A cream-filled pie landing – splash – in the face of an adversary is a popular trope of silent slapstick comedy, along with bumbling Keystone Kops and strategically placed banana peel. And now we hear that one of the classic piefights of all time has been rediscovered – the all-out epic splatterfest that crowns Laurel and Hardy’s silent film The Battle of the Century (1927).
That street brawl, involving a van full of pies and a cast of dozens, is gleeful, gore-free carnage – a classic movie moment in its own right. But until now, the fight, and the film it belongs to, have been truncated. The Battle of the Century was formed of two reels, and much of it has been missing since the silent era. The fight itself, or at least most of it, had been preserved, but the rest was not to be found. The first reel was discovered in the late 1970s, but the second reel, which contains the piefight, has been unseen for decades longer.
This weekend, according to reports, the discovery was announced to a group of silent film experts at the Mostly Lost film workshop in Culpeper, Virginia. It seems that the footage was disocvoered by composer and historian Jon Mirsalis among the Gordon Berkow collection – and that Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films will be taking custody of it for preservation work. Unlike most silent movie shows, at the Mostly Lost screenings the audience is encouraged to talk over the film, and make use of their mobile phones. The films on show are all unidentified, and the object of the event is to put names to faces, places and indeed whole films – piecing together gaps in films history and rescuing “lost” films from obscurity. It’s hard to imagine a more appreciative crowd.
The Battle of the Century has its fair share of great slapstick moments, and the new reel promises plenty more. The plot concerns Stan Laurel as a hapless boxer and Oliver Hardy as his unscrupulous pal trying to make some cash from his misfortune via an insurance scam. When a banana peel dropped on the pavement to floor Laurel trips up a passing baker, the flan-flinging begins!
Attendees at the Mostly Lost event were extremely excited by the news, and quick to share it on social media. The Battle of the Century is something of a cult film and its missing scenes are holy grail for slapstick fans. And the rediscovered print is surprisingly high-quality – 16mm, but struck from the original film negative. One delegate, Rob Farr from George Mason University commented on Facebook: “Miracles do happen.”
The rediscovered footage should include the climax of the piefight, including a policeman getting a pie full in the face courtesy of Stan and Ollie. There will be also considerable interest in scenes showing Eugene Pallette, who plays an insurance agent in The Battle of the Century, and went on to a long career in sound films. Other notable names in the cast list include a young Lou Costello as an extra, and Anita Garvin, who falls foul of a pie on the pavement.
The Battle of the Century may well be the find of the year!