by David Cairns
Custard pies made the news last summer, as a long-lost Laurel & Hardy film, the aptly-named The Battle of the Century (1927), was rediscovered. Containing the legendary double-act’s most extensive pie fight, the movie has been seen only in severely truncated form in recent decades, and the rescued footage is a welcome addition to a filmography whose tantalizing gaps have slowly been disappearing.
The fight itself is a classic, a reminder of how funny and detailed and varied such an activity can be, in the right hands. The first pie is slung by diminutive Charlie Hall, hitting Ollie’s big baby-with-a-tiny-mustache face. The second, Ollie’s retaliatory attempt, goes wide of the mark, according to a long-standing tradition, and explodes over Dorothy Coburn’s shapely ass. She turns to remonstrate and, in accordance with an equally venerable tradition, is hit full in the face by a second crust-load. From here, escalation to total whiteout is as gradual but inevitable as a marital argument or a world war. Soon, an entire street is bustling with gooey combatants, frantically pasting each other with pastries.
The custard cream pie is an iconic movie foodstuff, but one that’s never actually eaten. It has acquired its status purely as a projectile, exploding across a hundred years’ worth of startled comedians’ faces, legendary in the same way as the banana peel or the stray roller skate. It’s hard to think of many examples of its use that are actually hilarious, since the improper use of the pie has ceased to be surprising, so the pie is more a symbol of comedy than an actual example of it.
In a 1909 comedy, Mr. Flip, Turpin does get a pie in the face, but it isn’t thrown, merely pressed into position by an irate waitress.
Was Mabel Normand indeed the thrower?
Keystone’s top female star, Sennett’s sometime fiancée, and the woman with a strong claim to discovering Charlie Chaplin for the movies, Normand was an inventive comedian and a talented filmmaker in her own right. All of which was surplus to requirements at Keystone, where what mattered was an ability to deliver or receive as many kicks up the arse or mallet blows to the skull as could be crammed into two reels of nitrate stock at around sixteen frames per second.
But A Noise from the Deep seems to survive only in one rarely-screened print, and some who have seen it identify Arbuckle as the pie-wielder, not the receiver.
In any case, an earlier release from the same year and studio, A Rag Time Band, can claim precedence. Here, the first to get his face redecorated is Keystone stalwart Ford Sterling, victim of forgotten funnyman Raymond Hatton’s deadly aim. Mabel Normand, laughing at the mayhem, becomes the victim of the second pie, which Sterling has flung back with more passion than accuracy.
The Monty Python team found fresh mileage in the “precipitation jest” in their Live at the Hollywood Bowl performance film (1982). Like Laurel & Hardy, they slow down the action, gaining humor from predictability rather than surprise, and then throw in a few surprises into the bargain. The whole thing is accompanied by a commentary poking fun at academic analyses of humor (it’s probably the translation, but is there any more wretched text than Freud’s Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious?)
Anthropologists would get in on the act by comparing pie flinging with the territorial faeces-flinging of apes and monkeys. But a pie is not a poo. The purity of its whiteness on screen, and the delicacy with which it may be handled, makes a pie a more dignified ingredient for a foodfight than, say, a handful of spaghetti. It’s as if the collision of pie with person robs both of a certain pretentiousness: the pie ceases to be a luxurious delicacy and becomes a dripping mess; the person ceases to be whatever station in life they have attained, and also becomes a dripping mess. Kinetic energy as the great leveller.
Pies have also spilled out of the movies, with powerful figures such as Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates being stalked and splashed. Truly cinematic examples of this form of protest are the opening of the 1969 San Francisco Film Festival, where independent filmmakers in fancy dress creamed the participants, and the pieing of Jean-Luc Godard by Noël Godin at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival. Godard seemed to take the patisserie-insult in good part, intervening to prevent Godin’s arrest, and issuing a typically gnomic and succinct statement: “This is what happens when silent movies meet talking pictures.”
His blog is always fascinating as he tells little-known stories about movies and their creators at Shadowplay.
Read more details about the Dr. Strangelove pie fight here.
A Cultural History of Pie-ing, From Mr. Flip to Rupert Murdoch – a look at how the pie-in-the-face has evolved from comedic device to political act.
Music journalist Lester Bangs was one of the first writers to champion the rock group The Stooges in a national forum, with his 1970 piece “Of Pop and Pies and Fun” for Creem Magazine where here decided the only true way to judge an artist’s worth is to throw a custard pie in their face. How would they react? Alice Cooper was pied on stage and joyfully rubbed the custard all over his face. He assumed that Iggy Pop would also make the most of it while most big stars such as Led Zeppelin or George Harrison would be disgusted and leave the stage.