Monday, July 6, 2015

Ha, Ha, Boo!

Today, we will lift the cobwebs off old news journals and examine by the flickering light of a tapered, bone-white candle a few of Hollywood's little known scare comedies. 

Funny spooks and strange doings were evident in the earliest days of film.  At first, the film titles could be plain.  Take, for example, a 1907 film in which an old miser wears a sheet and emits hideous noises to convince the townsfolk that a house is haunted.   The film, produced by Independent Moving Pictures Company, was simply called The Haunted House.  But the title of a haunted house comedy became more original and amusing in the coming years.  Possibly the best title belonged to a 1922 short comedy called The House of a Thousand Trembles.  Another amusing title, a play on an old war term, is They Shall Not Pass Out (1929).  An intriguing title was The Unemployed Ghost (1931).  Film Daily reported that Tom Howard starred in this "creepy yarn," which featured "a lot of skeleton and mysterious clutching claw business."  The film’s twist, which was plainly revealed by the title, was that Howard's new ghostly acquaintance has been unable to find work haunting houses.

The 1909 play "The Ghost Breaker," written by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard, had a major influence on the "Dark Old House" horror films that became popular in the 1920s.  Many of the genre's familiar elements were present in the story.  An heiress, Maria Theresa, is aided by a Kentucky gentleman, Jarvis, and his valet, Rusty, as she searches an ancient Spanish castle for a hidden family treasure.  The heiress' cousin Carlos, who has also arrived at the castle in search of riches, has his henchmen pretend to be ghosts to frighten away the heiress and her friends.  A suit of armor seems to be possessed by a ghost as it attacks Jarvis with a sword.  But it is soon revealed that the true occupant of the armor is Carlos' chief henchman, Maximo.  Jarvis pushes Maximo through a trapdoor, causing the man to drop to his death in the water below.  According to the Green Book Magazine, Jarvis discovers Carlos "hiding behind a cobwebbed portrait." 

Frances Raymond, Walter Hiers and Wallace Reid in The Ghost Breaker (1922).  This was the second of four screen adaptations of the 1909 play. 

Filmmakers never tired of allowing heirs and crooks to be a bigger part of these films than ghosts.  In A Haunted Heiress (1926), a crooked estate lawyer has some shady reason to make an heiress (Edna Marion) believe that her late grandfather's house is haunted.  The Film Daily reported, "The lawyer hires several men to dress up as spooks and scare the girl so she will sell cheap.  But the lawyer's clerk dresses up also as a spook, mingled with the others, and crabs their scheme." 

This is what the Film Daily had to say about The Ghost of Folly (1926): "[A] sick, nervous man. . . refuses to sell his property.  The villains take advantage of his nervous condition, take a portable projector and shoot spooky visions into his room from the apertures in the walls and the ceiling.  Alice Day assumes the role of a nurse and, together with her sweetheart, tries in vain to restore peace to the haunted house.  Her two brothers and a Keaton-faced messenger boy aid immensely to the comedy value."  It may not be a coincidence that Eddie Cline, the co-director of Keaton’s Three Ages (1923), was the director of this film.

Thelma Todd and Flora Finch in The Haunted House (1928).

Various heirs rummage a dead millionaire's mansion to find his fortune in The Haunted House (1928).  The film's comic highlights were mostly provided by Keystone veteran Chester Conklin.  In Cold Shivers (1929), heirs attend the reading of a will, which just happens to occur at a creepy old mansion on a stormy night.

Other plots became equally commonplace.  Take, for instance, the plots of The Ghost in the Garret and The Dollar-a-Year Man, both made in 1921.  In The Ghost in the Garret, an amateur detective played by Dorothy Gish tracks thieves to a spooky old house.  In The Dollar-a-Year Man, Roscoe Arbuckle battles shady kidnappers that he has tracked to a spooky house.  The idea of crooks using a spooky house as a hideout was to be found in many haunted house comedies.

Dorothy Gish flees from Ray Grey in The Ghost in the Garret.
The ghosts come tall in The Ghost in the Garret.

Another standard plot had a newlywed couple experience car trouble in the middle of nowhere and have to spend their honeymoon night in a haunted house.  Films in this genre include The Haunted Honeymoon (1925), Bridal Night (1930), Haunted Honeymoon (1940), The Ghost and the Guest (1943), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986).

A cowardly comedian in a scary situation was always good for a laugh.  Raymond Ganly of Motion Picture News liked that Creeps (1926) featured heroes that were "profoundly dumb" and "susceptible to fears."  Ganly concluded, "The numerous sequences of veiled apparitions, of encounters with dead bodies lying strewn about, and with mysterious figures arrayed in black— all these lend an element of uncanniness which, mixed with a generous assortment of gags, tends to elevate this comedy above the ordinary."

It was bound to happen that many critics would grow weary of scare comedies.  Take, for instance, a Motion Picture News critic who had to review Arthur Lake's 1930 short comedy called Follow Me.  The critic noted, "The plot is stale and Arthur Lake's alleged humorous antics are proving monotonous.  They should persuade him to deviate a little from that long-legged looseness of his, which is no longer funny.  The story concerns the time-worn haunted house gag, so old that it kills whatever angles Director H. Edwards used to put it across."

Alice Day in In the Next Room (1930).
Another critic with Motion Picture News was greatly displeased with First National's In the Next Room (1930).  He wrote, "We thought this type of picture had died with the demise of other unlamented films of the 'My God, what was that?' variety."  A Variety critic was upset about an overly provocative crepe nightgown worn by Alice Day in a key scene of the film.  He wrote, "On the film fare menu, cobwebs and scream are a regular dish though In the Next Room tries to disguise its tastelessness." 

A Dangerous Affair (1930)

Despite the repetition, people still responded well to this type of film when it was done right.  The critics were particularly pleased with a 1931 Columbia feature A Dangerous Affair (aka The Ghost Walks).  Motion Picture Herald reported, "An audience at the Fairfax on the Coast, where this latest Columbia Jack Holt-Ralph Graves effort was screened, was actually convulsed with laughter at some points and chilled by thrills at others, indicating real entertainment in the film, a combination of comedy, drama and mystery.  Murder, laughs, thrills, ghosts and all the rest have their share of time on the screen.  The audience apparently enjoyed hugely the comedy lines throughout the film, and was equally taken by the mysterious moments."  The film’s heroes were a police lieutenant (Holt) and a newspaper reporter (Graves) who have become good friends and have combined forces to investigate a murder case.  According to the Film Daily, much of the film’s humor comes from the pair "scrapping good-naturedly."  Film Daily further reported, "Some big stuff comes their way when a clan of fighting heirs gather in a dreary mansion at midnight to read the will of an eccentric relative.  The rest, except for variation in plot, is pretty much along familiar lines.  It is action and comedy pretty nearly all the way, and at the finish Graves gets the girl who inherited all the dough."

Filmmakers tried to disguise their lack of novelty.  The Hal Roach studio had the idea to combine a western comedy with a ghost comedy when they made Prairie Chickens in 1943.  But the critics weren't buying it.  The Film Daily reported, "Prairie Chickens is out-and-out slapstick aimed strictly at kids and adults not particular about the entertainment they get.  This sort of stuff has been done to death on the screen.  Only a person whose risibilities are easily touched will be able to work up more than a smile over the doings in the picture. . . Time has worn some of the tricks in Prairie Chickens pretty thin.  It is one of the film's assets that it runs but 46 minutes." 

Little did these critics know that the haunted house comedy genre was just getting started.  It has never ended and likely never will.



The remake of The Ghostbusters stands today as one of the most highly anticipated films on the 2016 release schedule.  Let's see if just one actor in that film can match Don Knotts' scared act from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966).

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Random Bits: Fourth of July Edition

I came across a few interesting scenes this week.

The torn trousers bit is ratcheted up to a manic level by director Larry Semon for Vitagraph'sRips and Rushes (1917).  The film’s title is accurate labeling as the film devotes most of its running time to rips and rushes.

Wait, here’s another rip and further rushes.


It becomes obvious from these clips that the film’s star, Jimmy Aubrey, was a master of excessive mugging.  Perhaps, an even better title for the film would have been Rips, Rushes and Overacting.

 The funhouse mirror scene, which was most memorably performed by Harold Lloyd in Number, Please? (1920) and the Three Stooges in Don't Throw that Knife (1951), turned up in an installment of "The Gumps" series called Oh, What a Day! (1923).


Monty Banks’ Oil's Well (1923) possibly shows the first wedgie scene in motion picture history.


Here are a few magazine pages that caught my attention.

Finally, we have Stan Laurel enacting the "holding up an unconscious woman" bit in The Jitterbugs (1943).

 Happy Fourth of July!

Silent Film Comedy Spotlight: Seven Bald Pates (1920)

Seven Bald Pates, a comedy from the Christie Film Company, had a unique and interesting plot.  On his wedding day, Bobby Vernon learns from a friend that he is being sought by a process server.  His friend warns him that the process server is a bald man.  Bobby, who is preoccupied with last-minute wedding details, is unaware that he has dropped his marriage license.  A kindly bald man picks up the license and offers it to Bobby, but Bobby gets one glance of the man's shiny skull and flees as fast as he can.  During the wedding, Bobby's friends repeatedly hustle bald-headed guests into a back room and securely hog-tie them to make sure they keep out of the way.  Motion Picture News reported, "[T]he action is fast and often furious when the real representative of the law arrives and starts his search."

The film was co-written by Frank R. Conklin, who was one of Christie’s most prolific writers from 1919 to 1932.

Critics Sing Praises of Moss and Frye

Arthur G. Moss and Edward Frye, an African American comedy team billed as "A Couple of Blackbirds," were a popular, original and influential act for more than two decades.  As early as 1910, the men started to receive enthusiastic notices for their efforts.  The team became well-known for their clever, quick-paced dialogue.  Variety called them "colored conversationalists."

Their acclaim came at first from a skit called “Sense and Nonsense,” an act that got underway with Frye asking Moss an absurd and impossible question.  This premise persisted in their subsequent routines.  After seeing one of their shows in May of 1918, a Variety critic wrote, "Their skit is simply a volley of questions and answers, and it is a lot of 'nut' stuff." 

Early in his stage career, Moe Howard adapted a Moss and Frye sketch to be performed by him and brother Shemp.  He would, as Frye did with Moss, confuse Shemp with a maddeningly preposterous series of questions.  Among the questions that Moe later remembered were:
What is the size of a grey suit?

Do you think it's as warm in the summer as it is in the country?

If three dimes is thirty cents, how much is a bunch of nickels?

If you went to a railroad station and bought a ticket for three dollars, where are you going?
This was to one critic “rambling nonsense,” but audiences loved it.

A surprisingly sparse amount of information is available on these comedians. But we can gain some insight on their career by examining their frequent newspaper notices.  

Variety, September 1913.  Review of appearance at the Union Square Theater:
"[Moss and Frye] put over some corking good dialogue beside doing some fine songs, which pleased, and they retired while the applause was coming from all parts of the house."
Variety, July 1915.  Review of appearance at McVickers Theatre, Chicago:
"Moss and Frye deservedly pulled down the hit of the show.  These two comedy fellows have a good string of patter."
Variety, July, 1917.  Review of appearance at the American Roof theatre:
"Moss and Frye, colored, started off with lots of laughs, with their nonsensical, ridiculous crossfire, which is artistically delivered through the idea of the two men talking at the same time, which is as it occurs in actual life.  This strips it of theatricalism and makes it more natural.  Then they spoil things by rendering a couple of songs totally foreign to their characterizations.  The men should either get a song that fits the characters or extend their talk and quit on that."
The New York Clipper, March 19, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
"Moss and Frye, with their 'How High Is Up?' and 'How Come?' nonsense, scored the laughing hit of the bill."
Variety, March 1919.  Review of appearance at Colonial Theatre:
"Moss and Frye won the honors of the afternoon with some nonsensical kidding that caused uproarious laughter.  'How Wide Is Narrow' is one of the new expressions."
Variety, March, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
"It's most unusual for a colored team to grace the Palace show.  There isn't another colored team that can deliver as Moss and Frye did in the next to closing spot.  The series of impossible questions so drolly delivered and calling for no answers, brought forth hearty laughter.  Then to make it doubly sure the boys showed something in harmony singing, something too, that is rarely heard these days, even from real colored minstrels.  For a finish they sang 'Some Day I'll Make You Glad' and the house insisted on a repeat, even though it was eleven o'clock."
The New York Clipper, April 2, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Orpheum Theatre:
"Moss and Frye registered one of the big hits of the bin with a series of nonsensical remarks and a few ballads, sung in pleasing fashion.  The talking, delivered with a sort of mock solemnity, and not possessing a semblance of sense, was a riot of laughter.  They are one of the funniest pairs in vaudeville."
The New York Clipper, April 30, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
"Moss and Frye have added some new nonsensical bits to their comedy talk and the new material hit the mark with unfailing regularity.  In its present shape the Moss and Frye act is one of the biggest laugh producing offerings in vaudeville.  A new song was also heard in the act, but it needs more rehearsing, as the men stumbled in the words and made one or two mistakes in the harmony as well."
Variety, May 1919.  Review of appearance at the Harlem Opera House:
"Moss and Frye, with their nonsensical questions, scored their usual hit.  This clever pair always puts in a lot of extempore stuff and uses a few of the old stand-bys."
Variety, August 6, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Bushwick Theatre:
"Moss and Frye had no trouble in keeping the stream of merriment aflowing and got their full quota of laughs despite all the comedy that had preceded.  These lads keep adding new gags to their act all the time, for they had about six new ones in it on Monday night.  The foolish questions put by Frye to his partner would move even a deaf and dumb man to laughter.  Their singing was also very good."
The New York Clipper, August 20, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
"Moss and Frye are not telling about 'How High Is Up?' but they have a score or more of clever nonsensical sayings, the greater part of which aroused all sorts of laughter and applause."
The New York Clipper, September 3, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Colonial Theatre:
"Moss and Frye are a colored team of that comedy caliber which will always fetch laughter, no matter how often they have been seen before.  They know the value of fresh material and with the exception of a few old stand-bys, the two are always putting over new gags.  It has been said that, as an extempore colored comedian, Frye is in a class with Bert Williams."
Variety, April, 1921.  Review of appearance at San Francisco Orpheum Theatre:
"Moss and Frye went over exceptionally big.  They have talk entirely new here, and with good harmony singing scored a hit next to closing."
Variety, May, 1921.  Review of appearance at Chicago’s Majestic Theatre:
"Moss and Frye now interrupt their routine for a little harmony, then back to their talk, and then a big harmony number.  They have also added several new daffy dills that measure up to 'How High Is Up?' They proved good showmen, making it short but sweet doing 12 minutes to big applause."
Variety, June, 1922.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
"At entrance the comedian took exception to his tan colored partner calling him ‘the Sheik,’ the team then going into their inverted dialog.  The billing uses 'How high is up' and 'How come,' but neither expression was expression was present in the chatter.  The colored team's harmony warbling without orchestral aid was an excellent contribution, and as ever one of the strong bits."
Variety, October 1922.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
"[Moss and Frye] are back in vaudeville after an unsuccessful try with their 'Dumb Luck' colored revue.  The comedian's nonsensical hypothetical questions are as laugh productive as ever, the straight foiling faithfully and sincerely."
In October, 1923, a black-owned company named Seminole Films cast the team as airplane pilots in a short comedy called How High is Up?.  The film was directed by Chatty Graham at the Lincoln Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Variety, July, 1925.  Review of appearance at the 5th Avenue Theatre:
"Moss and Frye, colored comedians, woke them up in succeeding spot with a line of complicated chatter that was delivered in an excruciatingly humorous manner and some acceptable harmonizing.  The comedy in this turn is gleaned through the ebony-hued comic bewildering the straight with nonsensical queries and answering them before the other chap can reply.  The act finished to big returns."
Variety, November, 1925.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
"Moss and Frye scored consistently with their seemingly ad lib routine.  An obvious gag is inserted in the talk here and there, but the body of the crossover sounds unstudied, the secret of the turn.  Close harmony sent them away safely and also demanded an encore."
Variety, January, 1927.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
"Of the standard stand-bys, there were Moss and Frye — always good and always welcome, with their own style and manner still new but with a lot of material that could stand replacing.  With them just changing gags doesn't refurnish their stuff — they have to hit off on a new line of talk if not a new kind of talk to seem different than they have been through these many years.  They got their encore bid just the same, and amused enough to call for it."
Moss and Frye produced several recordings for Pathé Records in 1927.

Motion Picture News, March 12, 1928.  Review of appearance at the Capitol Theatre:
"Exceptionally big crowds were enjoyed at the Capitol Theatre, the main feature apparently being Moss and Frye, ‘The original blackbirds,’ in the stage presentation 'How High Is Up?', a Fanchon & Marco offering, which caused a great deal of merriment."
In 1928, the team sued Film Booking Office for using their expression "How High Is Up?" as the title of a “Three Fatties” comedy.

Moss and Frye starred in a short film, What Do I Care?, in 1929.

Billboard, February 20, 1930.  Review of appearance at the Eighty-Sixth Street Theatre:
"These veteran colored comedians, well known for their 'How High is Up?,' have dispensed with a new stock of droll buffoonery that even greater entertainment value.  It is more than mere clowning, possessing that quaint and subtle humor that get them laughs in wholesale jolts.  They have tagged their present vehicle, 'A Mixture of New and Old Things.'
“They still adhere to the question and answer antics; Frye's ludicrous philosophy and Moss 'wisdom' make for hilarious comedy.  At no time is the fun forced.  It flows like water from the lips of these talented comedians.  The audience ate up every bit of their rib-tickling nonsense.”
Variety, October 1931.  Review of appearance at the Lyric Music Hall:
"Moss and Frye goaled them here with the same line of patter they have been using for years.  Team hasn't anything new to offer, but what they have was liked."
The team of Moss and Frye ended with Moss’ death in 1932.  Frye quickly teamed with Hamtree Harrington for a night club revue called "The Tree of Hope."  But, unfortunately, the new partnership didn’t last long.    

Frye was featured in the musical comedy "Swing It," which opened at the Adelphi Theatre on July 22, 1937.  Variety reported, "At one point the chief comic, captain of a Mississippi boat, is played by Edward Frye, uses some of his former vaudeville material.  More of it might have been more "effective.  There is one mention of 'How High Is Up' (Moss and Frye).  Frye, by the way, does well with [the song] 'Blah, Blah, Blah.'"

It is troubling to me as a comedy fan that these funny entertainers were so easily forgotten by the general public.  Their act came to be appropriated by others.  Moran and Mack, a popular blackface comedy team, copied a few of their bits.  Moss and Frye routines later turned up with some regularity on the Amos and Andy radio show.  Joey Faye admitted to developing his own version of Moss and Frye’s "Handful of Nickels" routine.  A number of Abbott and Costello routines, including "You're forty, she's ten," are based on old Moss and Frye routines.

I present this article in the hope that it will provide at least a slight acknowledgement of Moss and Frye’s contribution to comedy.

Billy Gilbert’s Return to the Footlights

Billy Gilbert spent the 1930s making memorably funny appearances in nearly 200 films, but the actor missed his vaudeville days and he felt the urge to return to performing before a live audience.  Gilbert was featured in a theatre revue called "America, I Love You," which debuted in Pittsburgh in April, 1942.  Billboard reported,
"[Gilbert] earns his pay.  Garbed as a cook, with his wife [Ella] as a deft foil, Gilbert dialogs for 15 minutes to plenty of laughs.  His plays on words, and his gestural recipes for making beans and Boston cream pie are classic.  His finale, naturally, is big traditional sneezing turn and the house loved it.  For encore, he sings 'Sheik of Araby' as he did in the film Tin Pan Alley, and if you weren't looking at him and saw his huge bulk, you'd swear he was a sylph-shaped, dreamy-eyed, dusky band crooner."
Gilbert must have enjoyed his comeback to the stage because he made stage roles his priority after 1945.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Splat!: Secrets of the Lost Pie Comedies

The long lost second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century (1927) has been rediscovered by film historian Jon Mirsalis.  The film is well-known among comedy fans for the sloppily epic pie fight that serves as its climax.  Most of the pie fight had been preserved earlier as part of Robert Youngson’s 1957 compilation film The Golden Age of Comedy, but now we have the pie fight in its entirety along with an additional eight or nine minutes of footage.  Rejoice, lovers of pie comedy!  

Stage entertainers came to realize early on that an actor getting hit in the face with a pie was guaranteed to amuse an audience.  Harry Bernard was required as part of his vaudeville act to routinely smashed a custard pie into his partner's face.  According to Variety, the gag drew big laughs when Bernard appeared at San Francisco’s Lyceum Theatre in 1907.

Harry Bernard in Any Old Port! (1932).  Courtesy of

It has been made clear in my examination of comedy history that this type of humor has not always been favored by everyone.  In 1910, a vaudeville comedian named J. A. Murphy wrote a series of satirical articles for Variety about the trials and tribulations of a small town theater manager.  Murphy's fictitious theatre manager, Adam Sowerguy, expressed his grievances in letters to a booking agent, who he addressed only as "Mike."  Adam informed Mike that he was issuing a ban on pie-throwing comedians.  He pleaded, "Don't send me no more pie actors, they mess up the place too much."

The rest of us maintain our love for a good pie fight, which is a fun way to release aggression.  Broadway producer Abe Erlanger was ruthless in the way that he conducted business.  In 1905, he made bitter enemies of the Shubert brothers by refusing to abide by a contract that he had negotiated with middle brother Sam, who had recently died in a train wreck.  Erlanger stated, plainly, that he was under no obligation to keep to an agreement "with a dead man."  The surviving brothers, Lee and Jacob, were appalled.  The Shuberts devoted much of the next six years to breaking the vise-like grip that Erlanger's booking monopoly had on theatre operators.  This level of hate and annihilation can lead to bloodshed and mayhem.  But how did Erlanger react in the end?  In 1911, Erlanger's friends and business associates gathered to celebrate the producer's birthday.  A Variety reporter wrote, "After the cigars, it is said, the pictures of the Messrs. Shubert were tacked upon the wall, when the diners took turns in winning a prize offered to the one who could hit them by a straight throw with a lemon pie."  This story depicts pie-throwing as a gentlemanly form of aggression.

This outtake from Dr. Strangelove (1964) suggests that a pie fight is far less aggressive than a nuclear war.

The pie-in-the-face gag was adopted by film comedians in the early years of film.  In my book Funny Parts, I was able to trace the gag back to a film made in 1905.  More pies were employed in the execution of film comedy within the next few years.  A Moving Picture World critic wrote in his description of Biograph's Love Microbe (1907), "[T]he querulous husband kicks about the food placed before him, criticising vehemently his wife's cooking.  Patient, amiable wifey retaliates by pushing a blackberry pie into his anger-distorted countenance."  Kalem’s 1907 short Woman, Cruel Woman featured another early example of pie-in-the-face comedy.  A cook is exhausted with the pranks of the baker's son.  In a fit of anger, she dumps a bucket of water over the boy’s head.  The boy is enraged.  The Moving Picture World reported that the boy gathers "a goodly share of pumpkin pie in one hand" and smears the gooey mess into the cook's face.  The magazine concluded, "[W]hile she is getting the luscious pie out of eyes and mouth, Baker-boy vanishes, filled with the joy of revenge for the cook's former cruelty.”

The lowly servants were always hurling food at each other in bourgeois domestic comedies.  In Keep Quiet (1912), the master of house deigns to enter the kitchen to break up a fight that has broken out among the help.  He arrives just in time to cross the path of a pie that the cook has sent hurling across the room at her adversary.  On cue, the pie hits the master squarely and messily in his face.  In Topsy-Turvy Sweedie (1914), Sweedie (Wallace Beery) has no sooner started a new job as a domestic cook then she gets into a free-for-all battle with other members of the kitchen staff.  According to Moving Picture World, Sweedie engages in “pie throwing and rolling-pin combats.”

As we learned from Keep Quiet, a steady aim is required to be a pie-thrower.  The 1914 Crystal comedy Getting Vivian Married involved a young man, Charley (Charles De Forrest), who is having a hard time making a good impression on his girlfriend’s father.  During a shopping outing, he becomes infuriated to see another man flirting with his girlfriend.  He attempts to throw a pie at the man, but he misses and splatters his girlfriend's father with the pie instead.

Pie-throwing became a staple in the Keystone comedies.  At first, the critics were amused.  They debated which was the funniest pie - custard pie, blackberry pie or lemon meringue pie.  But, after three years of this, critics had all they could take of the pies and went on a campaign to rid the motion picture industry of this gooey scourge.  Custard pies came to be in their minds part of a maelstrom of low comedy.  Exhibitors Herald wrote of the Ben Turpin comedy Is Any Waitress Safe? (1917), "Another typical Sennett comedy, full of slap-stick antics, pie throwing, vulgarity, and the various other elements which go to make up these comedies."  Critics rallied behind comedian Eddie Foy when the celebrated entertainer walked out on a contract with Keystone because he refused to take a pie in the face.  Many producers were willing to appease the critics.  A Variety editor wrote in 1915, "Nowadays the bigger the mess in comedy scenes the bigger the laughs, yet the days of custard pie throwing, hose drenching, whitewash soaking, chases through mud and the like are numbered, the film makers say."

It had become an overdone formula and the public didn't want to see it anymore.  This was at a time that the movie house manager sat with the audience to get their reaction and listened patiently to what his patrons had to say before they left the theatre.  The time of the pie comedy had passed.  The message was clear from the paying public: no more pies.

Look at this ad for Harold Lloyd’s series.  The copy reads, "A custard pie and a pretty girl or two in a bathing suit do not make a comedy." 

This ad for Larry Semon’s The Bakery reads, “Real fun in a real bakery – and not a custard pie thrown!”

In welcoming Max Linder to America, the Moving Picture World noted that Linder’s "art as a comedian" did not depend on "his aim as a twirler of custard pies."

Al Christie, a prominent producer of comedy films, was glad to see Hollywood moving away from pie fights.  He told Moving Picture World in 1917, "The unexpected propulsion of a custard pie may provoke a shout of laughter, but the tribulations of sane, human characters, and the humorous exposition of their frailties are the basis of true comedy."

The frailties of human nature was of no interest to another prominent producer, Henry Lehrman.  Lehrman was determined to outdo his former boss, Mack Sennett, when he established the L-KO comedy series.  The L-KO comedy Surf Scandal (1917) reflected Lehrman’s ambitions.  L-KO's publicist promised that this comedy was “full of thrills and speedy comedy sensations."  Moving Picture World wrote of "special excitement being created by a rock-blast that required two hundred pounds of dynamite to accomplish."  The film, which Motion Picture News called a "timely hot-weather feature," provided a big finish in the form of an extravagant pie fight at a beach.  As could be expected, not everyone was thrilled to see a pie fight elevated to a grand scale.  It was too much of a bad thing.  Moving Picture World grumpily described the "pie-throwing episode" as "somewhat overdone." 

So, what could this critic and critics like him have thought of The Battle of the Century?  It is important to understand that The Battle of the Century was unlike any other pie comedy that had come before.

Stan Laurel initially resisted the idea of including a pie fight in the film.  Film historian John McCabe wrote, "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," said Laurel, "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."

Laurel was determined to redefine and resolve the pie comedy.  He said, "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 close at hand, still unspoiled, he would grab it and let it fly."

This was no longer about the mere propulsion of a pie.  We now saw what Christie spoke about - "the tribulations of sane, human characters."  Time was made to show the reaction of the custard-splattered victim.  The audience senses their embarrassment and their indignation.  Film historian Richard Bann identified this as a new type of slapstick – a "slow slapstick." 

The scene starts with Laurel and Hardy getting into a pie fight with a pie vendor (Charlie Hall).  Laurel said, "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."

Novelist Henry Miller, a fan of The Battle of the Century, called this scene "the ultimate in burlesque."  Pamela Hutchinson, a Guardian editor, aptly identified the scene as an "all-out epic splatterfest."

Additional note

The Battle of the Century was not the pie picture to end all pie pictures because, immediately afterwards, there came at least one weak imitation.  The film, which stars Jimmy Aubrey, is called Keep Smiling (1928).


That same year, Marion Davies threw a pie in Show People.

It must be noted that Laurel and Hardy, themselves, returned to the pie fight within months after the release of The Battle of the Century.  Here are Stan and Ollie in Their Purple Moment (1928).


Of course, the Three Stooges later became the undisputed masters of the pie fight.