Every film buff and scholar has a Holy Grail, a “lost” movie he or she would give anything to see. The Battle of the Century has been at the top of my wish list since I was seven years old. I was already a Laurel and Hardy fan. I watched their talkie shorts and features every single day on local television, but I had never seen any of their silent films until 1958 when my parents took me to the now defunct Guild Theater (right behind Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan) for a showing of Robert Youngson’s landmark compilation feature The Golden Age of Comedy. Its unquestioned highlight was a three-minute excerpt of the massive pie fight from The Battle of the Century.
But where was the rest of the film?
This was one of the first short subjects that officially starred Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Audiences were still getting acquainted with the fat-and-skinny duo, just as the two comedians were getting to know their screen characters. Stan is a blank-faced innocent who isn’t very bright, while Ollie is a pompous fellow who thinks he’s smart … but isn’t.
Laurel and Hardy shaped and polished these characters with the help of a great team at the Hal Roach studio, where comedy was king. Having piloted one great Charley Chase short after another, Leo McCarey had been promoted to supervising director at the studio. He was a master of comedy who went on to make such classics as Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap, and Going My Way. The director was gag man Clyde Bruckman, a close colleague of Buster Keaton (and later, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields) who had already directed the duo in the hilarious two-reeler Putting Pants on Phillip. He worked with them again later on Leave ’Em Laughing and The Finishing Touch. Photographing the picture was George Stevens, who got his first shot at directing from Hal Roach in 1930 and went on to make great American films like Swing Time, Gunga Din, Shane, and The Diary of Anne Frank.
According to Laurel and Hardy biographer John McCabe, it was Hal Roach’s writers who came up with the idea for a large-scale pie fight as the finale of this two-reeler. Stan plays a hapless (and hopeless) prizefighter and Ollie is his manager. When it becomes apparent that Stan will never bring home a hefty purse, Ollie purchases an accident insurance policy from salesman Eugene Pallette—and then tries to arrange for an accident to occur. When the wrong person slips on one of Ollie’s banana peels (intended for Stan) the pie throwing commences. This slapstick staple was always good for a laugh, but the writers’ idea was to raise it to epic proportions. McCabe says it was designed to be “the pie fight to end all pie fights.” It failed in that, but after almost ninety years it remains the best one ever put on film and one of the funniest scenes ever created.
It isn’t just the escalation of the central gag that makes it work. As producer Hal Roach explained years later, “It isn’t pie-throwing that’s funny. It’s who is throwing the pie and who is being hit with the pie.” The evidence speaks for itself, as does the device defined by McCabe as “reciprocal destruction.” In other words, when one person insults another (tearing off his pants, destroying part of his car, or hitting him with a cream pie), the perpetrator waits calmly while the victim exacts revenge. This tit-for-tat brand of comedy was developed and honed to perfection at the Roach studio, especially in the comedies featuring Laurel and Hardy. (Incidentally, the title of this short was a timely reference to the recent Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney championship fight.)
For years, all that existed of The Battle of the Century were the excerpts of the climax reedited for The Golden Age of Comedy, a particular frustration because almost all Laurel and Hardy’s other silent short subjects remain intact.
I was working as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art’s salute to American comedy for the Bicentennial, when, to my astonishment, I discovered that MoMA held a 35mm nitrate print of Battle’s first reel in its vaults. It was sitting there for years but no one realized it! I practically burst open with excitement as I watched it and then programmed it for a Sunday showing with other comedy shorts. But that Sunday the projectionist was fearful that a torn sprocket could ignite the highly flammable film. He refused to run it, which was his prerogative but also a great disappointment. At least Reel One had been uncovered and was subsequently preserved. (It also revealed the presence of future comedy star Lou Costello as an extra in the front row of spectators at Stan Laurel’s prizefight.)
Then, last summer, film collector (and silent film pianist) Jon Mirsalis found the complete Reel Two among the titles he purchased from the Gordon Berkow estate—including prints Berkow acquired from the collection of The Golden Age of Comedy’s producer Robert Youngson. It seems Youngson struck a 16mm print for himself while he had access to the 35mm negative in the 1950s.
There is still some missing footage from the end of Reel One in which Eugene Pallette sells Oliver Hardy accident insurance on his pal Stan Laurel. Years ago, Blackhawk Films filled in this gap with a pair of stills and two title cards when they released the incomplete film on 16mm. Reel Two, however, is intact—and was well worth waiting a lifetime to see. Youngson chose the shots he liked best for his compilation feature and did a seamless job of editing, but the complete pie fight is four minutes longer and even funnier. We have Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films to thank (along with the Museum of Modern Art, Library of Congress, and Blackhawk’s David Shepard) for bringing the elements together and enabling us to see The Battle of the Century in all its glory. Its discovery, after so many years, fuels the hope of film buffs everywhere that other films on our wish lists might still turn up. Would that they all turned out to be as great as this one.
THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY
Directed by Clyde Bruckman, 1927, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
Essay for BATTLE OF THE CENTURY by Leonard Maltin. Short notes below by Gregg Rickman
Directed by Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline, 1922
One of Buster Keaton’s best known comedies, Cops was one of his few short films widely available before the great Keaton revival of the 1970s (and the beautiful restorations painstakingly assembled today). It’s Keaton at his purest, the lone comic pursued by hordes of policemen through the streets of Los Angeles. Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops had been popular in the teens but were passé by 1922. Keaton deadpanned to the press before the film was released that the new trends in comedy would include custard pies, fire hoses, and “something in the way of policemen. Cops have never been used by any comedy director. I believe that this season will witness their appearance in motion pictures.” He promised five hundred of them in his new film. (No one at the time noted that the film audaciously parodies the then notorious 1920 bombing of Wall Street via horse-drawn cart.) In Moving Picture World, Mary Kelly accurately captured how Keaton’s “personality, a somber blue note in a bedlam of jazz, has seldom been capitalized to better advantage.” No other of his short films so well represents Keaton’s stone-faced impudence as he mocks anarchists, authority—and happy endings. — Gregg Rickman
Directed by Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline, 1922
One of Buster Keaton’s last silent short films, The Balloonatic was filmed quickly in August–September 1922 when Sennett bathing beauty Phyllis Haver became available. Keaton publicity promoted her appearance: “of course, she had to have some water scenes and while Buster does some fishing Phyllis shows her lines too.” Haver went on to star in 1928’s Chicago and The Battle of the Sexes. Here she plays one of Keaton’s favorite recurring characters, a “mountain girl” at ease in nature. Never shirking from danger, Keaton risked his life at least twice on the production. The first time he tried his balloon flight he had to cling to his perch as the ballast bag settled on the telephone and streetcar wires on Santa Monica Boulevard before dropping into a field. (Nonetheless he insisted on reshooting the stunt.) And then there was his other costar, the famed stunt bear John Brown. Billed in trade ads as the “Most Perfect Bear in the World,” he weighed six hundred pounds, was “Absolutely Tame and Reliable,” and “Guaranteed to Work With Women, Children, Anyone, Anywhere.” The bear was oversold; director Harry Edwards had suffered a “severely lacerated wrist” when bitten during the filming of an Al Christie comedy in February. Keaton, ever the risk-taker, still insisted on having John Brown in the same frame with him in several shots. That’s no digital bear snuffling him. — Gregg Rickman
THE DANCING PIG
A popular act on the vaudeville circuit staged, recreated, and filmed for Pathé-Frères’ camera. No animals were harmed in the making of this film.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by Jon Mirsalis