We are trying to do something with Laurel & Hardy's famously incomplete, silent, two-reel comedy THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. I say "trying" because we are not finished yet, and I say "trying something" because we cannot call this a restoration in the strict sense. The reason being, in the last quarter century, no new "lost" footage has been recovered.
So what are we doing? What will the new version of THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY consist of? For this reconstruction we are presenting the same surviving footage, but a little differently. We are using a track comprised of sound-era Hal Roach Studios incidental music scoring, as recreated by the Beau Hunks orchestra. We are tinting the opening prize fight sequence amber, as it was originally intended and shown. We are restoring all the text inter-titles exactly as written by H.M. "Beanie" Walker (there were 19 in reel one, and 13 in reel two). And we are inserting concise non-Blackhawk-Films-inspired explanatory text and still photos to bridge gaps in the motion pictures that do exist.
The surviving footage out of reel one, runs six and one-half minutes, out of what was originally and approximately ten minutes. The surviving footage out of reel two, runs three and one-quarter minutes, out of ten. So even after restoring text title cards for the lost scenes, and also where filmmaker Robert Youngson removed them from the extant pie fight footage in reel two, virtually half the picture is still missing. That's a lot.
So one half of the picture is lost, and truly lost. Not lost in the sense of being forgotten, or difficult to see; this footage remains impossible to see. It's really lost. Half of it. How successful was Stan Laurel without Oliver Hardy? How successful was Hardy without Laurel? How funny can one-half of BATTLE OF THE CENTURY be without the other half? Can it measure up to any part of the inordinate praise heaped on the picture by the many highly respected critics and filmmakers who saw the complete BATTLE in 1927 and 1928? How good can it be, missing half the film? Well certainly better than having neither half of HATS OFF.
The only BATTLE footage which remains fully intact is the opening six and one-half minutes (including the main and production credit titles) consisting of the complete prizefight. Not a frame of that is missing. Thereafter, the morning after, the episode in the park, with Eugene Pallette as the uncharacteristically thin and silent accident insurance salesman, is gone. The negotiation, the exploding fountain pen, Stan being clueless -- all that is entirely gone.
Also gone are the scenes with Laurel & Hardy walking through town, bumping into things. Reel one ends just before Ollie sees a vendor's bunch of bananas and conceives the idea to engineer a mishap for the unwitting Stan in order to collect money on the accident insurance policy.
At the outset of reel two, a few scenes showing Stan walking by and missing the strategically planted banana peel take us up to an altercation with a policeman. He slips on the banana peel Ollie intended for Stan, and falls down, displeased. When Ollie quickly hands off the rest of the banana to his unsuspecting partner, the cop clubs Stan over the head. Soon Stan has a baseball-sized lump there like the one Charlie Hall sustained in LAUGHING GRAVY. Stan is stunned, unconscious on his feet. He cries, but Ollie, especially heartless and manipulative here, says that they'll "get $1,000 for that pineapple," all of which is lost footage.
It is at this point, maybe two and one-half minutes into reel two, that a vendor, Charlie Hall, walks out of his shop, carrying a tray full of pies. This is where we join the pie fight footage Robert Youngson excerpted for use in his 1957 landmark compilation THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY, thereby effectively saving it so that the pie war extract still exists today.
Robert Youngson was not an archivist. He wasn't intending to do so, but by converting, selectively, the quickly deteriorating nitrate onto safety film stock, in order to incorporate the footage he wanted for his anthology feature, Youngson preserved it. He had at least the opportunity to run a complete fine grain preservation element, and save the entire film, but then so did his licensor, Hal Roach Studios, which did nothing. Not long after Youngson pulled what he needed, the complete nitrate reel two decomposed while in the custody of Bonded Storage in New York, was counted out, and then junked.
Concerning the Youngson condensation of the pie fight which does exist, the trouble here is that the extant three and one-quarter minutes, out of the remaining seven and one-half minutes of reel two, is not a straight lift. Youngson not only removed all the text title cards, he compressed the pie fight footage, and he scrambled the sequence of the scenes he did use! So without the titles, and with the internal cuts and shuffling of scenes, what's left is quite different than the construction and pacing and feel intended by the filmmakers who created THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. Youngson's extract now seems more like a trailer or a prevue, once one reads the cutting continuity transcript and knows how much is missing. A lot is missing.
We can make no attempt to restore the proper sequence of reel two without the substantial, missing footage.
Fortunately re-inserting the title cards does not upset the continuity, although doing so obviously affects the timing and pacing because Youngson believed his condensed cut could play without text titles. On the other hand, Stan Laurel could not have been pleased by the way Youngson abridged, shuffled and tampered with -- some would say mutilated -- the final cut Laurel built and Hal Roach approved. And we know Roach was displeased, because he (personally) sued Youngson. But that's another story.
Youngson's tightly edited piece concludes with the squishy cameo by Anita Garvin. Footage after that --a reappearance by the cop inquiring why the entire street is choked with airborne pies -- is gone. Our ending is going to be a surprise.
We have succeeded in locating all the still photos, which helps fill the breaches in continuity.
In the formal essay on THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, coverage is devoted to the considerable exploitation campaign given the picture by its distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There are some very interesting still photos -- showing billboards, theatre marquees, ushers, lobby displays -- promoting Los Angeles engagements for BATTLE at two of the prestige movie palaces of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. We will use some of these photos.
Both movie houses were run by that master showman and impresario, Sid Grauman, for the West Coast Theatres chain. One was The Metropolitan, a huge showcase facility at Pershing Square, the intersection of Sixth and Hill, in downtown Los Angeles, which is now gone. The other theatre was near Grauman's Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard; it was Grauman's Egyptian Theatre, built in 1922, itself now beautifully restored and the new home of the American Cinematheque. Only a few weeks ago three silent Max Davidson comedies were shown at The Egyptian Theatre as part of the annual Cinecon festivities.
If Max Davidson can find his way back to The Egyptian, so can BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, hopefully on a day when pies instead of giant-sized Milk Duds are available at the concession stand.
Meanwhile the long count and the battle of the new century continues as film fans, pie connoisseurs, and archivists everywhere endeavor to locate all the missing footage from this and other prized films.
We calculate the only sure way to find the complete two reels of THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY is to spend a prizefighter's purse worth of money on a restoration project, which as certain as any insurance policy ever sold by the likes of Eugene Pallette will produce a communication from some cloistered soul, somewhere, who's had the thing all along and will gladly share it with the world, thereby rendering our new-version elements immediately obsolete. Still, that would be, happily, the bargain of the century. Although, if it were, wouldn't we be back where we started?
-- by Richard W. Bann --