Columns, Glenn's Nitrate Lounge


By • Jul 7th, 2016 •

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Welcome to GLENN’S NITRATE LOUNGE, our newest Column by Glenn Andreiev

If you want to see a really great pie fight, go to the Museum of Modern Art. That is where THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, a long lost Laurel and Hardy silent short, which features the greatest pie fight in film history, will screen on July 15th, kicking off SERIOUSLY FUNNY- THE FILMS OF LEO McCAREY. This is a 16-day festival of the films of a great, diverse comedy director.

In 1927, when Laurel and Hardy, producer Hal Roach, director Clyde Bruckman, and production manager Leo McCarey were brainstorming new gags to use in upcoming comedy shorts, they knew the pie-fight gag was already considered dated and corny. They decided to create an epic-scale pie-fight that would have the pacing and timing equal to ballet. Roach green-lighted the pie-fight. A leading Los Angeles pie company supplied a day’s worth of the gooey goods. Famed writer Henry Miller saw the finished pie fight and remarked; “(THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY) is the greatest comic film ever made. 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.”

Once sound came in, silent comedy shorts like THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY went mostly unseen. The film would not resurface until the 1950’s when award winning filmmaker Robert Youngson was compiling movie clips for his new silent film documentary, THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY. Youngson’s films usually featured short segments of silent comedies or failed flying attempts accompanied by cartoon sound effects. Youngson only printed the segments he needed from a nitrate negative of the two reel BATTLE OF THE CENTURY. The pie-fight dominates the second reel of the film. Years after Youngson printed the footage, THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’s negative was junked, and became a lost film.

Flash forward to decades later. Jon Mersalis, a prominent historian/restorationist is given access to the massive film collection of a recently deceased film collector named Gordon Berkow. After sifting through over 2,000 titles, Mersalis discovers a reel labeled BATTLE OF THE CENTURY REEL 2. At first he thinks it is another copy of the easily accessible Robert Youngson film. When he decides to view the reel, the lost pie fight in its entirety shows up on the screen. Mersalis realizes a holy grail of lost cinema is at his fingertips. He sends the film to Paris, where film restorationist Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films repairs and restores the film, making it ready for new audiences.

In its complete form, THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’s pie fight is like THE WILD BUNCH’s ripping ending, only with pastries. It starts with Stan and Ollie walking down the street. They breathe fresh life into another old gag, and let a banana peel slip to the pavement. A pie delivery man (Hal Roach regular Charlie Hall) slips on the peel, and takes revenge by throwing a pie at the boys. He misses, hitting an attractive flapper on her backside, then in her shocked face. Like Clint Eastwood walking towards a showdown, the messy flapper faces them down, carefully choosing a pie and a victim, fires, misses, and hits another bystander who enters the escalating custard conflagration. The fight grows and grows.

Roach would bring back the pie fight for a 1930 sound film, the Our Gang short, SHIVERING SHAKESPEARE. In fact, Dorothy Coburn, the comic actress/stunt-woman who played the flapper in BATTLE plays a pie vendor in the Our Gang short. The Three Stooges staged their variations of the pie-fight more than once. Stanley Kubrick staged a now legendary pie fight for DR. STRANGELOVE, then discarded it. Pie fights even made their way into horror. In George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, bikers use pies on flesh-eating zombies. Watch closely, and you’ll see our editor Roy Frumkes, as a zombie, get a cream pie right in the kisser! But the best celluloid pie fight, filmed in 1927, can be seen again, along with other comedy gems, at The Museum of Modern Art’s Leo McCarey festival.

Steve Massa, film historian/author, and the co-organizer (along with Dave Kehr) of the McCarey festival stated; “Leo McCarey was one of the great personal filmmakers of Hollywood’s golden age – but in an unassuming sort of way. Never calling attention to himself with flashy camera angles or editing, his focus was on people and what he referred to as “the ineluctability of incidents.” Mole hills became mountains as the quirks, foibles and peccadilloes of his all too human characters bounced off each other and created an escalating chain of events.”

McCarey was the good luck charm for comedians. He directed The Marx Brothers in their best film, DUCK SOUP. He helmed Harold Lloyd’s best talkie. THE MILKY WAY, and his 1937 comedy, THE AWFUL TRUTH made a major star out of Cary Grant. Charles Laughton gave perhaps his best comic performance in McCarey’s western spoof RUGGLES OF RED GAP. McCarey’s BELLS OF ST. MARY’S and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, again with Cary Grant, are still sentimental favorites. The festival includes these films, along with many early Leo McCarey shorts, including one with Max Davidson, a recently rediscovered silent comic comedian – PASS THE GRAVY – where comic suspense goes from pies to a chicken.

Information on the McCarey festival can be found here.

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One Response »

  1. Glenn, you left out any mention of Charley Chase. In case you have forgotten, Charley was McCarey’s mentor and teacher during the start of his directing career. Leo has been quoted in several places as attesting to this fact. After all, they did do 50 shorts together. Maybe you’ll get a chance to edit your article, and slip in a line about Charley Chase and his impact on McCarey’s career.

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