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 smash 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.


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