Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The NFR Project: 'The Battle of the Century'


The Battle of the Century

Dir: Clyde Bruckman

Scr: Hal Roach, H.M. Walker

Pho: George Stevens

Ed: Richard C. Currier

Premiere: Dec. 31, 1927


I love Laurel and Hardy. I consider their films, especially their shorts – which did not necessitate padding in the form of an involved narrative and some musical numbers, as their features sometimes did – to be the perfect cure for what ails you. Their subtle interplay, their exquisite timing, their deadpan slapstick, their flailings against fate and each other, and the obvious deep connection between the two makes for comedy of a heightened order, best absorbed in concentrated, bite-size pieces.

In The Battle of the Century, we see them at the very beginning of their creative partnership. Stan Laurel was a vaudeville comedian who had come to America (along with an unknown named Charlie Chaplin) in Fred Karno’s variety troupe in 1912, and who wandered into filmmaking out West as a solo comedy performer. Oliver Hardy was a boy tenor who literally grew into “heavy” roles, playing the villain or second banana in over 100 early movies. They were teamed by Hal Roach, the expert producer, director, and screenwriter of silent comedy.

Stan was the innocent, the dim-witted naif and Ollie was the overbearing bully, but they were bosom companions and stuck together no matter what the (usually awful) outcome of their adventures turned out to be. This balance of personalities resulted in enduring comedy.

With this film, they had expert help. Roach co-wrote the script and Clyde Bruckman was a highly skilled comedy director. Even more importantly, the film bears the credit “Supervised by Leo McCarey.” McCarey’s excellent sense of fun and brilliant staging of gags would be made obvious in his later films as a director, including Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers, The Awful Truth, and Going My Way – and would win him three Oscars to boot. The director of photography was none other than George Stevens, who would go on to win two Oscars as a director himself.

We open on a stock setting for a comedy – a boxing ring. Up against the monstrous Thunderclap Callahan (L & H regular Noah Young) is poor Stan, Canvasback Clump. Callahan glares mercilessly across the ring; Stan responds with his typical deer-in-the-headlights look. Ollie is his hapless manager, to whom Stan can’t really pay attention to. Stan accidentally knocks down the Champ, but he keeps interrupting the referee’s count by peering over his shoulder at the fallen fighter. Eventually Stan and the ref go at it, rolling around the ring.

The Champ gets his wits back and of course fells Stan with one punch. The pair win $5 as a result and Ollie spends it on an insurance policy for Stan -- $1,000 in case of injury. (The insurance salesman is future character actor Eugene Pallette.) Next, we find the two walking down a city street. Stan nearly slips on a banana peel (yes, even then a tired premise). Ollie tries to make him slip again, but only succeeds in making a policeman fall down. Ollie diverts responsibility to Stan, who gets a nice clonk on the head with a nightstick. He doesn’t cry out in the pain, he simply goes to sleep standing up. It’s only when Ollie wakes him does he begin one of his distinctive crying spells.

In the meantime, the errant peel trips up someone else – this time a man bearing a tray of pies (Charlie Hall, another L & H regular). The boys again try to trade blame, but it’s on Oliver the hapless pieman vents his spleen, tweaking his face. He turns away, and Stan blows a raspberry. Hall calmly grabs up a pie and smashes it into Ollie’s face.

Now the comic beauty of the film comes into full bloom. By this time, the pie in the face was one of the most overused comic moments in pictures. Those who made the film were evidently thoroughly tired of the conceit, and decided to make the pie fight of all pie fights, once and for all. [They were perhaps bested by Blake Edwards, considering his massive pie fight in The Great Race (1965).]

Oliver calmly considers his pie-spattered self. He thinks. He goes to the pies, and gets ready to pie Charlie Hall. He misses and hits a woman. She enters the fray, tries to pie Ollie, and hits yet another bystander.

There is a slow, geometric progression of outrage. Innocent parties get pied. They stop. They fume. Then they in turn, calmly and deliberately, try to pie those who pied them. Each time the pies land, the people involved rush to the pie van to get fresh pies, waiting respectfully for everyone to be ready before beginning another assault. The increase in flying baked goods grows exponentially.

Soon pies are flying up and down the avenue, with dozens of combatants and thousands of pies (somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 pies were used!). Finally, Stan and Ollie run from the police, around the corner and out of the frame.

Once and for all, the comic pie fight was put to bed. The epic scale of the collective insanity of humanity has rarely received a better rendition on film.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Flesh and the Devil.



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