’s print was of the edited version—everyone knew the story—and shelved it. For more than 50 years, it’s been waiting for someone who knew what he was seeing to project it.
Mirsalis is handing the film over to restorationist Serge Bromberg at Paris-based Lobster Films for preservation and an eventual theatrical or home video release. After nearly a century, The Battle of the Century may finally be seen again. But these occasional victories against entropy don’t just happen; without preservationists and collectors, The Battle of the Century would have disappeared forever. And for every film saved, more are well and truly gone. Mirsalis has his own list of lost films he’s still searching for: Lon Chaney in A Blind Bargain and The Chimney’s Secret, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot, Josef von Sternberg’s The Case of Lena Smith, F. W. Murnau’s 4 Devils. When a film like The Battle of the Century miraculously re-emerges, it gives a sense that the teacup, despite what Hawking and Hannibal say, will occasionally reassemble itself. That’s sometimes true, but as every version of The Battle of the Century, no matter how mangled or incomplete, makes hilariously clear, the process is usually one-way: You can’t unthrow a pie.
Matthew Dessem’s biography of Battle of the Century director Clyde Bruckman will be published by the Critical Press in August 2015. Follow him on Twitter.
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June 17 2015 11:37 AM
The Greatest Pie Fight in Cinematic History Has Been Found
A Laurel and Hardy reel thought lost for decades is discovered.By Matthew Dessem
Over the weekend, it was quietly announced at the Library of Congress’ festival of “unidentified, underidentified, or misidentified films” that one of the most deeply mourned lost treasures in film history has reappeared. As reported by Pamela Hutchinson at Silent London, silent film historian Jon Mirsalis unexpectedly rediscovered the second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s 1927 film The Battle of the Century, lost for 60 years. The Battle of the Century is not only a crucial film in the careers of Laurel and Hardy, but it contains the biggest, best, funniest execution of the pie-in-the-face gag in cinematic history. For fans of early film comedy, this discovery is roughly the equivalent of Moby Dick swimming ashore carrying the Holy Grail.
Film historian Anthony Balducci has traced pie throwing on film back to at least 1905, but the Keystone Studios, remembered today for its eponymous cops, ran the bit into the ground in the 1910s. When Buster Keaton started making his own features in 1923, he explained in his autobiography, he forbade pie jokes entirely. But four years later, in September 1927, a virtual unknown named Stan Laurel proposed to revive the gag—by making it bigger than it had ever been before.
For fans of early film comedy, this discovery is roughly the equivalent of Moby Dick swimming ashore carrying the Holy Grail.
Both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had been appearing in films throughout the 1920s, occasionally together, but had only been officially paired together since that June. Although they’d shot the first three Laurel and Hardy films, none had yet been released. Nobody at the Hal Roach Studios knew it at the time, but they were at the center of a unique confluence of cinematic talent: not just Laurel and Hardy, but directorial legends Leo McCarey, George Stevens, and Clyde Bruckman. McCarey and Stevens had their greatest successes ahead of them; Bruckman, the most successful of the group in 1927, hadn’t yet begun his spectacular implosion. The first reel of the new feature seemed like a surefire hit: a parody of the Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney “Long Count Fight,” which had just happened in September of 1927. No one had any particular reason to believe Laurel could pull off the tired pie throws he planned for the second reel. But he had an improvement in mind, as Philip K. Scheuer explained in a Los Angeles Times profile two years later: “His method would consist, simply and directly, of throwing more pies. Not one, not two, not ten or twenty, but hundreds, even thousands.”
It took some political infighting, but Laurel eventually sold Hal Roach on the idea. The studio bought an entire day’s output of the Los Angeles Pie Co. and, that October director Bruckman staged the greatest pie fight in history: 3,000 pies soaring gloriously through the air. And yet the secret of the film’s success, as Laurel told Scheuer, turned out to be not volume, but pacing:
“It wasn’t just that we threw hundreds of pies,” Laurel explained, “that wouldn’t have been very funny; it really had passed out with Keystone. We went at it, strange as it may sound, psychologically. We made every one of the pies count.
“A well-dressed man strolling casually down the avenue, struck squarely in the face by a large pastry, would not proceed at once to gnash his teeth, wave his arms in the air and leap up and down. His first reaction, it is reasonable to suppose, would be one of numb disbelief. Then embarrassment, and a quick survey of the damage done to his person. Then indignation and a desire for revenge would possess him; if he saw another pie at hand, still unspoiled, he would grab it up and let it fly.”
The Battle of the Century opened in December of 1927 and for a few happy months could be seen in theaters, randomly paired with anything from Lillian Gish’s “throbbing drama of love and sacrifice” The Enemy at the Hippodrome in Murphysboro, Illinois, to Henri Fescourt’s 1925 adaptation of Les Misérables—original running time 359 minutes—at the Bentley Theatre in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. In those days, when films left theaters, they were done: no revival screenings, no television, just a pile of prints melted down to recover the base metals. The last theatrical screenings happened in the summer of 1928, at the kinds of second-rate theaters that pointedly didn’t advertise air conditioning. Audiences who braved the heat were, with a vanishing few exceptions, the last to see The Battle of the Century in its entirety.
It’s not that the film disappeared from living memory so much as it passed into half-remembered legend. Pie throwing quickly became a cliché again, but those who’d seen The Battle of the Century agreed that it had once been executed perfectly. James Agee, Harold Lloyd, and John Ford all named it as one of their favorites, although they couldn’t agree on the title or director, and no one remembered the boxing match, just the pie fight. As Henry Miller (yes, that Henry Miller) put it, “There was nothing but pie throwing in it, nothing but pies, thousands and thousands of pies and everybody throwing them right and left.”
It wasn’t until 1961 that John McCabe published Stan Laurel’s account of the film, finally restoring at least a brief account of the film’s first reel. McCabe believed at the time that the film was “leading a lonely life in the vaults of the Hal Roach Studios.” But he was wrong—four years earlier, the negative had been exhumed for the last time by filmmaker Robert Youngson, probably the first and last person to see it complete since its theatrical run.
Stills from the still unseen footage
The Cutting Continuity Script for
The Battle Of The Century
Here is a crucial page from the script of Battle Of The Century. It shows where the end of reel one and beginning of reel two are. Sadly, the footage of Eugene Pallette was confined to the first reel so that footage is still missing.
Second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century recovered: that’s better than a pie in the face
June 15th. 2015
A cream-filled pie landing – splash – in the face of an adversary is a popular trope of silent slapstick comedy, along with bumbling Keystone Kops and strategically placed banana peel. And now we hear that one of the classic piefights of all time has been rediscovered – the all-out epic splatterfest that crowns Laurel and Hardy’s silent film The Battle of the Century (1927).
That street brawl, involving a van full of pies and a cast of dozens, is gleeful, gore-free carnage – a classic movie moment in its own right. But until now, the fight, and the film it belongs to, have been truncated. The Battle of the Century was formed of two reels, and much of it has been missing since the silent era. The fight itself, or at least most of it, had been preserved, but the rest was not to be found. The first reel was discovered in the late 1970s, but the second reel, which contains the piefight, has been unseen for decades longer.
This weekend, according to reports, the discovery was announced to a group of silent film experts at the Mostly Lost film workshop in Culpeper, Virginia. It seems that the footage was disocvoered by composer and historian Jon Mirsalis among the Gordon Berkow collection – and that Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films will be taking custody of it for preservation work. Unlike most silent movie shows, at the Mostly Lost screenings the audience is encouraged to talk over the film, and make use of their mobile phones. The films on show are all unidentified, and the object of the event is to put names to faces, places and indeed whole films – piecing together gaps in films history and rescuing “lost” films from obscurity. It’s hard to imagine a more appreciative crowd.
The Battle of the Century has its fair share of great slapstick moments, and the new reel promises plenty more. The plot concerns Stan Laurel as a hapless boxer and Oliver Hardy as his unscrupulous pal trying to make some cash from his misfortune via an insurance scam. When a banana peel dropped on the pavement to floor Laurel trips up a passing baker, the flan-flinging begins!
Attendees at the Mostly Lost event were extremely excited by the news, and quick to share it on social media. The Battle of the Century is something of a cult film and its missing scenes are holy grail for slapstick fans. And the rediscovered print is surprisingly high-quality – 16mm, but struck from the original film negative. One delegate, Rob Farr from George Mason University commented on Facebook: “Miracles do happen.”
The rediscovered footage should include the climax of the piefight, including a policeman getting a pie full in the face courtesy of Stan and Ollie. There will be also considerable interest in scenes showing Eugene Pallette, who plays an insurance agent in The Battle of the Century, and went on to a long career in sound films. Other notable names in the cast list include a young Lou Costello as an extra, and Anita Garvin, who falls foul of a pie on the pavement.
The Battle of the Century may well be the find of the year!
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The Restored Battle Of The Century
Re Premieres in Hollywood - February 11th. 2016
Hollywood Heritage played host to a wonderful and most unusual event on February 11th. when the Hollywood Party chapter of
Sons Of The Desert (the official Laurel & Hardy appreciation society) treated attendees to a surprise screening of the once lost and now found
Laurel & Hardy two reel comedy, "The Battle Of The Century" (1927). Archivist and musician Jon Mirsalis flew into Hollywood with the
newly discovered film originally owned by Academy Award winning filmmaker Robert Youngson. For decades, only the first reel and a few minutes
of the second reel were known to survive but a recent inventory of the collection yielded a surprise that has been written about in many
newspapers including the New York Times; the complete second reel of the short comedy. Not able to publicly announce the film due to
legal issues, the mere mention of Jon Mirsalis' attendance and that he would be bringing some rare films to the event prompted attendees who flew
to Los Angeles from Chicago, Minnesota, Ohio and commuters stretching from Sacremento to San Diego.
As if that weren't enough, the Grand Sheik and Grand Host of Hollywood Party, also Board Of Directors of Hollywood Heritage
Stan Taffel and Tegan Summer, unveiled two wax figures of Stan & Olilie that once were housed in the Movieland Wax Museum and the Petersen
Automotive Museum. The waxworks are now a permanent part of our Museum and offer guests the opportunity to pose for photos with Stan and Ollie.
One additional surprise to our meeting was a special UCLA preservation presentation on the
Laurel & Hardy
Film Preservation project. Jeff Joseph showed three examples of the progress on the films. Sequences from
three Laurel and Hardy comedies, Me And My Pal, Their First Mistake and Busy Bodies were shown to everyone's amazement.
Hollywood Party meets five times a year in February, April, June, October and December at the Hollywood Heritage Museum.
JUNE 16th. 2015 THE LATEST NEWS FROM THE MAN WHO DISCOVERED THE REEL
June 16th. 2015 - With the news that has made every Laurel & Hardy fan's heart flutter with excitement,
here is the latest news about the newly discovered reel. This should put everyone at ease
in regard to some particulars. Jon is an old friend and we've been in touch about his discovery.
The film couldn't have found better, more generous hands. There are some who would have hid this from the world
and kept it for themselves. Jon Mirsalis is a film archivist and upon discovering the film in a collection he purchased,
he contacted Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films and made sure that Serge worked on this important restoration.
BTW, a word about where this film came from:
Gordon Berkow was a long time film collector who had an amazingly vast collection. He had many prints that belonged
to Robert Youngson, the man who gave us those great film compilations we all grew up with. In Gordon's archive was reel
2 of BATTLE. Had he known what he actually had, according to many who knew Gordon, he would have surely made it
available at film shows he attended like Cinecon and Cinefest and eventually he would have made sure it was properly
restored into the body of the extant footage. After his passing, his films were sold piece by piece to collectors including
myself. Jon Mirsalis was able to strike a deal with the owners of what was left of the collection and had been selling off
the films through emails to many film archivists. When he discovered the second reel looking quite full, he ran it and
immediately know what he was looking at. Happily for all of us, he has insured that we will all get to see this amazing
Here is what Jon has written:
OK, since everyone is mentioning me, I hate to feed the already overheated blogosphere, because we were going to keep this a bit under wraps until completed, but yes, I have ALL of R2 of THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY in 16mm from the "Start R2" leader to the "The End" title. Serge Bromberg is going to do the restoration and combine it with other material so we will have about 90% of the enti re film. The print came from the Robert Youngson collection that Gordon acquired in 1990. When you see a can marked "BATTLE OF THE CENTURY R2" you don't get too excited until you open the can and realize it's a full 400'. Please don't inundate me with requests for screenings, projections of release dates, etc. It's complicated and will take time, but I promise it will be out there as soon as possible.