Friday, 9 May 2014

The Battle of the Century (1927)

One of a small number of missing or incomplete Laurel and Hardy films, enough of The Battle of the Century exists to watch and enjoy. What is left is a film of two very different parts, the second of which contains what may be one of the wildest custard pie fights ever filmed. There is no deep message here, just simple exuberant fun, brilliantly executed.

The story starts with Stan stepping into the boxing ring to face the terrifying Thunderclap Callahan “who will probably win” the caption card informs us. The laughs come from playing up the differences between puny thin Stan, who seems to know nothing about boxing, and his gargantuan opponent who seems to have the head of Max Schreck grafted onto the body of a pro wrestler. Standing behind him, powerless to do anything other than watch in mounting horror and exasperation, is his manager, Olly.

The familiar Stan and Olly characters are not yet properly formed, but a few of the basic ingredients are in place. Stan is weak, mentally and physically, as well as clumsy. Olly sees himself as the natural leader of the duo, and always has a get rich quick scheme on the go. What is missing, apart from the trademark hats, is any sense of intimacy and familiarity between the pair. This develops later in their career along with the feeling that whatever is happening is just the latest is an ongoing series of misfortunes to befall the duo.

The boxing sequence is not in itself side-splittingly funny, although it is interesting to see director Clyde Bruckman using varying camera angles and editing to give some sense of the energy of the fight, rather than just point the camera at the ring. Contemporary audiences may have got a hoot out of the references to the famous "Long Count Fight" of the same year where, after flooring his opponent Gene Tunny, Jack Dempsey ignored newly introduced rules requiring him to move to a neutral corner of the boxing ring during the ten second count. Here, Stan messes up in an identical fashion, costing Olly his match winnings, and leading on, albeit very tenuously, to the second part of the film.

Desperate for cash, Olly takes out a life insurance scheme on Stan, with the plan being to make sure he suffers a nasty accident. We do not get to see any of this bit, as the footage has been lost for many years, but it has been reconstructed with the help of a still photo and a title card. When the moving pictures start up again, we cut to Laurel and Hardy regular Charlie Hall performing one of the archetypal pratfalls of slapstick comedy, slipping up on a banana skin, one that was intended to cause Stan an insurance claimable injury. Of course, it's seems only right that Hall is carrying a large tray of custard pies, and what follows may well be one of the greatest examples of the pie fight ever filmed. 

Although the sequence as it stands today is missing some footage, more than enough survived to appreciate what a well crafted piece of anarchy it is. It starts off slowly and deliberately, and, like all the best Laurel and Hardy fights, has an air of ritualised violence to it, as each person gets their turn while the others wait politely for them to throw. However, each time somebody ducks and a pie causes some collateral damage, another person gets drawn into the mayhem, and as more and more pies are flung, the pace winds up and up until it feels like the whole town is involved, until finally Stan is taking orders for pies from the back of a lorry.

Not for the last time, the pair cause mayhem without intending to, or without even seeming to try too hard.