The Battle of the Century - In the Cast

Hal Roach's grandfather lived and is buried near Washington, D.C., which is where the overweight character actor named Bert Roach was born, but Hal Roach said he and Bert Roach were not related. Bert Roach was a year older, entered films at the same time, and made a ton of them -- slapstick farces and highbrow features alike -- but seemed to scrupulously avoid acting jobs at the Hal Roach Studios. So here was an exception. He died in 197l, creating some confusion when Hal Roach Jr. also passed away within a year.


Steve Murphy appeared as one of two boxing "seconds" in the corner for Thunder-Clap Callahan. With his distinctive punched in nose and sunken eyes, Steve Murphy looked like he must have been a former "pug" himself. His unmistakable face can be seen in several Keaton and Chaplin films -- most notably as the pickpocket in THE CIRCUS (1928).

Charlie Hall played two roles in THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY (as if that mustache at the prizefight was supposed to fool anyone), including the pivotal part of upended pie vendor. He actually started the pie fight when he hurled one at Ollie.

In 1938, under his own byline -- "Told by Charles Hall" -- he contributed a series of articles about Laurel & Hardy to a London newspaper called THE WEEKLY NEWS.

Among his reminiscences, Charlie Hall, "The Little Nemesis," wrote, "THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY really put Laurel and Hardy on the map. I played the pie man. Stan and Babe were walking past a pie shop. Babe was peeling a banana, and threw the skin in the doorway just as I came out with a trayful of pies. Of course down I went. Babe saw me, and handed the banana to Stan, implicating him as the culprit.

"I got up and walked slowly up to Stan, and it was here that we changed our technique, or rather Stan changed it for us, for it was his idea.

"Up to then the 'heavy' had always been a big man, and the mess he made of the small comic was nobody's business. But I was only five feet, four inches, and in this scene I just went up to Babe and gently twisted his nose, put my finger in his eye, and flipped him on the Adam's apple.

"As I walked away to pick up my tray Stan blew his nose and as I bent over my tray I heard the unmistakable raspberry. Thinking it was Babe, I picked up a pie and let him have it full in the face. Babe still stood there just looking vacant. Stan said to Babe: 'Are you going to let him get away with that?' At the same time picking up a pie and handing it to Babe to throw at me....

"That started it, and before we knew where we were there were 200 people all throwing pies. We threw 5,000 pies in that scene. Was it a wow? It made Laurel and Hardy.

"It was the old stuff in a new setting....Honest to goodness slapstick is welcomed by the general public."

All of which reconciles with the scene for scene written transcription of the action in the cutting continuity. Not excerpted is what Charlie Hall apparently misremembered, confusing Thelma Todd with a composite of Dorothy Coburn and Anita Garvin, and placing Anita's scene near the outset of the pie chaos rather than at its conclusion. Although, evidently, in the initial rough assembly of scenes, that's where it did play, and that might have been the only time Charlie Hall saw the film -- in the private projection room at the studio.

A surprisingly trim Eugene Pallette enacted the insurance agent. He'd been in films since 1910, most notably appearing in THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). During 1927 he was cast in THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS and SUGAR DADDIES at Roach, plus several Charley Chase comedies.

A decade later Pallette returned to the studio in TOPPER (1937) looking and sounding much more like the rotund, jovial, gravel-voiced character actor who graced and growled through so many great films -- THE KENNEL MURDER CASE, MY MAN GODFREY, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, THE MARK OF ZORRO and THE LADY EVE. In these, his face was the size and shape of a basketball. He was so big it seemed no one else could fit into the same scene.

One time Gene Pallette said, "If you're twice as big as the other fellow, you've got twice the chance to hog the scene." In 1939 the five-foot, seven-inch actor weighed over 300 pounds. His size had doubled since making THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY.

Being a silent film, no one could hear Eugene Pallette's distinctive frog-like voice, or sense his usual sputtering exasperation. Actually no one can see him either, since his scenes in the park pushing insurance are lost. With some effort he can be glimpsed in what's left of the pie fight, almost skinny by comparison and his face covered with bakery goop.

In 1963, Stan Laurel answered a letter from Leo Riemans and shared how much Eugene Pallette enjoyed acting in slapstick comedies for the variety they offered, and that "he was very well liked on the Roach lot."

When fans think of THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, they usually conjure up fond thoughts for Anita Garvin too. She has been forever linked with that one climactic scene Robert Youngson used to cap his award-winning compilation film, THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY (1957).

"You know what kills me?" Anita said to Jordan Young in 1978. "THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. People remember me in that, and it was a nothing. It was nothing. I was working with Charley (Chase), and Stan came over and said, 'Will you do something for me on your lunch hour? It'll only take a few minutes.' "

The scene did take only a few minutes, but now it may well last forever.

"Stan asked me to stop by wardrobe and get some kind of circular skirt that would billow out to make the scene funnier," Anita recalled on another occasion in 1986. "He said to play the scene any way I wanted, so I fell on the pie, then ever so daintily and carefully I shook free of the bits of pie clinging underneath that skirt. It turned out to be the famous fanny wiggle! Then I shook my leg and hoped no one saw my predicament. That's all. Big deal!

"I did it in one take; did it in ten minutes and I was done. One take Garvin! If you needed more than one take to get any scene at the Roach studio, you didn't work there again! Babe was watching and he liked it so much he put down the pie he was eating and hugged me! Stan just stood there and laughed. I can still hear him laughing."

Originally Anita's pratfall occurred in the middle of the pie warfare. But at the first preview the scene drew such roars of laughter it was re-cut as the next-to-climax scene.

"I think it got such a big laugh," Anita reasoned, "because with my expression I got over the idea that I did not know what I was sitting in, but whatever it was, I feared the worst, was afraid to look, and hoped to God no one saw me! You all saw me!"

One another level, there's even something erotic about what happens in this scene. Not every actress could bring that quality to slapstick comedy, but Anita Garvin did.

Until Hal Roach died in 1992, Anita teased him about not paying her for the best scene in what many regard the best two-reel comedy ever made. He'd smile back, but failed to reach for his checkbook.

"I never got paid Mr. Roach," Anita would say. "Plus I want a stunt fee, overtime for missing lunch, and compensation for mental anguish over my ever lovin' black and blue bottom!"

This elicited more silent smiles from her former boss.

Anita Garvin and Stan Laurel were lifelong friends. "After that Youngson film made me 'famous' again in the 1950s," Anita reflected, "Stan said that as soon as he recovered his health he wanted to get me a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame near his. He told me to practice falling down because at the ceremony we were going to recreate that pie pratfall! What a dear, sweet man he was."

Also in the cast, Lou Costello, appearing here a full thirteen years before Abbott and Costello made their debut as a comedy team in films! Costello can be seen as a front row (and sometimes second row) ringside extra in the boxing sequence, only a couple seats to Oliver Hardy's right.

In 1968, for the first time, I saw all the still photos for THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. There was Lou Costello. No one had ever mentioned his appearance here or in any context with Laurel & Hardy. Perhaps because of that, when I told SONS OF THE DESERT co-founder Al Kilgore that Lou Costello was a boxing arena extra in the then still lost reel one, he could not, and would not believe it. Nor did he believe his own eyes when he saw the stills. It was the only time we ever disagreed about anything.

The first Abbott and Costello film was produced in 1940. The following year Abbott and Costello were voted as the number three boxoffice attraction of all movie stars. This annual audit of star power as judged by North American theatrical exhibitors was inaugurated in 1932 by the industry trade paper, MOTION PICTURE HERALD. Laurel & Hardy never came close to cracking the top ten. Abbott and Costello placed there eight times!

One could say, so much for the validity of such a poll. But maybe it illustrates the magnitude of success achieved by Abbott and Costello in the 1940s, and that no one thought it necessary to reach so far for publicity based on a brush with the then lesser team of Laurel & Hardy so many years earlier.

In 1952 Abbott and Costello shot their television series at the Hal Roach Studios. Many of the scripts for these shows were written by Clyde Bruckman, borrowing from old plots and gags developed during his association with Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. For the second season show HONEYMOON HOUSE, Bruckman clearly lifted from Keaton's ONE WEEK (1921) as its blueprint. The first episode aired was entitled THE WRESTLING MATCH; Lou Costello somehow manages to win a bout against a behemoth named Ivan the Terrible. It was Bruckman who directed BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. And yet, still, no one said anything of Lou Costello's work as an extra in this legendary comedy made at Roach half-the-century before.

In view of the silliness and often made-up nonsense dredged up by desperate press agents over the years, it seems doubly remarkable this tidbit never surfaced; almost as though it were some kind of dark secret!

When I showed the still photos to Chris Costello, she was startled. She had no idea her father had once appeared in a film with Laurel & Hardy. He had never mentioned it.

In 1927, the 2l year-old Lou Costello (born Lou Cristillo) was himself an amateur boxer, having scored eleven wins and a draw. His real dream was to crack the movies. So he left his home in Patterson, New Jersey for Hollywood. He hitchhiked across the country, arriving penniless and homeless. He slept under the stars, dined on fruit picked from trees around town, and each day he made the rounds of movie studios in search of stunt or extra work. He doubled for Joan Crawford in TAXI DANCER, and for Delores Del Rio in THE TRAIL OF '98. Both were made down the street from the Roach studios at nearby M-G-M in 1928. In fact the boxing arena where they shot BATTLE OF THE CENTURY was closer to Metro than it was to Roach.

After eighteen months of this, Costello was discouraged and left Hollywood, not to return until 1940 when the team of Abbott and Costello quickly soared to stardom on radio and in the movies and became the highest paid performers in all of show business.

Their third-last feature film was called ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KEYSTONE COPS (1955). Mack Sennett himself made a cameo appearance and even tossed a custard pie. With all the foolishness publicists dug for to fill up the pressbook, still no one breathed a word of Lou Costello's appearance in THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. Two years later Robert Youngson completed his GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY, but failed to use the prizefight.

Again, it was Clyde Bruckman who directed BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. Although his later work depended on, really, plagiarizing his early brilliant successes, Bruckman is surprisingly unsung today in view of such stellar writing and directing credits not only with Laurel & Hardy but also Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields -- THE GENERAL, MOVIE CRAZY and THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (edited by Richard Currier) being only three such credits. True all these artists exercised strong influence over their productions, but screen credit on so many classic comedies could not have been conferred for mere passive mechanics.

One day in the context of discussing Charley Chase's excessive drinking, Hal Roach said in 1969, "Charley's problem, like Leo McCarey, like Clyde Bruckman, and like Marshall Neilan, was booze. They wouldn't stop drinking; you couldn't tell them to stop. Each guy turned it back on me and made a joke out of it. They wouldn't listen to me, or their own doctors. Sooner or later, I think booze got them all."

In a 1956 letter to John McCabe, Stan Laurel wrote, "Clyde Bruckman (directed) BATTLE OF THE CENTURY -- poor Clyde committed suicide a couple of years ago (shot himself in a cafe in Santa Monica). He might have come across an old print of BATTLE and had just run it again! Poor guy, he came to see me a few months before this, he was directing Buster Keaton in some TV shorts at the time and was trying to get us to make a series to alternate with Buster."

Bruckman borrowed the gun he used to kill himself, from Buster Keaton. Years before, Bruckman's father also committed suicide, with a revolver.

The text titles for BATTLE OF THE CENTURY -- nineteen in the first reel, thirteen in the second -- were written by H.M. "Beanie" Walker, who like Roach and McCarey and Costello had a legitimate connection to the fight game. Walker had once been the sports editor for the LOS ANGELES EXAMINER. He covered all the big fights. Walker was a heavy smoker, which contributed to a heart condition. In 1937 he died of a heart attack in Chicago at the home of Hal Roach Studios music composer LeRoy Shield. Besides visiting Shield, Walker had travelled to Chicago to see a boxing match at Soldiers' Field, the same venue where Jack Dempsey lost to Gene Tunney, after that disputed long count fans still talk about. It was "The Battle of the Century."

-- by Richard W. Bann --