+The Battle of the Century - Contemporary, or at Least More Contemporary, Film Criticism
Leonard Maltin: "THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY ... has taken on classic status, and deservedly so. Its climax is the greatest pie-throwing battle ever staged for a film and one of the great scenes in all of screen comedy."
Walter Kerr: "Laurel & Hardy were the most destructive of all comedians, hurling more pies in THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY than the Sennett lot had ever baked."
Charles Barr: "(THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY) is the first, if not the finest, of their apocalyptic scenes of mass violence."
Randy Skretvedt: "One of the highlights of the film is a brilliantly executed throwaway gag featuring the queen of comic hauteur, Anita Garvin; it is one of the great moments in all of Laurel & Hardy."
William K. Everson: "Until its final third THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY is rather tame going, but its climactic fight -- now justly famous through its inclusion in the Robert Youngson compilation THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY, for it was strangely overlooked at the time -- automatically makes it one of the major Laurel & Hardy works."
For LIFE magazine, in 1949, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic James Agee contributed a piece called COMEDY'S GREATEST ERA, in which he wrote, "For Sennett's rival, Hal Roach, Leo McCarey once devoted almost the whole of a Laurel & Hardy two-reeler to pie-throwing. The first pies were thrown thoughtfully, almost philosophically. Then innocent bystanders began to get caught into the vortex. At full pitch it was Armageddon. But everything was calculated so nicely that until late in the picture, when havoc took over, every pie made its special kind of point and piled on its special kind of laugh."
Controversial novelist Henry Miller, author of TROPIC OF CANCER, in an essay he wrote in 1945 called THE GOLDEN AGE (no doubt the source of Youngson's title, for which he began gathering film elements five years later), hailed THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY as "The greatest comic film ever made -- because it brought the pie-throwing to apotheosis. There was nothing but pie-throwing in it, nothing but pies, thousands and thousands of pies and everybody throwing them right and left. It was the ultimate in burlesque, and it is already forgotten."
While THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY obviously did make an indelible impression on some, it was strangely overlooked throughout its release in 1928 and quickly forgotten by all too many. The Hollywood trade papers largely ignored the short and failed to review it. In 1957, however, when Youngson finished assembling his award-winning anthology film THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY, he chose to excerpt the pie fight for his climax, effectively saying, as Henry Miller had, that of all the great silent comedies, here is the single best sequence ever made. Ever. And not just one of the best. The best. Without qualification. Better than the best of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Spec O'Donnell, anyone, ever.
And the tragedy of it is that we will likely never see the sequence as intended by the filmmakers who created it, for we have only a fragment, a cut up extract surviving to bear witness to the claims made by those who saw the complete version and experienced its impact upon audiences in 1928.
On January 2, 1936, for the re-named LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD EXPRESS, columnist Harrison Carroll printed Leo McCarey's top ten list of the funniest comedy scenes of all time. In order, the first four sequences were from these films: Charlie Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH, Harold Lloyd's SAFETY LAST, W.C. Fields' IT'S A GIFT, and Laurel & Hardy's BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. McCarey, who at first opposed filming a slapstick pie sequence, obviously and to his credit reversed his opinion! Since he supervised the project, McCarey thought it would be self-serving to name his own picture any higher than the fourth funniest he'd ever seen.
John Ford was selected to be the first recipient of The American Film Institute's prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. He is the most honored director in the history of movies. A lot of people -- fans and critics alike -- believe Ford was the greatest director of all time. At different times he cited different films as the best ever made, in his opinion. Ford was known to rhapsodize about McCarey's GOING MY WAY, Jean Renoir's GRAND ILLUSION, and pupil John Wayne's THE ALAMO. On one occasion John Ford declared his personal favorite film to be Laurel & Hardy's THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY.
One wonders -- any chance Ford owned a complete print, on any gauge? Film searchers would like to know.
It is true pies were thrown in many silent comedies, but full scale pie-throwing melees were not as common as one might imagine in early Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin set the standard when he made BEHIND THE SCREEN (1916) for Mutual. While disproving Stan Laurel's prediction of the pie picture's demise, the slapstick fracas of Our Gang's SHIVERING SHAKESPEARE (1930) fell short of the intervening mark set by Laurel & Hardy, but was a worthy effort, and intended to vary the formula.
The Three Stooges, regular and derivative practitioners of broad, low comedy, threw pies often, most successfully in HOI POLLOI (1935), its remake HALF-WITS HOLIDAY (1947), and in THE SWEET PIE AND PIE (1941).
In 1935, attempting to revive the Keystone formula, Warner Brothers made a milestone two-reel comedy called KEYSTONE HOTEL, featuring several Mack Sennetters-then-still-at-large. It was so good that KEYSTONE HOTEL became one of the most frequently excerpted shorts ever, used always to represent a particular style of filmmaking associated with Keystone, silent comedy, and the custard pie era -- even though it's none of the above!
The year Stan Laurel died, 1965, Blake Edwards dedicated his film called THE GREAT RACE to "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy." This film, starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood featured a monumental pie fight, and was consciously patterned after THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY.
"I worked with Leo McCarey, and I used to get him talking," Edwards explained. "He talked about the early days, about Hal Roach and Laurel & Hardy and the great pie fight....I would say I learned as much from McCarey as from anybody."
Though his tribute was sincere, Blake Edwards could not duplicate the skill and instinct and inspiration with which these Hal Roach filmmakers created THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. Lots of pies were hurled in THE GREAT RACE, but they fell flat, generated few laughs, and probably tasted like shaving cream. THE BATTLE was the real thing.
On American television, the number one practitioner in the art of pie throwing has always been Soupy Sales, who began as a kids' show host. In 1973 he participated in a seminar with John McCabe at Lake Superior State College, and explained how nearly every celebrity he ever met wanted to come on his show and get plastered with pies. They begged him. Particularly after Frank Sinatra did it.
"I think there isn't anybody around that hasn't wondered what it felt like to get hit with a pie, or hit somebody with a pie. Laurel & Hardy were really a great inspiration to me and also to other comedians. I've always liked pie throwing, because I like physical comedy. It becomes a common denominator, an equalizer."
On August 1, 1980, for an international SONS OF THE DESERT convention held in Los Angeles, a pie fight was staged on a high school field in North Hollywood. Exactly 2,000 pies of all varieties were purchased and laid out in long rows on tables for the scores of combatants to toss. The ceremonial first pie was to be thrown by Anita Garvin. Her target: Bob Satterfield of the WAY OUT WEST tent, in costume as Oliver Hardy. The event was to be filmed for a national network program called REAL PEOPLE. As with most productions, there were delays. Those pies received an extra baking in the hot sun while everyone waited. And waited. The milk ingredient of those cream pies did not react well under the hot San Fernando Valley sun. In the end, the final glory of being soaked with rancid, sticky pies to recreate THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY may not have been worth the effort for some. As one indication, some of the pie fighters on that particular day have not been seen again since.
-- by Richard W. Bann --