Ali vs. Frazier. Axis vs Allies. Rebellion vs. Galactic Empire. When you hear the phrase “Battle of the Century,” these names might flash in your mind, but you’d be wrong. As of last month, the only names you should see are Laurel and Hardy.
In July 2015, The New York Times reported that the long-lost second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century had been discovered, and with it, the biggest pie fight in movie history. For decades, film historians had searched for the film’s ending, which included a pie fight that contained a rumored 3,000 baked goods. Earlier this year, while digging through a collection of over 2,300 films, Jon Mirsalis, a toxicologist and film collector, came across a canister marked “Battle of the Century, R2.” Leonard Maltin called this missing reel, “the holy grail of comedy.”
The Battle of the Century didn’t throw the first or last pie, but it did showcase the importance of a good, old-fashioned pie fight to slapstick comedy. During the silent era, slapstick comedy rose to prominence for a simple reason: without sound, you had to show your jokes, not tell them. Vaudevilles biggest stars were tailored for this method, and as a result, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton became some of the world’s most famous actors. But while the detachment from reality allowed these masters of movement to express themselves physically, a pie in the face knocked everyone down to the same level.
A pie in the face punctuated comedies throughout the early days of film. One of the earliest examples comes from Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson’s Mr. Flip in 1909. Mr. Flip follows the exploits of Flip (Ben Turpin), an abusive general store manager, who receives a pie to the face, after sexually harassing every woman he comes into contact with.
The creampie offers the perfect physical representation of punishment. Not only were pies readily available, cooling on the windowsill of every home in the neighborhood, but also they were visually dynamic, popping on screen in grainy black and white.
While many of those concerned with such matters will debate who threw the first pie, 1913 would undoubtedly be a turning point for the tradition thanks to Mack Sennet, known by many as “the father of slapstick comedy.” The New York Times even bestows Sennet with the honor of being first. “The first thrown pie in the face dates to the Mack Sennett era, probably to a 1913 Fatty Arbuckle short called A Noise From the Deep,” they write. However, even if you ignore Mr. Flip, Sennet may have beaten himself to the punch with That Ragtime Band, which premiered only a few months before Noise From the Deep.
That Ragtime Band
The man of a thousand nicknames, Mack “the Custard Pie King” Sennet changed the course of comedy thanks to the real-life bad behavior of Mr. Flip himself, Ben Turpin. As the story goes, “Sennett's idea to have characters hurl baked goods at each other allegedly originated from an on-set incident in 1913 involving actress Mabel Normand, who expressed annoyance at co-star Ben Turpin by hurling a custard pie in his face.” Sennet’s role in slapstick doesn’t end with the pie, though. He discovered slapstick’s biggest star, Charlie Chaplin, who, in 1916, threw pies in Behind the Screen.
Behind the Screen
Pies stuck around throughout the 1920s, culminating in the aforementioned Battle of the Century. With over 3,000 pies reportedly flung, Battle of the Century still holds the claim of the most pies ever used in a single fight. But until the second reel’s discovery, this is how Battle ended with: “The cop gets a pie in his face, and the film ends with him chasing Stan and Ollie down the street.”
Aside from Laurel and Hardy, no other comedy team became as ubiquitous with pie fights as The Three Stooges. The infamous trio, who between 1930 and 1960 made 220 films, leaned heavily on the pie, naming no fewer than two of their films after the pastry, including Pies and Guys and In the Sweet Pie and Pie. They even remade movies that had pie in the title; however, the 1925 remake of Mack Sennet’s The Great Pie Mystery, re-titled Spook Louder, is not considered one of the Stooges prouder moments. The film features Larry, Moe, and Curly attempting to control a mysterious machine that throws pies out of thin air. A good idea is a good idea forever.
Artists bleed for the craft, and pie practitioners were no different. According to TV.com, The Stooges’ Larry Fine recalled: “Sometimes we would run out of pies, so the prop man would sweep up the pie goop off the floor, complete with nails, splinters, and tacks. Another problem was pretending you didn't know a pie was coming your way. To solve this, Jules would tell me 'Now Larry, Moe is going to smack you with a pie on the count of three.' Then Jules would tell Moe, 'Hit Larry on the count of two!' So when it came time to count, I never got to three, because Moe crowned me with a pie!"
Between the Stooges and Laurel and Hardy the bar had been raised, and everyone from The Little Rascals, formerly known as Our Gang, to Bugs Bunny threw pies. The 1930 Little Rascals short Shivering Shakespeare sees the kids performing a play, which devolves into a bunch of adults pelting children with desserts and vice versa.
This clip from Looney Tunes’ “Slick Hare” adds insult to injury as Bug Bunny tricks Elmer Fudd into baking several pies only to hit him with the very pie he just finished making. Then, when he gets wise to it, Fudd fails to hit Bugs with the pie and instead, nails Humphrey Bogart with it. We also learn in this episode, that Bugs is attracted to human females, namely Lauren Becall. Looney cartoons, indeed.
The Making of Dr. Strangelove
That wouldn’t be the only pie fight for the 60s. One year after Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the Academy Award-winning spoof, The Great Race, took on The Battle of the Century’s record with a fight that consisted of 2,357 pies. Such a selling point, the trailer even features the film’s stars, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Natalie Woods, taking a few pies to the face, so that audience members knew how whacky the movie was.
Pie fight, at this point, was shorthand for comedy, and all films used them to represent a complete loss of control. Even Dr. Strangelove, the great political satire of the atomic age, at one point ended in a pie fight, before Kubrick altered the finale to include earth’s annihilation. In “The Making of Dr. Strangelove,” film critic Alexander Walker explains, “The studio had told him that early on ‘we know what you’re going to try to do; [the fight is] going to be one take only.’ Of course, since [the actors] were laughing it was unusable, because instead of having that totally black, which would have been an amazing, like this blizzard, which in a sense is metaphorical for all the missiles that are coming as well, you have these guys having a good old time. So as Kubrick later said, ‘It was a disaster of Homeric proportions.’” Because the scene was so expensive to shoot and clean up from, the studio only gave them one chance to film it. But since the actors were clearly smiling throughout filming, the footage was unusable. The scene has since become one of the most famous unseen pieces of celluloid in cinematic history. Apparently, pie fights make up a majority of that list.
The Great Race
No film in the 60s could match the gravitas of The Great Race’s finale—Mel Brooks would try, though. At some point between 1909 and 1974, the pie fight had become cliche, and like every other moviue cliche, Mel Brooks lampooned it in his masterpiece, Blazing Saddles. Brooks even features a chef announcing the “great pie” fight, commenting on the pie fight’s overuse in comedy.
Blazing Saddles killed the pie fight. After all, how funny is hitting someone in the face with a pie anyway? Regulated to the world of meta-comedy, pieing popped up in Kentucky Fried Movie when a Catholic school girl in trouble takes a pie to the butt, Mad magazine and, of course, politics.
The pie had become a middle finger to the establishment, and in 1970, Tom Forcade, the founder of High Times magazine, took it a step farther. He hit Otto Larsen the appointed chair of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography with a pie. The perfect way to deflate anyone’s sense of self-importance or power, a pie in the face became a symbol of unrest and chaos.
In the 2000 article “Take Sugar, Eggs, Beliefs…and Aim,” Thomas Vinciguerra of the Times wrote: “Pie-throwing is one way of venting anger at a world that has become maddeningly complex and intrusive, said Alexander Bloom, a professor of American history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and co-editor of Takin' It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader (Oxford University Press, 1995). ‘There is this basic undercurrent of people who are feeling that all these forces beyond their control -- from the I.M.F. to the W.T.O. to Y2K to H.M.O.'s -- are in charge of their lives and are operating outside of the political process,' he said. ‘I think people feel frustrated.’
Professor Bloom added: ‘It's assault, clearly, but pies defuse the anger and identify the target as a clown. If someone dumped feces or blood or mock toxic waste on you, that would be a lot more threatening.’”
There was one place where pie fights were generally accepted: kids' entertainment. This trend traces back to Looney Tunes, the Stooges, and that final scene in Bugsy Malone, where director Alan Parker loaded tommy guns with pies instead of bullets, but by the time Nickelodeon came to town, they ruled the bakery.
The Pie Pod
As far as pies went, Marc Summers was the Nickelodeon’s pastry chef. The entire purpose of his shows, Double Dare and What Would You Do?, was to hurl pies at children and their parents. What Would You Do? features such devices as the pie coaster, the pie slide, and its most infamous torture chamber, the electric chair of pie fights, “The Pie Pod.” Like a Roman general emperor at a gladiator amphitheater, Summers would ask his audience how many pies should be hurled from point blank range at his adolescent victim’s head. Summers’ reign knew no survivors.
While we don’t see too much pieing going on in the world of film, they still hold a special place in our hearts. There is a type of majesty to a good pie in the face, a comedy classic.