“The Battle of the Century,” Laurel and Hardy’s 1927 silent short film, famed for its epic pie-in-the-face fight sequence, quickly disappeared after its theatrical release.
The 20-minute, two-reel bit of comic relief in the latter days of the Roaring Twenties got left behind in the rush to talkies, as did most silent films. The last known surviving copy of its famed second reel was considered lost for good by the 1960s. It seemed to be a flickering bit of entertainment lost to time, disintegrating film stock and a too-late appreciation of an outdated art form. Slate magazine once described the missing second reel, containing most of the pie-fight sequence, as “one of the most deeply mourned lost treasures in film history.”
But after a California collector and historian named Jon Mirsalis stumbled across a copy of the second reel in 2015, the near-complete version of “Battle” today enters the gates of cinematic eternity, as a highlight of the 2020 class of the Library’s National Film Registry. That designation, announced by Librarian Carla Hayden this morning, caps one of cinema’s most unlikely fairy-tale endings.
” ‘Battle’ is such a well-made film with top-notch people working on it, many of whom went on to great careers,” says Rob Stone, moving image curator for the Library, talking about the film’s place in history. “It also makes for a good example to talk about how silent films were constructed, the progression of Laurel and Hardy’s work and, besides, it’s a feel-good story about how ‘lost’ films aren’t really lost. Maybe it’ll get people to start looking under their beds for other ‘lost’ things.”
Mirsalis, a toxicologist by profession and film collector by avocation, after he threaded the reel into his home film projector and saw the full pie-fight sequence: “I was watching with my jaw hanging open.”
Other 2020 entrants into the registry include pop-culture classics “The Dark Knight,” “The Blues Brothers,” and “Grease,” as well as 1918’s “Bread,” by director Ida May Park and Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary about aging Cuban musicians, “Buena Vista Social Club.” Since the creation of the National Film Preservation Act, 800 films have been added to the registry for their contributions to the cultural, historic or aesthetic history of American cinema. The preliminary selections are made by the National Film Preservation Board and a cadre of Library specialists; the Librarian makes the final cut.
Turner Classic Movies is hosting a special Tuesday, Dec. 15, starting at 8 p.m. EST, to screen a selection of this year’s entries. Hayden and TCM host Jacqueline Stewart will introduce six films as part of the mini-marathon.
First up? “The Battle of the Century.”
It’s a fitting pride of place. When Mirsalis announced that he’d found the reel at the Library’s “Mostly Lost” film conference in 2015, the audience gasped. Newspapers and magazines wrote features. Film historian Leonard Maltin had found reel one in the 1970s in a collection at the Museum of Modern Art. He was astonished Mirsalis found its companion four decades later. “It’s been a holy grail of comedy,” he told the New York Times.
Since then, the nearly complete film (missing only a few short bits) has been pieced together from the collections of the Library, MOMA, the University of California at Los Angeles and other sources. It’s for sale on a variety of formats, often as part of larger anthologies.
The film’s storied history started simply enough. In 1927, Hal Roach Studios put together comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the beginning of what would become one of Hollywood’s most famous on-screen pairings. One of their first projects was “Battle.”
The plot: Hardy takes out an insurance policy on Laurel, his partner and a lousy boxer, and tries to engineer an “accident” that will result in a modest injury but a hefty payout. This being sketch comedy, Hardy starts throwing banana peels in Laurel’s path. One of these lands in front of a delivery man exiting a pie shop with a tray of – you guessed it – custard pies. He slips, gets up and soon shoves a pie in Hardy’s face. Hardy retaliates with a thrown pie but misses, instead hitting a passing young woman on the rump. Incensed, she grabs a pie from the delivery truck, flinging it at Hardy but hitting someone else. The fight escalates with each new victim’s throw missing its retaliatory target, instead hitting yet another innocent, who enters the fray with indignant but inaccurate results. It was farce, it was slapstick, it was a gag in which some 3,000 pies were thrown.
In 1927, people liked it fine but that was about it. Silent films of the era were routinely melted down to their chemical basics after their theatrical runs. The practice was so pervasive that 75 percent of all silent films are now believed to have been lost forever, according to a 2013 study by the Library.
But “Battle” wasn’t so quickly forgotten. As Laurel and Hardy’s fame grew and the decades passed, “Battle” became an outsized myth – that huge pie fight that everyone remembered but so few had actually seen.
In 1958, film historian Robert Youngson obtained a print of the second reel of “Battle” from the film studio as part of his research for putting together an anthology called “The Golden Age of Comedy.” He included a few clips from that reel in the final cut of his film. For decades, those clips were the only thing anyone saw of “Battle.”
Shortly thereafter, the studio’s nitrate negatives of “Battle,” by then more than thirty years old, completely decomposed. It was presumed that the film, like so many of its peers, was gone forever.
However, while it was well-known in the small world of film collectors that Youngson had made prints of his clips from the second reel – they were bought and sold – no one knew about that complete copy of the second reel he had obtained from the studio, all 400 feet of it. At the time, Mirsalis points out, no one was particularly looking for it, either. Definitive histories of Laurel and Hardy’s work had not been published, so no one knew how rare it was, including Youngson.
When Youngson died in 1974, his huge collection was bought by three other collectors: William K. Everson, Herb Graff and Gordon Berkow. Berkow ended up with most of the silent film. By then, it had been established that “Battle” appeared to be lost to history and there was a clamor to find it. But if Berkow ever saw the small, round film canister labeled as “BATTLE OF THE CENTURY R2” among the hundreds of others in the collection, it apparently never registered.
Berkow died in 2004 with the treasure still buried among the other 2,300 films in his collection. After the collection spent a decade in storage in New Jersey, his heirs shipped it out to Mirsalis’ California home for him to liquidate.
The films, collectively, weighed several tons. They almost completely covered the floor of his small home theater. The stacks were waist high.
“You could barely walk through the room,” he remembers.
The work was difficult, in part because the written inventory of the collection was in such disarray. It included more than 350 films that weren’t listed and missing some 200 that were. Given that, Mirsalis had no choice but to spend months threading up each roll of film and projecting it to make sure of what he had in front of him.
When he finally saw the canister labeled “Battle…R2” he assumed it was just a copy of the long-ago clips that Youngson had made. That was no big deal.
Still, he threaded up the film, turned on the projector … and made one of the great discoveries in film history.
“Your brain is going,’ he remembers of that moment, being the first person to see the missing reel in decades, ‘This can’t be real.’ ”