We’re still missing a middle bit. We have the opening boxing match, between Stan and Noah Young who had already played Big Scary Guy in Sugar Daddies and Do Detectives Think. Implausible as a contest between these two might seem, a bout that the most corrupt commission in Nevada might seem reluctant to sanction, Stan should in fact have won this supposed battle of the century, having stuck out his fist so that Noah Young could run into it. Only Stan’s typically dim-witted intransigence in following the basic instruction to return to a neutral corner causes Noah Young to survive the constantly restarted count, and once the match is properly recommenced, Young’s retribution is swift and unequivocal. Apparently you can see Lou Costello as an extra watching this fight if you care to squint closely. It’s remarkable how tranquil and relaxed Stan looks while unconscious. He falls peacefully asleep after his head injury in much the same way he would a decade later in Way Out West.
Ollie, Stan’s manager, is now in need of funds, and attempts an insurance scam, based on Stan falling and hurting himself. This is the bit we’ve lost.
But we do have the pie fight. There’s nothing logically or necessarily funny about a cream pie pushed into the face, and most of the time, whenever it’s attempted, it isn’t funny.
Battle of the Century (1927) IS funny though. It’s funny because it’s done well and it’s done joyously. Estimates of the number of pies used in this film drift towards the tens of thousands. We can meditate on the fundamental laws of comedic retributive violence. There’s qualitative escalation, such as you find in Big Business or Tit for Tat, where the participants are limited and constant. There is no defensive capability in such battles and the scale of wreckage increases steadily and incrementally from the knocking off of a hat to the destruction of a medium-sized building. In a film like Battle of the Century, however, the escalation concerns the number of participation. After all, once someone has been comprehensively pied, nothing worse can happen to them, in the pie line at least. For pie related escalation to occur, people have to duck. When people duck, an innocent bystander is pied instead, an innocent bystander who does not remain innocent for very long.
This pie fight is funny because it’s timed so well. The camera lingers on the faces of people before they get pied. The guy in the dentist chair, the snooty lady looking through her lorgnettes. We’re laughing before they get pied, because we know what’s coming to them and they don’t. There’s also a kind of carnivalesque levelling effect at work in a pie fight. When coated in pie, social distinctions are abolished. Aristocracy, Clergy, Intelligensia, Law Enforcement, become indistinguishable from the lowest of the low (Laurel and Hardy). When you’ve been pied into a state of whitened democratic anonymity, you a re seized with a desire to reduce someone, anyone, to the same level. And, apart from the cost of the pies and the laundry – who is really hurt? Everyone’s pride has taken a knock, but when the leveling pie throwing has reached its apotheosis, pride and its inconveniencies are long forgotten.
Oh, and there’s the exquisite longtime L&H collaborator Anita Garvin as well. She slips on her pie and then lands on it, resulting in the most hilariously uncomfortable walk you’ve ever seen. Wasn’t she marvelous? Always marvelous.