It has to be said that 1927 was a pretty disastrous year for Laurel & Hardy. Why? I hear you wonder…well, five, yes FIVE of their films from this year were lost by the Hal Roach Studios. Thankfully most of these films have since been recovered, thanks to the efforts and dedication of committed individuals, prepared to scour the globe and chase down potential leads. ‘Hats Off‘ remains the only L&H film still frustratingly missing in it’s entirety, along with large sections of 1930’s technicolour operetta ‘The Rogue Song‘.
Another of the boy’s films that remained missing for decades was the 1927 silent two-reeler ‘The Battle of the Century’.
In the late 1950s filmmaker Robert Youngson was putting together a film entitled ‘The Golden Age of Comedy‘, which was basically a compilation of scenes from some of the classic comedies of the silent era. He wanted to include a very important Laurel & Hardy scene which featured at the end of ‘The Battle of the Century’, but all he could find was a partially decomposed negative of the film. The first reel was in such bad condition that it was a complete write-off and the second reel had also started to decompose, so Youngson reputedly salvaged what he could, transferring footage from volatile nitrate film to safety stock. The footage on this second reel, albeit incomplete due to the decomposition, contained the now famous and dare I say it legendary custard pie fight scene to end all custard pie fight scenes. It’s this scene that the film is particularly famous for and was exactly what Robert Youngson was wanting to and indeed did include in his compilation.
Jump forward another twenty one years and the missing first reel is discovered in the Museum of Modern Art, but true to form this print is also not complete, missing the last four or so minutes.
Jump forward again to 2015 and reports are posted online stating that important missing footage from the second reel had been discovered in the personal collection of a deceased film collector named Gordon Berkow. This apparently complete second reel was then entrusted to film restorationist Serge Bromberg for preservation and ultimately preparation for public release.
It appears that this more complete version is now available to view online and although still missing the scene in the park with the insurance salesman, the scenes of the boys walking down the street with Ollie trying to get Stan to slip on a banana peel is included, as is the complete pie fight – and both the comedy and the picture quality look great.
So, that’s the technical gumpf out of the way – what about the comedy?!
As I mentioned earlier, this film is mostly famous for its custard pie fight finale and the reason it’s so notable is the fight’s scale. By 1927 custard pie throwing in slapstick movies was seen as clichéd and outdated and eyebrows were raised at the Roach Studios when Stan Laurel suggested including a pie fight in this latest film. But, in a show of faith to his new star, Hal Roach allowed the scene to be filmed and the result became of piece of movie history. Stan’s idea was to have more pies thrown in this one fight scene than has probably ever been thrown in the history of on-screen pie fights. Estimates of how may pies thrown are well into the thousands, but it’s not just about numbers. The comedic value of where the pies land, whom they hit and how they get there is just massive.
A guy sitting in a dentist chair, with his mouth wide open (and my goodness, what a big mouth it is), gets a pie from out of shot, straight in the cake-hole (excuse the pun!). A lady climbing into a car gets a pie…err, in the middle of her daily duties(!) and then turns around only to receive one right in the kisser, the list goes on and on… Nobody, but nobody is safe. The whole street turns into a pie-flinging war zone and it all started with our old friend and L&H regular Charlie Hall, carrying a tray of pies and slipping on a banana skin, left on the floor by Ollie – cue revenge, cue carnage.
It’s no wonder then that this spectacle has become the identifying element of the film, but personally, my favourite parts are the opening sequences. The film opens at a boxing match, where Stan’s character Canvasback Clump “better known as the human mop”, is gearing up to take on Thunder-Clap Callahan “who will proabably win”. Thunder-Clap is played by none other than the imposing Noah Young who returns once again after terrifying the boys in their previous comedies ‘Do Detectives Think?‘ and ‘Sugar Daddies‘ and you’d be hard pushed to find a more frightening looking opponent in a boxing ring.
The laughs here just kept on coming. The comedy in these scenes comes mostly from Stan, but Ollie’s reaction to Stan’s belly-out stance during the face-off and his little glance into camera had me in stitches immediately. Stan’s warm up routine is hilarious, as is his boxing style as he leaps and prances across the ring towards Callahan, who is hastily trying to get his gloves tied on.
And there is so much more…but this is such visual comedy, delivered with absolute perfection by two masters of their craft, that trying to describe it will never do it justice. You have to see it to get it! So, I challenge anyone that says, “I hate silent comedy” to watch this boxing match and not enjoy it…it has to be an impossibility, doesn’t it!?
What are your thoughts on The Battle of the Century? Did you think it was a knock-out or a custard pie that’s curdled? Do let me know in the comments below…