Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Is There No Comedy in Likeable?

Phillip Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, said, "There's no comedy in likeable."  He made the point that Basil Fawlty and Louie DePalma weren't likable.  He said that the characters in Everybody Loves Raymond weren't likable  He insisted that characters need to be believable to be funny and they can't be believable unless they have flaws.

Fans of Everybody Loves Raymond would disagree heartily with Rosenthal that the series' Barone family was unlikable.  The most suitable candidate for Rosenthal's unlikability premise is Marie Barone, played by Doris Roberts.  Ken Levine, who directed three episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, wrote a  tender tribute to Roberts the day after her death.  His remarks addressed this likeability issue very well.  He wrote:
[T]he truth is, her performance required hard work. To play a character who at times could be the antagonist and yet still be lovable is a major acting feat.
The key was that she played Marie Barone (and every character) "real." Never an exaggeration, never a "sketch" – you loved Marie because you identified with her. That was your mother. Or your mother-in-law. Or you (although you'd never admit it).

And not only did she avoid playing Marie too broad; she also avoided playing her too soft.  Many actors fear being viewed as unlikable so they balk at having to play unsympathetic in any way.  Doris went for the truth of the character in all situations, regardless.   And you loved her even more for that.
Marie is overprotective of her children.  In her role as mother, she is nosy, interfering, controlling, manipulative and disparaging.  But, when all is said and done, Roberts makes it clear in her performance that Marie acts out of loves for her family.  In the end, she wants what's best for them.  Of course, her "mother knows best" philosophy has an element of narcissism to it.  But does anyone regard her as a great villain?   

Levine brought up another very flawed character, Cheers' Diane Chambers.  He wrote:
I have always contended that without Shelley Long playing [Diane Chambers] the series dies after thirteen weeks.  She made a potentially unlikable character funny and adorable and real while still keeping Diane's infuriating qualities. That's not just hard to do.  It's next to impossible.
So, if we are to believe Levine, the flawed Chambers was adorable, which is even better than likeable.  Monica Collins of  USA Today called Diane a "snitty, selfish snob."  Steve Silverman of Screen Junkies was critical of the character for being "too needy and insecure."  The character was definitely flawed yet, at the same time, definitely likable.  Here is our conclusion: there's a difference between being flawed and being unlikable.  Everyone has flaws, but not everyone is unlikable. 

Let us move on next to the anti-hero.  The original anti-hero was not a bad guy.  He was simply a protagonist that had a quality or qualities that we did not normally associate with a hero.  For instance, he might not approach danger with unshakeable courage.  But who does?  Philip Martin McCaulay touched on this subject in regards to William Wellman's Battleground (1949) in his book "World War II Movies."  He noted: "The film is notable for portraying American soldiers as vulnerable and human. While they remain steadfast and courageous, each soldier has at least one moment in the film when he seriously considers running away, schemes to get sent back from the front line, slacks off, or complains about the situation he is in."  It is unlikely you will find a war film with a more lovable group of soldiers.

A hero is defined by his great strength, ability and morality.  An anti-hero is defined by his flaws.  This doesn't mean that the traditional hero doesn't have flaws.  Let's take as an example Hercules.  Few heroes in film and literature possess the unwavering valor and wisdom of Hercules, but even this muscle-bound half human/half god has his share of flaws.  To start, he is severely vain.  This is from the website BookRags:
Hercules thinks of himself as equal with the gods. He also thinks that he can beat anything that he fights. Hercules even opposes and challenges the gods. . . Hercules is more than ready to fight Apollo, and Zeus has to intervene.
Second, Hercules is prone to violent outbursts.  As a boy, he becomes frustrated with his music teacher and beats the man to death with a lyre.  When a priestess refuses to provide her services to him, he flies into a rage and tears apart her temple.  The Goddess Hera exploits Hercules' rage by crafting an illusion that makes the warrior believe his wife and two sons are actually family members of his enemy Eurystheus.  Hercules is quickly stirred to violence, managing to slay his wife and children with arrows before the illusion can be exposed.

Third, Hercules was a drunk.  Josho Brouwers, a Mediterranean archaeologist, wrote, "Statues depicting a drunken Hercules urinating were fairly common in the Roman period and are, unsurprisingly, referred to as Hercules mingens (‘Hercules pees')."

I recently came across a Facebook thread in which people were asked the following question:
How important is it to you that the films or tv shows you watch have likable characters?
Many people said that it is more important that a character be interesting and relatable than be likable.  But don't you like a character with whom you can relate?  Early on, people listed Sam Spade and Vito Corleone as examples of unlikable characters that have served as effective protagonists.  Film historian Jordan Young wrote, "As Elisha Cook said to me about THE MALTESE FALCON, 'Everyone was a shitheel in it.  There wasn't one decent person in the whole picture, and look what a film it was.'"  But I have to disagree with Mr. Cook.  Most fans of The Maltese Falcon and The Godfather would disagree that either of the films' protagonists, Spade or Corleone, was unlikable.  Spade is shrewd, tough, and has a strong sense of duty.  He is focused on finding out who killed his partner and, in the end, denies his own personal feelings for a woman to expose her as the killer.  He is forlorn as he turns her over to the police. Corleone is a dedicated family man who inspires intense love and devotion from his wife and children.


Rosenthal mentioned Louie DePalma from the 1978-1982 television series TaxiTaxi didn't need for Louie to be sympathetic as the series had many other characters to engage the audience's sympathy.  Louie, as the mean boss, normally served as a prime antagonist to the other characters.  The few times that an episode focused on Louie, the character was made sympathetic. Watch "High School Reunion," "Louie and the Nice Girl," "Louie Meets the Folks," "Louie's Mother," "Louie's Revenge," "Zena's Honeymoon" and "Louie and The Blind Girl." Now tell me if you think Louie is unlikable.  Louie was presented at his worst in "Louie Goes Too Far," but even in this episode the character elicits sympathy.

Louie is often struggling to be a better person.  On occasion, he looks for advice from veteran driver Alex Reiger, who he regards as a moral person.  What more can be asked of a man if he's trying as hard as he might to be decent?  This issue is addressed in a first season episode called "Louie Sees The Light."

The series did have a double standard in that characters wince when Louie makes a sexually suggestive remark, but those same characters are amused when Jeff Conaway's charming and handsome Bobby Wheeler makes a sexually suggestive remark.  Was it really Louie's looks that made him bad? 

Levine said that it was hard to write for the character Fay on Wings.  He wrote, "The actress, Rebecca Schull was wonderful, but the character of Fay was so 'nice.' It's always harder to write characters who were basically 'good.'  Daphne on FRASIER was difficult at times and Father Mulcahy on MASH was often a challenge."  Levine made a point to put the words "nice" and "good" in quotes because, presumably, he regards the notion of "nice" and "good" to be unbelievable.  It is only a person of perfect character who earns these designations and, to those with a cynical view of mankind, no person of that sort exists in the real world.   Levine believes, like Rosenthal, that real people are always in some way flawed.  While it could be vigorously debated whether nice and good people exist, most people would agree that a flawed person makes a more interesting character in a story. 

The line between flawed and evil has gotten thinner and thinner in the last twenty years.  For now, people still, for the most part, want the main character in a story to be likable.  Levine wrote, "[I]t's important that you care about characters for a show to work.  If you don't give a shit what happens to them you're not going to invest your time."  But, then, why is interest occasionally drawn to an outright evil protagonist?  Levine's answer is simple: "Because they're interesting."  Flawed people are interesting, as we have said, but people with big, serious flaws are a different category of interesting.  They're "interesting" in bold, caps or italics.

Levine continued:
Evil characters create drama and suspense.  They stir up the pot.  They surprise us.  They make choices that we wouldn't make.  They say things we'd like to say.  They cut through the bullshit (or create their over own).  Their worldview is different. It's fun to watch them operate. Sometimes you actually root for them, and other times you can't wait for them to get theirs. And on certain rare occasions you do both.  Seriously, who holds your interest more – Anna from DOWNTON ABBEY or Claire from HOUSE OF CARDS?
The problem is that the fictional characters are inspirational.   Virtuous characters make us more virtuous by their example.  Rotten characters, especially when those characters dominate the media, are bound to make us more rotten.

In 1931, censors were critical of The Public Enemy for making its lead character Tom, a violent gangster, sympathetic and at times admirable. Obviously the disclaimer issued to satisfy the censors did not influence young viewers as much as Tom's actions in the film.

Al Capone, the most infamous of gang bosses, understood this.  He said, "[T]hese gang movies are making a lot of kids want to be tough guys. . ."


What had the filmmakers done to make audiences respond so favorably to this character?

First, the filmmakers introduce Tom as a child.  We feel protective of a child.  We do not expect a child to act morally at all times because he might not yet know better.  That protectiveness, once established, carries on through the remainder of the story.

Tom's parents are unable to instill proper values into their stubborn, feisty son to stop him from heading down the wrong path.  We are shown his police officer dad (Purnell Pratt) whipping the boy with a leather razor strop.  The father's motives may be good, but seeing this violence inflicted on a child only makes viewers feel more sympathetic of Tom.


The father's discipline fails.  A Filmsite writer noted: "[B]oth boys [Tom and his best friend Matt] turn to petty thievery and shoplifting to escape the drudgery of lower class life. . . They fence stolen items (watches) at a so-called boys' club, the Red Oaks Club (a glorified pool hall) through sinister, Fagin-like, piano-playing "Putty-Nose" (Murray Kinnell) - their mentor in the ways of crime."

Second, cast a charismatic actor in the role.  You don't get any more charismatic than Jimmy Cagney. 

Cagney said in 1986:
The Public Enemy was the film that really launched my career.  I played a mean, mixed-up hood, a tough kid who tried to throw his weight around and ended up dead.  It was a good part. I don't think I took anything away from it. . . It was one of the first of many chances I had to portray that kind of person, the fist-swinging gangster who becomes ruthless in order to succeed. There were many tough guys to play in the scripts that Warner kept assigning me. Each of my subsequent roles in the hoodlum genre offered me the opportunity to inject something new, which I always tried to do.  One could be funny, and the next one flat.  A few roles among them were mean, and others were meaner.  A few roles among them were actually sympathetic and kind-hearted, and I preferred them, but I generally did not get to do many of those parts until much later in my career, for the public seemed to prefer me as a bad guy. . . I don't understand why the public never tired of those awful hoodlums.

Third, surround the character with people we can care about.  We care about Tom's doting mother, his brother Mike, and his best friend's sister Molly.  These are a good people who see something good in Tom and believe he can find redemption.  We can believe in Tom because these good people believe in Tom.

A problem is that Tom kills a police officer early in the film.  There's no coming back from cold-blooded murder.

It would be wrong to turn a blind eye towards this terrible event in the story.  It is generally accepted that Tom has to be punished in the end.

Hollywood is not as careful today in depiction of gangsters as it once was.  A society is rotten when people can do better job quoting Scarface's Tony Montana than quoting Jesus Christ.  Here are a few of Montana most popular quotes:
"In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women."

"I always tell the truth. Even when I lie."

"I'm Tony Montana! You fuck with me, you fuckin' with the best!"

"The only thing in this world that gives orders is balls."

"Every day above ground is a good day."

"You a communist? Huh? How'd you like it, man? They tell you all the time what to do, what to think, what to feel. Do you wanna be like a sheep? Like all those other people?  Baah! Baah!"

"I never fucked anybody over in my life didn't have it coming to them. You got that?  All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don't break them for no one.  Do you understand? That piece of shit up there, I never liked him, I never trusted him.  For all I know he had me set up and had my friend Angel Fernandez killed.  But that's history. I'm here, he's not. Do you wanna go on with me, you say it. You don't, then you make a move."

"You wanna waste my time?  Okay. I call my lawyer. He's the best lawyer in Miami. He's such a good lawyer, that by tomorrow morning, you gonna be working in Alaska. So dress warm."

"You got nothing to do with your life, man.  Why don't you get a job?  Do something, be a nurse.  Work with blind kids, lepers, that kind of thing.  Anything beats you waiting around all day, waiting for me to fuck you, I'll tell you that."

"You think you can take me? You need a fucking army if you gonna take me!"

"I didn't come to the United States to break my fucking back."

"You know what capitalism is?  Getting fucked!"

"This is paradise, I'm tellin' ya.  This town like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked."

"What you lookin' at? You all a bunch of fuckin' assholes.  You know why?  You don't have the guts to be what you wanna be?  You need people like me.  You need people like me so you can point your fuckin' fingers and say, "That's the bad guy."  So… what that make you?  Good?  You're not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie.  Me, I don't have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth.  Even when I lie.  So say good night to the bad guy!  Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you.  Come on.  Make way for the bad guy.  There's a bad guy comin' through!  Better get outta his way!"
Mr. Montana is right about one thing.  Hollywood pretends to be pointing a finger at the bad guys and exposing their evil ways.  But it really likes them and conflates their audience with them.  It tells us that we are just as bad as these people and we shouldn't bother to deny it.  It makes the bad guys our role models.  It makes the bad guys our teachers.  Montana is very persuasive when he tells us that our world is "a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked."  Hollywood is the home to many people who think like that.  Tony Montana is an evangelist for the film industry's cynics and hedonists, who warmly embrace the druglord's immoral philosophy. 

Today, we need more good people in our stories if we hope to be better people.  We need to sort out the good and the bad in our fiction as a way to distinguish the two and this could assuredly benefit us in chosing between good and evil in our real life.  We need to like characters in a story if we are to like others and like ourselves.

Reference sources

"Hercules' Personality," BookRags (2018).

Josho Brouwers, "Hercules the drunk," Ancient History (May 14, 2015).

Monica Collins, "Three `Cheers'! It's Diane's last call," USA Today (May 8, 1987).

Lloyd Kramer (director).  (2011).  "The Misfit."  Lloyd Kramer (executive producer), America in Primetime.  New York, NY: PBS.

Ken Levine. "RIP Doris Roberts," . . . by Ken Levine (April 19, 2016).

Philip Martin McCaulay, "World War II Movies," Lulu, 2010 (North Carolina: Raleigh).

Gregory Speck, "Public Enemy turned patriotic icon: James Cagney on his legacy in film," Interview Magazine (May 5, 2018).

A Silent Film Rule: Pies Go Splat But Damsels Never Do

There is a Santa Claus.  I feel the need to reassure you of this fact before I undertake today's terrible task, which could potentially ruin two long-cherished myths of film history.

First, Sandi Toksvig wanted to make it clear on a recent episode of QI that silent film melodramas did not feature villains tying darling young ladies to railroad tracks.  Her specific words were:
That image that we have in our heads of the damsel being tied to the tracks and then rescued by a handsome man never, ever was part of silent movies.  It did not exist.  There are no known examples of this particular scenario in mainstream silent drama.  Only in the comedy spoofs of it.

But, wait, we can swoop in now and rescue this film trope damsel from imminent death.
Helen Holmes in The Death Train (1915).

Silent films became known for the railroad track scene at an early time.  In 1923, Elsie McCormick of Shadowland magazine describes inhabitants of China "prepared to spend a pleasant evening watching beautiful American ladies tied to railroad tracks by dark-browed gentlemen."

Bad guys knock a young woman unconscious and lay her across railroad tracks in Edwin S. Porter's 1905 melodrama The Train Wreckers.  Stuart Holmes ties Irene Boyle to railroad tracks in a 1913 Kalem thriller, The Open Switch.  Lionel Barrymore ties William Russell to railroad tracks in Biograph's 1914 film version of Under the Gaslight.  Florence Gray comes to the rescue when Jim Norton is tied to railroad tracks in Thanhouser's 1914 Million Dollar Mystery serial.  Rex Downs ties Helen Holmes to a rail line that spans across a lofty trestle in The Death Train (1915).  In The Dynamite Train (1915), Helen Gibson stops a runaway train before it strikes a man who was beaten by criminals and left lying unconscious on the tracks.  Helen Holmes unfastens Leo D. Maloney from railroad tracks in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916).  The Moving Picture World described the opening of the eighteenth chapter of Universal's 1918 serial The Bull's Eye ("The Runaway") as follows:
Cody (Eddie Polo), tied to the tracks, struggles at his bonds and as the train reaches him kicks out the board over the culvert and drops down between the ties.  The train passes over him, cutting over his bonds.
Villainous lady Mae Busch ties Claire Windsor to railroad tracks in Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model (1924).  The Film Daily reported, "It wasn't considerate of the Capitol audience to laugh when Claire was tied to the 'L' tracks and the express train came within an inch of decapitating her pretty blonde head.  But they seemed to enjoy the thrill of this and other bits, nevertheless."  A gang of robbers tie the hero (Lefty Flynn) to railroad tracks in The No-Gun Man (1924).  A reviewer with Exhibitors' Herald reassured exhibitors, "He is saved by [a] girl in the nick of time."
A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916)
Mack Sennett mocked this melodrama trope in Barney Oldfield's Race for Life (1913). . .


. . . and Teddy at the Throttle (1917).

This is the scene from The Train Wreckers.

Not all examples of this scene have been identified.  A director, William F. Haddock, described working on a "railroad story" in which a dummy was tied to a train track.  In 1915, Vitagraph star Maurice Costello told Motion Picture News, "I think the worst thirty seconds I ever spent in my life was when I was doing a scene where I was supposed to be tied to a railroad track and just get free in time to escape.  Deon [?] was supposed to be the engineer, while the real engineer was hiding in the engine cab.  In my pretended struggle to loosen my bonds, I really tangled them, and the director, seeing that something was wrong, called to Deon to stop the engine.  He had forgotten how!"

Toksvig declared it a feminist victory that the stage melodramas from which this trope originated featured a woman rescuing a man from railroad tracks rather than a man rescuing a woman.  Because, evidently, this proves that women are better than men. . . or something. 

The serial queens of silent films were always getting into trouble on trains.  Take a look at Helen Holmes in her Hazards of Helen serial.

Here's Holmes again in the 1915 episode "A Test of Courage."

But, for all of her derring-do, she could not avoid getting tied to railroad tracks.

But, as previously noted, men also had a problem in this area.  Here is photographic proof.

Million Dollar Mystery (1914)
The Dynamite Train (1915)
According to The New York Clipper, the Pennsylvania State Board of Motion Picture Censors took action in 1916 to ban scenes that featured "heroines tied to railroad tracks bravely awaiting destruction beneath the wheels of the onrushing limited."  But these were not the only scenes that concerned the board.  One of the censors, Dr. Ellis P. Oberholtzer, told a Pittsburgh Gazette-Times reporter, "Just recently we ordered out of pictures scenes showing men strapped to logs to be mixed up in moving saw mills, tied to railroad irons in front of moving trains, held in traps for wolves to devour, or to be stung by serpents, buried alive, etc."

Film historian Lea Stans pointed out in a recent Facebook post that, over the years, writers have greatly exaggerated the frequency of pies being thrown in Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies. 

Without question, critics of the period claimed to have seen many pies thrown in Keystone comedies.  A writer with The Moving Picture World spoke emphatically of the Keystone comedians' "strenuous custard pie days."  Gene Fowler devoted a vague and rambling chapter just to the pie gag in his 1934 Sennett biography "Father Goose."  He wrote, "As in golf, a man must keep his eye on the pie.  As in baseball, you must play the pie; don't let the pie play you.  As in boxing, you must lead with the pie."  Fowler thought that the greatest compliment that he could pay to Keystone star Roscoe Arbuckle was to call him "master pie-thrower."  The subject of pies often came up in discussion of Keystone leading lady Mabel Normand.  Mary Pickford said, "[A]s for dodging Keystone pies, there was no one ever on the screen who could do it more gracefully and with as much poise as Mabel."  Sennett said, "A million laughs hung on [Normand's] aim as the custard wobbled in a true curve and splashed with a dull explosion."  One journalist wrote, "Anna Luther hasn't missed a thing since she has been with the Keystone Company at Edendale. She says that she is ready at any time to make an affidavit that she has stopped every pie and egg that has come her way — with her face." One critic spoke highly of Charlie Chaplin's The Cure (1917) simply because it did not feature Chaplin throwing a pie.  He noted that Chaplin, who is "[usually] the one to do the pie-throwing and other mischievous pranks," changed his ways to be more sympathetic to the audience.  We know Chaplin did a lot more than throw pies in the films that preceded The Cure.

Film historians are only aware of the pie gag appearing in the following Keystone films:
That Rag Time Band (May 1, 1913)
A Noise from the Deep (July 17, 1913)
A Quiet Little Wedding (October 23, 1913)
A Muddy Romance (November 13, 1913)
Fatty Joins the Force (November 24, 1913)
A Fatal Flirtation (May 25, 1914)
His Trysting Place (November 9, 1914)
Gussle's Day of Rest (March 29 1915)
Sennett authority Brent Walker wrote in "Mack Sennett's Fun Factory," "In truth, the 'pie in the face' itself was relatively a rare occurrence in Keystone and Sennett films, used more frequently in homages to Sennett's work than in the films themselves."

Take a look at this food fight from La disparition d'Onésime (1913).

A wide variety of objects were thrown about in a slapstick comedy.  One journalist wrote that they often heard an "audience roar with laughter. . . while viewing a Keystone egg, pie or brick-throwing contest."  Peter Milne of Picture-Play Magazine acknowledged that slapstick comedies featured "[t]he hurling of a custard pie, a cream puff, a brick, a dish of ice cream [and] a piece of dough."  But most others just expected a simple reference to a pie fight to say everything they had to say about the messy and uninhibited violence in a slapstick film.  It was all pretty much the same.  In Shoulder Arms (1918), Chaplin handles a wedge of limburger cheese much like a pie when he rears back with it and throws it into the German trenches.  The cheese splats no differently than a pie when it strikes a German officer in the face.  But, rather than list the cream puff, the ice cream, the dough, etc., it was easier to refer to the most spectacular and most effective comic missile as single representative of all the rest.   A writer could simply denounce slapstick by asking, "Is it really funny to drench an old man from a firehose or throw a soft mince pie in a pretty face?"  A reference to a pie fight served as useful shorthand for all slapstick business.

Messy battles existed in the British music hall before the first pie fight.  The British called this "slosh comedy."  But neither food nor slosh is needed in these scenes.  This pillow fight from I Love Lucy resembles a pie fight.

In most instances, only one or two pies were thrown in a scene.  But we know of several films in which a large number of pies were launched.  A Quiet Little Wedding reportedly includes a massive pie fight among wedding guests.  Lloyd Hamilton leads a pie free-for-all at a lunch counter in Rushing the Lunch Counter (1915).  Chaplin bombards a theatre stage with pies in A Night in the Show (1915).  Chaplin and Eric Campbell engage in a merciless pie war at a movie studio in Behind the Screen (1916).  Charles Dudley starts a pie fight at a lunch counter in A Job for Life (1917).  A group of sunbathers engage in a pie fight on a beach in Surf Scandal (1917). 

Chaplin certainly knew how to stage a pie fight.

A Night in the Show (1915)

Behind the Screen (1916)

One last point needs to made on this subject.  The trade journal writers did a poor job of logging the incidents of pie battery in their summaries of the Keystone comedies.  The information that we have comes, for the most part, from the careful study of museum prints and collector prints.  No prints are known to survive for many of the Keystone films.  Film historians could never determine how many pie assaults were enacted in the missing films.

Chaplin's actions in Behind the Screen's great pie fight are more than a little similar to Lloyd Hamilton's actions in a grand food fight that was staged months earlier for The Great Detective (1916).  Like Chaplin, Hamilton approaches the battle with the attitude of a general carrying out a military campaign.  Like Chaplin, he crouches behind an overturned table to remain shielded while he throws food at his opponents.   I remember (but could be mistaken) that, like Chaplin, Hamilton uses binoculars to survey the scene.  Hamilton's opponents take refuge behind their own overturned table and take swift and decisive action to return fire.  Hamilton pushes his table forward to advance on his opponents.  His opponents maneuver forward with their own table.  The tables are soon moving around the food-strewn room like two tanks on a battlefield.

The trade periodical writers also suggested that it was Keystone that started the "pie in the face" trend in films.  The fact is, though, that this gag was firmly established in films before Sennett opened the Keystone studio in 1912.

In the 1909 Méliès comedy A Tumultuous Elopement, a hungry tramp breaks into the Darling home for food.  The tramp is leaving with a pie and jug of cider when the homeowner, Mr. Darling, comes upon him and chases after him.  The tramp responds by throwing the pie into Mr. Darling's face, which is forceful enough to knock the homeowner off his feet.

Rudolph Dirks and Harold H. Kerr's comic strip brats, The Katzenjammer Kids's Hans and Fritz, brought their usual pranks to a series of comedies produced by Selig.  The notoriously mischievous boys demonstrated a fine appreciation of the pie-in-the-face prank in the 1912 comedy They Go Tobogganing.  Moving Picture World reported, "The kids greet their father with well-aimed throws of the pies baked for the occasion, and they are rewarded with the usual spanking."

Edgar Kennedy in Lemon Meringue (1931)

I provide other examples of early pie mischief and pie violence in my book "The Funny Parts."

The pie-in-the-face gag was passé by 1922.  Peter Milne wrote in his 1922 book "Motion Picture Directing: The Fact and Theories of The Newest Art": "[P]ies are seldom used in a comedy studio these days, except in the dining room for purposes of conventional consumption."

Shivering Shakespeare (1930)
Perhaps, the pie fight is something so impressive that it can easily become exaggerated in the viewer's mind.  If the sitcom Friends featured three pie fights in its ten-season run, we'd still be talking about "all of those pie fights in Friends."  Television critic Ken Tucker would have by now praised Matthew Perry for being a "master pie-thrower."  The pie has that affect on people.


This article was wholly inspired by Lea Stans' Facebook post.  Ms. Stans has been doing great work examining silent films on her Silentology website.  Her research skills are exceptional.  I thank the great Steve Rydzewski for contributing information on A Tumultuous Elopement and They Go Tobogganing.

Reference sources

"The Screening of a Snake," Film Fun (April, 1916).

"Spit-Reel Notes for Theater Men," Motography (December 23, 1916).

Elsie McCormick, "On the Watermelon Seed Circuit," Shadowland (June, 1923).

Peter Milne, "Sure-Fire Stuff," Picture-Play Magazine (October, 1919).