The Battle of the Century - Preservation

In the battle to survive, as they exist today, both reels of this subject have fought hard but sustained heavy body blows. For different reasons, both are incomplete. Only part of reel one exists, and only a smaller part of reel two exists.

For reel one we have everything through the boxing match, which was originally released with an amber tint. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the balance of the first reel, issued without any tint, is lost. Was the straight black and white footage more susceptible to nitrate deterioration? Perhaps this element was manufactured separately and never spliced together with the balance of the first reel which then became separated and lost.

According to the cutting continuity (because the actual footage is long gone), reel one ends after the park scene and the insurance transaction, right at the point where the boys are walking through town, bumping into things.

Reel two begins with Stan slipping on the first banana skin. It's another nineteen scenes later -- all lost -- before Charlie Hall crosses the threshold with his tray of pies, which is the scene so well known since it marks the start of Robert Youngson's excerpt. From that point what survives of reel two is only what Youngson copied to use, and exactly as it appears in THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY. Nothing more.

And while what he used covers material spanning the entire rest of the reel through Anita Garvin's magnificent scene, it is all compressed, condensed, full of internal edits. Purists have argued that Youngson wanted only the slapstick highlights, at the cost of characterization and careful buildup. So while the abridgement plays at a brisk pace, the heart and soul may well be lost with the missing footage. The slow, reasoned construction -- the foundation, the personality -- is gone, changing the nature and meaning of the piece entirely. We seem to be left with what amounts to a lot of punctuation marks, at the price of reduced content and understanding.

We are left without the intended motivation for tossing each pie, or the full reaction of being plastered with each pie, or the transitions necessary to involve the audience and carefully build the comedy.

It's the kind of thing Hal Roach always discussed when asked about his theories of comedy construction. It's also one of the reasons why he disliked the Youngson compilations. Timing, pacing, building, he knew how important these concepts were. When someone tampers with these -- cutting material filmed and used for a reason -- the desired impact on an audience can be lost along with the footage discarded.

We know Stan Laurel abhorred the way television stations edited the Laurel & Hardy films for broadcast; it is not known how he regarded this similar exercise practiced, however more carefully, by Youngson. He may well have been grateful for the critical acclaim Youngson's compilations brought Laurel & Hardy; these films were indeed blockbusters. If he disapproved of the abridgements, it is likely he was too much of a gentleman to have voiced an opinion. Of course without the wonderful work contributed by Youngson we might not have any portion of this fragile classic at all.

Reading the cutting continuity reveals how different the more than twice as long original version was from the highly abridged and perhaps degraded cut Youngson made. John McCabe charitably called Youngson's excerpt "tantalizingly brief." It would appear that while Youngson quickened the pace of reel two with what some might term tampering, it can also be argued he blunted the comedy values.

In a 1969 letter, however, Bill Everson did not agree. "By the time the film was available for substandard distribution through Blackhawk Films," Everson wrote, "the decomposition in the negative had progressed to a point where the subject was no longer printable -- and there were no protection prints on the whole subject, since Bob Youngson had only copied the pie sequence as he intended to use it. At Youngson's invitation I did see a very complete version of THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY before serious deterioration set in. The prizefight was rather tedious we both agreed, and when Bob streamlined the pie fight I thought he gave it punch. It is actually a much weaker subject than its condensed form would indicate."

We may never know for sure. Youngson did graduate from the Harvard Business School, but one is inclined to rely instead upon the judgement of the Roach studios braintrust and their presentation. Should there be any doubt, speed is not the basis of film comedy, as BIG BUSINESS proved. Incidentally, pressed to specify when he screened the complete BATTLE OF THE CENTURY with Youngson, Bill Everson could not say, but it must have been sometime between 1950 and 1957, and more likely earlier than later within that range.

Curiously Bill Everson would seem to have contradicted himself in a piece written by Andrew Sarris for the NEW YORK TIMES when he was quoted as saying, "While I appreciate television's role in promoting film scholarship, I think it's dangerous to blithely cut old movies down to current specifications. Even when we are not involved with the sanctity of a work of art, we are involved with the integrity of history."

On the other hand, it is likely that without Bob Youngson's efforts we might not have any portion of the pie fight.

Kent Eastin, founder of Blackhawk Films, Hal Roach Studios' non-theatrical distributor at the time, offered a somewhat different account of the preprint material which was available to Bob Youngson for his GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY. In response to a 1968 inquiry, he wrote, "Youngson told me that when he was preparing THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY in the mid-1950s, the only element available on BATTLE OF THE CENTURY was a negative of reel two that had already started to turn brown indicating an early stage of decomposition. He used about 300-plus feet out of 1,000 feet, although the footage was chosen selectively spanning almost the entire reel.

"Of course when Hal Roach produced BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, the studio was making two to four original camera negatives and duplicate negatives to be used for printing in various parts of the world. Therefore there exists the distinct possibility that one of these negatives survives. So far, Hal Roach Studios has been unable to locate it for us. If and when such preprint material is found, we will propose to issue it since we do have this title under contract."

The public and critical response to BATTLE OF THE CENTURY as excerpted in THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY was overwhelming. Youngson re-edited the pie fight for a second showcase in his LAUREL & HARDY'S LAUGHING 20s in 1965.

Shortly before he died, Youngson told Leonard Maltin in 1968, "My goal is to preserve as much of this great comedy material as possible." While it's true his popular compilations from 1957 to 1970 were perhaps the principal reason for the revival of interest in classic comedies for mass audiences, Youngson was not in the business of restoring and preserving films. Not in the sense people talk about today.

As mentioned, Youngson preserved only what he copied to use. He edited as he converted the nitrate. He could have made a safety fine grain of the entire two reels. He told Chuck McCann he could not afford the added expense.

"He watched every penny," according to David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates. "He would paper off sections and print tab to tab. Youngson was not an archivist in disguise; he simply consumed the material." Whether Youngson realized it or not, he wound up preserving what he used, but only what he copied to use. The rest, the trims, are now lost.

It was not Robert Youngson's responsibility to save the complete BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, but he did have the opportunity.

So until 1975, all anyone could see of BATTLE OF THE CENTURY was Youngson's tightly edited condensation of the pie fight running a little over three minutes. That year Leonard Maltin was hired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York as the guest curator for their bicentennial show, which ran almost nine months, on the history of American comedy. Pursuing this assignment, Leonard Maltin discovered the hiding place of the lost reel one for BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. And where did he travel to find it? Bovania? The high multitudes? Upper Lapland?

No. Reel one was rescued from the deep, dark, lost regions of the Museum of Modern Art right there in New York. Otherwise it might still be there, rotting away as the world's best kept secret.

"Doing this show for MOMA was before the age of computers," Leonard Maltin remembers. "I decided to go through the entire manual card file of every holding in the archive, card by card, to see what was there. It was a revelatory experience. There was a lot of material that I never knew existed at all, let alone in their collection. And there were things that people on the staff didn't remember or realize they had. Some things had been acquired so long ago and never even been screened.

"So you can imagine my excitement at finding a card that read BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, reel one, 35mm nitrate print. I almost flipped! I couldn't believe my eyes. I thought to myself, you mean, people have been killing themselves for years trying to find this thing, and all along it's been sitting right here?

"I thought maybe the card was mistaken, that it was really BARGAIN OF THE CENTURY (1933), with Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. Immediately we had the reel pulled for a private screening upstairs at MOMA. Sure enough it was the complete prizefight from reel one. So I scheduled it on a Sunday program, June 27, 1976 to maximize the opportunity for fans to see this rare find.

"Then on the day of the screening, the projectionist felt the print was too fragile, or the splices were weak. He felt that either the condition of the print presented a fire risk, or that we shouldn't jeopardize unique material until first striking a safety preservation copy. So a lot of people showed up that day and were very disappointed."

The various licensees of Hal Roach Studios did make their safety dupe negatives to protect the footage, but MOMA records failed to reflect when, or by whom, the prizefight from reel one had been donated.

Any attempt to reconstitute the film now must necessarily fall back on using a combination of still photos and explanatory text to bridge the continuity. That may seem like a sad, frustrating ending, but considering the fate, to date, of something like HATS OFF, we can be grateful for the elements which do survive.

Meanwhile the fight to locate the missing footage continues, as the battle of the new century.

-- by Richard W. Bann --