17. The Battle of the Century (1927)

Filmed: October 5 to October 29, 1927  Released: December 31, 1927  Produced by: Hal Roach  Directed by: Clyde Bruckman              Photographed by: George Stevens  Titles by: H.M. Walker

Main Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Noah Young, Charlie Hall, Eugene Pallette, Dorothy Coburn, Anita Garvin

It’s widely acknowledged that 1927 is an important year in the history of Laurel and Hardy, for the main reason that this was the year that saw them develop into and become a well-established and widely loved comedy team. However, there is another reason that makes the year significant. Five of the boys’ films from this period were ‘lost’ over time by the Hal Roach Studios.  Thankfully most of these films have since been recovered, owing to the efforts and dedication of certain committed individuals, prepared to scour the globe and chase down these elusive titles. Today, Hats Off remains the only Laurel and Hardy film still frustratingly missing in its entirety, along with large sections of the 1930 Technicolor operetta, The Rogue Song. Among Stan and Babe’s films that remained missing for decades was the 1927 silent two-reeler, The Battle of the Century. 

Battle’s’ history is an interesting one and incredibly stretches from its inception in late 1927 up to the end of 2020. The story begins, as all stories do, right at the beginning, and even though Clyde Bruckman took the directorial credits for the film, a large portion of its genesis, development and overall success can, arguably, be attributed to Supervising Director, Leo McCarey. According to Wes D. Gehring, McCarey’s father was a notable boxing promoter covering the West Coast of the U.S. and as one of the main features of the picture is a parody of a famous heavyweight boxing match, it could be reasonably posited that it was Leo McCarey who came up with the idea for the picture.

The actual sporting contest that Stan and Babe parodied in the film, was held on September 22nd, 1927, just one month before shooting commenced, between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. It was an eagerly awaited re-match and was promoted as, ‘The Battle of the Century’. The victor of the bout was Tunney, despite him being knocked down in the seventh round. This incident gave the fight the historic nick-name ‘The Long-Count Fight’, due to the fact that whilst Tunney was on the canvas, seeing stars, Dempsey wouldn’t retreat to a neutral corner of the ring, delaying the referee’s count. This ridiculous delay lasted so long that Tunney was eventually able to compose himself, stand up, continue to fight and ultimately win. This farcical scene is reproduced at the start of the Laurel and Hardy film, with Stan as Canvasback Clump, “better known as the human mop“, gearing up to take on Thunder-Clap Callahan, “who will probably win“. Thunder-Clap is played by none other than the dangerously menacing Noah Young, returning 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.

The laughs here are plentiful. 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. The comedy in these scenes comes mostly from Stan, but Ollie’s reactions to Stan’s belly-out stances during the face-off and his little glances into the camera are wonderful.  This is such visual comedy, delivered with absolute perfection by two masters of their craft.

Despite the importance of the film’s link to the historic Dempsey/Tunney clash, The Battle of the Century is most well-known today for its second reel, specifically the grand pie fight finale. As usual, the boys work themselves into a situation where a small altercation with one individual, on this occasion pie delivery man, Charlie Hall, quickly escalates into a scene of mass carnage, drawing into it everyone in literal striking distance. The legendary notoriety of this finale, however, is not to do with the throwing of pies per se, it’s all to do with the scale of the conflict, with estimates of pies thrown varying between three and five thousand.

By 1927 pie-throwing in slapstick movies was seen as very clichéd and outdated and eyebrows were raised at the Roach Studios when Stan Laurel originally suggested including a pie fight in their latest film. This extract from an article in The Los Angeles Times, dated 29th December 1927, tells the story:

It was Laurel’s faith in the efficacy of pie throwing which turned the trick. Pies had been thrown, to be sure, on the Roach lot before. They were being thrown, even in the comedy which Lionel Barrymore acted for Roach about four years ago. But only in moderation – one, two, perhaps three pies, and that was considered enough.

Roach’s comedies were “clocking” on an average of fifty laughs in those days. Laurel approached the supervising director one morning and shyly suggested a way to raise the ante to eighty. His method would consist, simply and directly, of throwing more pies. Not one, not two, not ten or twenty, but hundreds, even thousands.

“Pie throwing went out with Keystone comedies”, said the supervising director shortly. “Anything else, Laurel?”

There was nothing else – just more pie throwing, and Laurel couldn’t have that. The supervising director in time moved away into the feature field and Laurel, sensing his opportunity, took his grand scheme to Roach. The producer, inclined to be generous with his brand-new comic team, agreed to it as an experiment. So “The Battle of the Century” was made, and with it history. The checkers, scarcely crediting their ears, clocked 110 laughs.

“It wasn’t that we threw hundreds of pies,” Laurel explained, “that wouldn’t have been very funny; it really had passed out with Keystone. 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 desire for revenge would possess him; if he saw another pie close at hand, still unspoiled, he would grab it up and let fly.”

This is what the innocent bystander did in “The Battle of the Century”, and audiences sensing keenly his plight, relished it and his reaction to it. Thus a new “slow-slapstick” formula reapplied, came into existence and Roach, Laurel and Hardy prospered…”

As Wes. D. Gehring expertly summarises in his Bio-Bibliography of the boys, it is this film and particularly this finale scene that Stan Laurel later identified as the first moment the team, including McCarey, consciously changed the pace of the boys’ comedy, allowing the reaction to settle in, before any retaliation commenced. From this small but incredibly significant change, their comedy evolved, ultimately developing into the trademark tit-for-tat contests that are so adored by the team’s fans.

The pie fight is unquestionably what The Battle of the Century is most known for. According to an interview, unusually with both Stan and Babe, conducted by Helen Louise Walker and published in Motion Picture Classic, June 1930, it wasn’t just the hurling of pies that posed all the danger on set:

“…We made a picture not long ago in which we used more than five thousand big, gloopy custard pies.”

“And most of those pies landed on me,” sighed Laurel.

“I guess more of them landed on me!” retorted Hardy. “In the first place, there’s more of me!”

“We didn’t mind the pies so much, though. You get used to pies, in this business. But this was an outdoor set and there were a lot of bee-hives not far away. The pies attracted the bees and we were simply covered with the things. They couldn’t sting us because the stuff – the custard – was too thick all over us. But they certainly gave us a lot of trouble.”

Following on from the successes of The Second Hundred Years and Hats Off, Hal Roach’s vision, for his short subjects to receive equal billing with feature-length dramas, became even more entrenched and with good reason. Laurel and Hardy’s popularity was growing at an astonishing rate, with each new release. An article, written by Whitney Williams in The Los Angeles Times, December 11th, 1927 explains:

The two-reel comedy is at last having its day…It has simply come to the point whereby the two-reeler, provided it warrants the rating, will share equal billing with the longer production. “The Battle of the Century”, co-billed this week at the Metropolitan, with “Man, Woman and Sin”, is evidence of this new scheme, a step that doubtless betokens similar theater procedure across the country. Produced by Hal Roach, these comedies and their important placement on theater bills realize a dream long held by Roach.

Roach, recognized as one of the cleverest of comedy producers, has always felt that humor in films should not be subservient to drama. He believes, and his contention is a very logical one, that a good two-reel comedy is received with the same acclaim by an audience as the seven-reel feature production…”

To this end, ‘Battle’ was afforded the same large-scale level of marketing as had proved so worthwhile in the promotion of Hats Off, as The Film Daily, December 8th, 1927, reported:

When the two-reel Roach comedy, “The Battle of the Century” opens at the Metropolitan next week, Harold B. Franklin, general manager of West Coast Theaters, will back it with a big advertising drive… As one phase of the campaign one hundred 24-sheets will be posted in Los Angeles. Special newspaper space will be used in addition to that which is ordinarily occupied by the Metropolitan.  Two special newspaper ad-cuts are being prepared…A trailer will also be used in connection with the wide exploitation…all key points in the Southern division will use trailers, cuts, stories, lobby cards, and snipes…A special radio hook-up is being arranged for Laurel and Hardy. The Egyptian will run the picture two weeks after the Metropolitan and all other de luxe houses a week later…”

Resurrecting a comedy device that was widely acknowledged as dead, or at the very least dying, was a brave move for Messrs. Roach, Laurel, Hardy and McCarey, but it was a gamble that paid off handsomely. In Exhibitor’s Herald and Motion Picture World, February 11th, 1928, the proprietor of the Dayton Theatre, Ohio, wrote “Absolutely the best comedy I have ever played and I don’t mean maybe. Hal Roach comedies are in a class all by themselves.

Equally approving was a review in The Record, December 13th, 1927: “What is hailed as the funniest comedy since Charlie Chaplin’s “Shoulder Arms”, is now hilariously entertaining Metropolitan Theatre audiences…The comedy that has created a veritable sensation co-stars Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in “The Battle of the Century”…The initial co-starring vehicle of the newest screen team is packed with wicked wallops, laughing thrills and rib-tickling situations calculated to upset the equilibrium of the most blasé grouch…”

For the sake of balance, it should perhaps be noted that it wasn’t all confetti and ticker-tape. Two years after the film’s release, ‘Battle’ was still playing in some theatres, arguably illustrating its popularity, but even so, The Standard Union, June 12th, 1929 reviewed it thus: “The Hal Roach comedy starring Laurel and Hardy is either so old or so stupid that the action (supposedly hilarious) involves the time-worn casting of custard pie and other equally messy foodstuffs…”

This negativity was the exception rather than the norm. The Battle of the Century was a huge hit with theatre owners and their audiences, but sadly, as discussed earlier, after 1930 the film disappeared and was not seen again for a couple of decades. Then, in the late 1950s filmmaker, Robert Youngson was putting together a film entitled, The Golden Age of Comedy, which was, in essence, a compilation of scenes from some of the classic comedies of the silent era. Youngson was determined to include The Battle of the Century’s grand finale, but all he had to work with 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 he salvaged what he could, transferring footage from the volatile nitrate film to safety stock. The remaining, usable footage was then edited into, as Glenn Mitchell describes, “a fast-paced and admittedly very effective summary”. The footage on this second reel, albeit incomplete due to the decomposition, contained the pie fight to end all pie fights, up to and including Anita Garvin’s slip, splat and exit. It’s these scenes that Robert Youngson was so keen to include in his compilation.

Then, in 1975, as author Randy Skretvedt informs us, the missing first reel, containing the boxing match sequence was discovered by Leonard Maltin in the vaults of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, but true to form this print was also not complete, missing the last four minutes or so.

Jump forward to 2015 and reports begin to circulate online, stating that film archivist, Jon C. Mirsalis had discovered, in the personal collection of a deceased film collector named Gordon Berkow, a 16mm print of the second reel, containing the important missing footage. The news was greeted with great excitement and the complete second reel was entrusted to film restorer, Serge Bromberg for preservation and ultimately preparation for public release.

Although still missing a small sequence from reel one, the now ‘almost complete’ Battle of the Century was released on June 16th, 2020 on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kit Parker Films, as a highlight of the Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations set.

In one final twist to ‘Battle’s’ story, for the time being at least, on December 14th, 2020, The Battle of the Century was included amongst the annual selection of the 25 most influential American motion pictures and was duly inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. These films are specially selected because of their cultural, historic, or aesthetic importance to the nation’s film heritage, so after ninety-three years from the date of its production, this legendary picture has finally been granted the respect it deserves.

16 thoughts on “17. The Battle of the Century (1927)”

  1. I agree the best bit is the boxing mis-match – the way Stan moves about the ring is a joy to watch.

    1. I was at Library of Congress when Jon Marsalis announced that he had the second reel of Battle of the Century. The place was crazy …..and we just watched with such amazement and joy.

      What a debt we owe to the people who find preserve and bring these gems to us

  2. Wonderful, informative article on this classic! I got to see the restored version at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It was definitely a highlight! Thanks for contributing this to our blogathon. 🙂

    1. Many thanks for your kind comments on the blog, I’m so glad you found it interesting. I very much enjoyed participating in the Blogathon and thank you to you for the opportunity.

  3. My introduction to Laurel and Hardy was through The March of the Wooden Soldiers, a beloved family favorite. Recently, I have been making my way through the boys’ filmography but haven’t come across this one yet. However, I will be back to absorb the wonderful information you’ve provided on Battle of the Century and more on this incomparable comedy team!

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