Friday, 9 October 2015

Splats entertainment… The Battle of the Century (1927), with Costas Fotopoulos, London Film Festival

My granddad Jim (born James Joyce, one-time amateur boxer, full-time carpenter and British Rail worker who fooled the five-year old me by claiming to have built Lime Street Station… on his own) loved Laurel and Hardy. One of my earliest silent film memories is of him sitting me down to watch the boys - “these are great…” - and our laughing together as they got to work. Silent film community – a shared experience and you always laugh more when there are others around to get the joke.

This was Jim’s little present to me and as I helped give him a live audience for his memories he helped me by opening up a new world of funny.  He was right, of course, they are good, really good and, as Buster Keaton who would have it, one of them was actually the best. But, for me, you can’t split them – they are a pair, a right pair!

The boys consider the consequences
The Battle of the Century has lived a half-life for much of the time since its release with one reel mostly (a few minutes survived in a fifties documentary)having gone missing until now and tonight, at the London Film Festival, we witnessed the full monty – every projected pie and every human target re-connected for the first time since who knows when.

On the undercard, there was a trio of silent shorts including Double Whoopee (1929) aka The One with Jean Harlow’s Legs – all of them! - You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928) and Big Business (1929) – all end up in perfectly choreographed mayhem with our two heroes the cause and the victims. But, whatever the slings and arrows of outrageous Christmas tree abuse, manhole mantraps and taxi driver vengeance, Ollie and Stan usually emerge smiling. As carpenters and publishers all know, there’s worse things can happen at sea…

The Battle of the Century shows the duo in the early stages of their personas with Stanley a boxer called Canvasback Clump – the clue’s in the name – and Oliver as his manager. As with so many of their films it’s not the desperation that’s funny, it’s the hope and here the extremely optimistic team almost succeed in securing an unlikely victory over the mean machine that was Noah Young – here playing a boxer name of Thunderclap Callahan – the clue’s in the… oh, done that.

But the chance is lost as Clump takes a nap on the canvas one more time. A change of tack is required and in a brief lost segment the boys meet insurance salesman Eugene Pallette who convinces Ollie that with a talent like Clump’s what they really need is insurance.

Every journey begins with a single miss-step
The new agenda is to get Stan injured but, unaware, he suddenly develops a charmed life refusing to slip on a strategically-placed banana peel in spite of his mate’s bets efforts. One thing leads to another and a man carrying a tray of pies slips up… outside of a pie shop… next to a van packed with pies…

And the first pie is placed on Ollie's face
Now, this can only mean one thing and what that is is the Citizen Kane of custard pie fights, a Sistine Chapel of crusted chaos - the pinnacle of pastried pugilism… as one pie leads to another and the whole street erupts in a flurry of flying food.

Injury is added to insult for Dorothy Coburn
This is The Great Silent Bake Off with some 3,000 cream pies used by hundreds of extras and dozens of skilful cameos each allowing a flicker of character as the human cost mounts… a Flapper (Dorothy Coburn) is splatted first and exacts swift revenge, followed by a man opening just a bit too wide in a dentists (Dick Sutherland), a man getting his shoes shined (Jack O'Brien) and a sewer worker (Dick Gilbert) poking his head up into the line of fire. 

Anita Garvin assess the possibilities for retaining dignity...
Anita Garvin slips on a pie but recovers her dignity and walks gingerly off shaking her leg just enough to indicate discomfort… and the rest is chaos.

Of all the tonight’s comic crescendos the pie battle got the biggest laughs. Maybe that’s because we’re less familiar than with the others or maybe it’s just a collective celebration that we can see all of this once again?
In the heat of battle
Live music accompaniment was provided by Costas Fotopoulos who seemed to have emerged unscathed but he’s riding his luck, it’s only a matter of time before the piano player cops the custard!

Our Jim would have loved it but then he undoubtedly did, in the cinema, somewhere in Liverpool in the 1920s… Thanks Grandad.

Pie fight? What pie fight??


  1. Grandad Jim may not have built Lime Street on his own but he had the only telephone in the street when it needed attention.

    1. Just so long as he wasn't putting our Grand National bets on in the bookies when it rang!

  2. The first time I saw this was when I was 5 years old, as part of a silent film compilation called The Golden Age Of Comedy. WOR-TV Channel 9 in NYC showed it