The Battle of the Century - Production Sidelights

In 1919 the newly crowned heavyweight boxing champion of the world was Jack Dempsey. He visited Hal Roach Studios several times in the next few years, and posed for photos with new friends Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd. Roach had been an amateur prizefighter, while Lloyd later boxed on screen himself in THE MILKY WAY, directed by Leo McCarey, whose dad was a boxing promoter. These three were real fight fans, and the studio made many films depicting the manly art of self defense, including four with Our Gang.


Roach got an idea for a picture when Jack Dempsey fought Gene Tunney in what was billed as both "The Fight of the Century," and "The Battle of the Century." This title bout took place in Chicago on September 22, 1927. Tunney won. But there was controversy (which continues to this day) over what became known as "the long count."

Dempsey, as did Stan in the film, failed to move to a neutral corner following a knockdown, allowing his opponent to recover, and then win the fight. Everyone was talking about this match the world over. Throughout the 1920s the only name in sports to rival Jack Dempsey was Babe Ruth, and here Dempsey had lost his title in a disputed bout. Roach decided to cash in on the huge publicity with a fight film for his new stars, Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel. He'd call it THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. There, indeed, was a title to attract attention in an ad, or upon a theatre marquee!

As usual, the seminal idea evolved into something different, and better. While they shot a prizefight all right, the real battle turned out to be a pie fight, the pie fight for all time. Stan Laurel explained its genesis to John McCabe. Trying to develop the script during a story conference, one of the gag-men suggested, "We could even slip in a few pies, and...." And then Stan Laurel said everyone laughed at this uninspired notion.

"That was early Sennett, mid-Chaplin, and late everybody," was how John McCabe said the other writers hooted down such a trite idea.

Yet Stan Laurel thought this over a second time. "Look," he said, "if we make a pie picture -- let's make a pie picture to end all pie pictures. Let's give them so many pies that there will never be room for any more pie pictures in the whole history of the movies."

A pie splashed on the puss was already a cliche, but here was a fresh twist on the convention. Roach loved it. Even in his seventies, eighties and nineties, he smiled with warm delight every time someone asked him about this picture. "Stan came and told me what he wanted to do," Roach recalled in 1976. "I think I liked the idea so much I was ready to purchase every pie in Los Angeles, and start baking more in the Our Gang Cafe if we had to!"

So the prizefight quickly took a back seat to the pie fight. Roach bought an entire day's output from the Los Angeles Pie Company, a real company located at 1720 Hooper, east of the University of Southern California near downtown, about half-an-hour away from the studio in Culver City. The pie wagon seen in the film belonged to this company and delivered the 3,000 real pies -- cherry, apple, cream, custard, etc. -- used for flinging and splattering. And maybe for lunch.

"I think pie throwing in pictures began with Mabel Normand at Sennett," Hal Roach said in 1977. "Why is it funny? It's funny because of the indignity. It's funnier depending on who throws the pie, who gets the pie, and how come? You know what I mean? Who deserves it and why? To throw a pie just to throw a pie -- we never did that. But in the right context, it was a great gag. And we'd use real pies in our pictures. A real pie will stick, and hang there on somebody's face. No matter what the argument is, or what's going on, if you get hit with a pie, you're through."

Exactly two days short of two years after THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY was first issued to theatres, the Sunday LOS ANGELES TIMES ran a feature article on Laurel & Hardy, trying to explain how they became the screen's funniest comedy team. "It was Laurel's faith in the efficacy of pie throwing which turned the trick," wrote Philip K. Scheuer. "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....

"The supervising director (Leo McCarey) responded, 'Pie throwing went out with the Keystone comedies; anything else, Laurel?'...

"Laurel took his grand scheme to Roach. The producer, inclined to be generous with his brand new comedy team, agreed to it as an experiment. So THE BATLLE OF THE CENTURY was made, and with it history. The checkers clocked 110 laughs.

"Laurel explained, 'It wasn't just that we threw hundreds of pies. That wouldn't have been very funny; it had really 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 quick survey of the damage done to his person. Then indignation and a desire for revenge would possess him; if he saw another pie close at hand, still unspoiled, he would grab it and let it 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, which was really an old formula reapplied, came into existence, and Roach, Laurel, and Hardy prospered.

" 'It is a formula easily overdone,' Laurel continued. 'People come to me every day and suggest that we change it, when the truth of the matter is that we have used it in only five of the thirty two-reelers we have made since that first one.' "

A few days later, on January 11, 1930, one W.E. Oliver of the LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD visited the studio for another story on Laurel & Hardy. "Hal Roach Studios were completely intact when I went out there to interview the pair," wrote Oliver. "I remarked on it, recalling the vogue they started with their comedy, THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. They laughed.

" 'But you should have seen the street when we got through making the picture,' Stan said.

" 'We used up 6,000 real pies,' broke in Oliver.

" 'The extras lived on pies for three days,' added Stan."

In the original, official, late 1927 publicity, the studio stated they paid to use 3,000 pies. In retelling the tale over just two years, the number of pies eaten, thrown, and sat upon had grown from 3,000 to 6,000 -- perhaps a pardonable exaggeration. The story, like the filmed execution of the pie fight itself, built beautifully.

-- by Richard W. Bann --