Registering the Registry 2020: The Battle of the Century (1927)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, the early years of Laurel and Hardy bring us a once-thought-lost pie fight of epic proportions in 1927’s The Battle of the Century. How’d it get lost, how’d it come back, and how is the film outside the custards? Read on and find out!

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Google today’s picture, and the retrospectives will all tell you the same thing: The Battle of the Century took quite the journey to reach us today. A Laurel and Hardy short from the earliest days of Stan and Ollie’s formal pairing as a comedy duo under Hal Roach, it turns on two primary influences, one per reel. First, to play off the then-recent Long Count Fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, in which Dempsey briefly refused to return to his neutral corner after flooring Tunney, which delayed the count-out and subsequently gave his opponent the opportunity to recover and win. Good fodder for a comedy short, lets Laurel bounce around all skinny and jittery in a boxing ring against an imposing Noah Young while Hardy looks flushed and flustered at his partner’s incompetence. Secondly, and more importantly for our journey, to revive the old Keystone comedy tradition of a pie to the face. Not just any pie to the face, though; a psychologically-driven approach to pies in the face, a pie to the face routine in which a single innocent mistake leads into a simmer, which bequeaths the first pie throw, which then sparks another simmer, then another pie, then simmer, pie, simmer, pie, the simmering shortening and the number of pies in play multiplying until an entire street is alive with well over three-thousand of the creamy white desserts. A pie fight, in other words, grander than anything the Keystone Kops exhausted a decade back with a lowly single pie in every single picture. Insert some business about Hardy running an insurance fraud scheme on Laurel’s neck as connective tissue, and you’ve a pretty solid film, able to function as its own draw in the space between one-reelers and the larger features.

With its stars’ star ascendant, of course The Battle of the Century does good business on release, roundabout as good as anything else Laurel and Hardy produced in these early silent stages. As it premiers in the relatively early days of cinema as a commercial venture, though, and on the cusp of a major technological revolution in the form of synchronized sound pictures to boot, the movie faces quite a few challenges as the days roll into weeks roll into months. There’s precious little chance for redistribution once the movie runs its course in the big picture houses and subsequently gutters out in the second- and third-run theaters. Its stars and studios keep pumping out new material that supersedes it on the marquee in rapid succession, and in good time you can HEAR Laurel and Hardy as well as see them bumble and flail. Proper treatment and storage is rare for even the big prestige dramas out’ve the major studios, much less comedy shorts from the independents, and besides, I’m sure SOMEONE’s got a decent copy lying around SOMEWHERE. Best we melt the returned prints for silver and nitrate stock, get our investment back, yeah? On and on and on the years go, with stars rising and peaking and retiring, history marching on as it is wont to do, circumstance mounting against any single short’s chances of survival. Though Laurel and Hardy become famous and beloved enough for stories of a grandiose pie fight early in their careers to circulate as the stuff of Hollywood legend, The Battle of the Century never quite resurfaces as its own thing. By 1957, when director Robert Youngson produces and releases his compilation film The Golden Age of Comedy, a print of Battle he obtains is so badly degraded as to only prove worth snipping and reediting roughly three minutes from the pie fight, the rest easily discarded.

So it goes, so it goes. What are believed as the final remaining prints for The Battle of the Century decay into nothing, and for a time the extracts in Youngson’s compilation is all anyone can find. A real gall for the Laurel and Hardy fan in an era when cataloguing and distribution for their work is otherwise complete as you might ask. 1979 brings about the discovery of a mostly intact first reel within the Hal Roach Studios archives, courtesy one Richard Feiner, but cultural memory is a forever fickle thing. The Long Count Fight has largely receded into history’s shadows by this point, while tell of a lost Laurel and Hardy short in which they deliver the mother of all pie fights sustains and grows itself as a Holy Grail of silent comedies. Still, all hope seems lost, as collectors and archivists report nothing year after year, and it seems a full copy of Battle’s second reel is naught but a pipe dream, a historian’s fondest wish destined to remain unanswered. Time, tide, and the early American film industry’s careless attitude towards long-term preservation are plum cruel like that sometimes — ask Ida May Park.

We wouldn’t be talkin’ ‘bout Battle today if all hope WERE truly lost, tho; for in 2015, archivist Jon C. Mirsalis scours through a collection obtained via collector Gordon Berkow, who in turn bought it from Robert Youngson, and finds against all odds a complete print of reel two. Turns out Youngson, despite trashing the print he used to edit The Golden Age of Comedy, did have more than one copy of Battle on-hand, and unknowingly kept it amongst his collection, passing the body from hand to hand on down the decades, until a happenstance perusal of materials for potential prints to sell revealed its presence to Mirsalis. Cue collaborative restoration with Lobster Films and the UCLA Film Archive, cue a run on the festival circuit as part of a series on lost and endangered films, cue a proper home media release in 2020 and its subsequent induction into the National Film Registry some ninety-two years after its last public exhibition. As we say, quite the journey from simple installment in a comedy duo’s early years to lost holy relic amongst film historians to a fairy tale happy ending in full restoration… minus a few minutes from reel one, the business with Hardy buying insurance from Eugene Pallette to compensate for Laurel’s sorry-ass boxing career. Can’t have ’em all, I guess.

Story all told, what of the film? What of the film, indeed. Let’s have a crack at it!

During the boxing reel, comedy mainly resides in Stan’s hands, as the premise of a prizefight puts him front and center before the camera far more often than Ollie at ringside. You get quite a few nice close-ups of him staring into the middle distance, looking all confused like he’s no concept what’s about to go down, often standing stock still somewhere between utter terror and complete befuddlement when left to his own devices. Once Ollie jostles him into action, it’s as if he wound a particularly high-strung mechanical waddling toy, for Stan launches into one heck of a contrasting posturing stance, ping-ponging on his feet, throwing out false strikes and feinting, glancing back to Ollie in the corner to make sure he’s doing well, all while his opponent’s tied up with some poorly laced gloves. Of course, even a shadow boxing match against an utterly unaware opponent is enough to send Stan into a blubbering fit, so he requires a little coaching from Ollie to force out a left jab into thin air — right where his opponent appears mid-charge. Then we get to the main reason we’re here, the ref trying his best to count Young out while Laurel resumes his dazed countenance, the words written in the air constantly dying at three as he realizes the other boxer is still standing their gormlessly, eventually frustrating the man to such distraction that he comes at Stan in a way Stan interprets as a challenge, and whatdya know it, all these spectators (a young Lou Costello included) get a wrestling match on their boxing ticket. One hasty recovery later, and Stan can only stare helplessly at the leering, toothy face of his opponent as he deals a knock-out blow straight to the camera, one so powerful it floors Ollie too.

There’s plenty action and dynamic editing to keep the piece funny with only Stan’s parts, between the long shots of him repeatedly failing to register the one action that might free him from the ring before he gets hurt, and the back-and-forth cutting when he’s actually faced against Young (who’s got some fine expressions whether knocked silly in the background or gorming it up for the camera). What makes it workable and identifiable as a Laurel and Hardy short, however, is the parts when we cut to Hardy. His role’s purely reactive here, his job at ringside completely precluding any possibility he might rush in and help or get himself into deeper trouble than his partner, so all he can do is the typical Oliver Hardy motions. Aside glances at the camera, open looks of helplessness at the camera, bouncing in place and pounding the post and desperately shaking props in Laurel’s direction in the vain hope he might change SOMETHING. All for naught, all with a lot of money on the line, and all leading to him getting so invested he goes out like a light in time with his counterpart. The final shot’s readily the best here, with Ollie awakening to find himself in an empty stadium, and Stan relaxing on the canvass like nothing’s happened, before rolling over to sleep like a bay. Draws one of Hardy’s finer, slump, contemplate, and accept with enormous resignation reactions.

Unfortunately can’t say much regarding the bridging material, as it remains lost, covered only with some particularly long replacement titlecards and two surviving stills. From the way the cards describe things, it’s not anything WILDLY funny we’re missing out on (though on evidence of My Man Godfrey, the deletion of a Eugene Pallette comedy performance is tragic on its own merits), but I think it somewhat interesting to watch a picture with such an awkward stitch necessitated right in the middle. Somewhat reminds me of watching classic Doctor Who serials over this last year and working around the missing episodes through Loose Cannon reconstructions, except there’s no audio track to rely on and you’ve gotta fill in the gaps with your imagination to a greater degree.

You and I ain’t here for the waffling about the boxing match or insurance scam bits, thou. We’re here for the pie fight, so let’s talk about the pie fight! Which, honestly, does require as much of the build-in as you can get for full effect. See, assuming once again the ideal audience who sits down for The Battle of the Century fully unaware of its contents, the short sets your expectations for the second half as Ollie trying to rain revenge down on Stan’s head by tricking him into various dangerous situations, mainly revolving around a discarded banana peel and the culprit-identifying naked banana once someone other than Stan takes a slip. It gives you a whole minute of routine with a police officer who runs afoul of Ollie’s machinations, sizes up the little guy who’s suddenly holding a banana he wasn’t a minute before, and leans into the billy club-induced welt the officer gives Stan for his troubles. If anything, when they move a ways down the street and trip a deliveryman carrying a tray full of cream pies, you might expect this to function as just another encounter along the way; we’re running the classics, an angry cop, a pie to the face, presumably seltzer water and an offended dame are around the block, all focusing their attentions on Stan’s head until Ollie inevitably catches the absolute worst of it. You know where you are, you’ve seen a few comedies in your time, you’re ready to see these guys jog through the numbers.

Except we linger on Charlie Hall quite a while longer than the police man. He really takes his time sizing up the situation, deciding his next course of action, and a bit of quick sleight-o’-hand from Laurel leads him to conclude Ollie deserves his wrath. Turn about, select a pie, deliberately walk right up to the big man, and *splut*. Ollie, face all gunked with cream and pastry, takes about as long to evaluate, select, position, and let another missile fly to go *splut*… against an unsuspecting woman’s ass, and then again in her face as she whirls about. There’s one last chance this situation might be salvaged as she takes the extra step of asking who deserves retaliation, and it seems we might bring this mini-war to a close as Ollie stands arms at his side, ready to take the pie, until he ducks, and *splut*, it splatters across the shoes of a man getting a shine. He in turn needs no instruction to decide it’s the delivery man who needs an angry pie to the face — *splut* — then the insurance agent who declares the whole thing foolish and earns EVERYONE’S wrath — *splut splut splut splut* — then the mayor himself demands a ceasefire only to catch a pie to the back of the neck — *splut* — which leads him to conclude a newcomer who only wandered over to see what the commotion is about deserves, well, *splut*.

And now there’s no chance of recovery. There’s just enough time between each pie throw to indicate someone’s reacting, thinking, and targeting with angry care, but everyone’s got pie filling on their faces, everyone’s making hasty decisions, and pretty soon the mad scramble to grab more pies from the pie truck and storefront consumes the entire street. A woman beating dust from a rug, a man getting a shave, a man already buying a pie, a man down a manhole… all pied, all instantly ready to join the fray. Laurel and Hardy are nowhere to be seen as the air grows thick with wasted desserts, anyone and everyone a target for the ol’ flying whipped cream, now without even needing one to the face. It’s this progression that earned the pie fight its reputation as the pie fight to end all pie fights, the visible growth from something routine into multiple actors working through the same thought process to ever larger results, into collaboration against a common enemy, into an explosion of mania across the entire backlot, cutting between unique reactions from a mailman who dips his hand right in the gunge and a high class lady who catches a pastry cross the opera glasses, and the wide shots of a whole set in dire need of a deep clean. If you’re gonna stage the ultimate pie fight, it needs to be genuinely disruptive, carefully considered before letting loose, and of such scale you know the big, pulled-back angle on dozens of extras letting loose thousands of pies doesn’t even encompass the whole scope. You’re not nearly as funny otherwise… and fortunately, Battle had Leo McCarey (of Duck Soup fame) on hand as a production manager, so it hits on all fronts with great aplomb.

I’ve likely sucked all the fun out’ve Battle by giving it the overly-descriptive analytic treatment, so I’ll leave the film’s final and best-acted gag unspoiled. Course, while we DO get back to Laurel and Hardy in the end, all pretense to following on the boxer insurance scam gag has gone out the window, as right it should. Once you give into mania, it’s hard to justify sense taking the wheel again, much less any return to the set-up “plot.” It’s interesting how this film is positioned at such an early point in the duo’s career, as they’re not yet such big personalities that their presence need define the climactic sequence. There’s no attempt to distract from the anarchy they’ve sparked by cutting back to the pair until it’s run its comedic course, merely a brief acknowledgement of their presence before the endcard. Much as the short has such a high profile and reputation because it is a Laurel and Hardy short, and good as they are in the opening reel, it’s nice to see a solid extended gag play out free from ego, confident it’ll land with only the other studio players and extras in frame. So long as it’s properly paced and the reaction lands right, a pie to the face is funny no matter the recipient. I’m just happy we can see every last pie find its mark in full these days — God bless film collectors and archivists, honestly.

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What a fine piece of short comedy! Be sure to give your thoughts below if you got ‘em! Now, our next film proves some small measure of trouble: Aloha Waderwell’s 1929 documentary picture With Car and Camera Around the World, chronicling her carbound circumnavigation of the globe alongside explorer Walter Wanderwell, DOES still exist, but not in any capacity I can actually FIND. The film simply has not seen easily obtained public exhibition in a very, very long time. My best bet is a trip to the Academy Film Archive’s viewing site out in California to view their raw materials, a trip I can neither arrange nor afford at this time. Something of a bump for a series meant to chronicle every Registry entrant, really.

So here’s how it’ll be. I’ve got Wanderwell’s 1939 autobiography, Call to Adventure! — which chronicles the expedition depicted in With Car and Camera in some detail — downloaded for perusal for the next little while, and I know her 1934 sound film, The River of Death, is available on YouTube through the Library of Congress. It’s hardly any substitute for watching the selected film as intended, but circumstances being as they are, we have to accept workarounds if we still mean to discuss and celebrate an American filmmaker and explorer. So, I’ll see y’all next time for… all that, basically!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter, and accepts donations on ko-fi.

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I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus

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Gargus

I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus