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Monday, January 07, 2019

Gathering Up Pies Since 1927

The Battle Of The Century Still Not Won

The struggle to see all of The Battle Of The Century went a step further this weekend when a fellow pilgrim shared his grab off German TV, broadcast of which was but moments over before the Laurel-Hardy faithful had it spread like butter over continents less blessed. Now at last we can see The Battle Of The Century as it was re-constructed four or so years ago after a West Coast collector found a complete Reel Two once the property of Robert Youngson, who in 1957 was the first to use footage from the 1927 short comedy since … well, 1927. From its cut-down incorporation into The Golden Age Of Comedy, Youngson’s ’57 celebration of silent clowns, we of L&H bent have spent lives in quest of an entire Battle Of The Century, which has come by drips and drabs, but still is not fully complete. If you don’t care for Laurel and Hardy, or more specifically this treasure of an (almost) two-reel short, then go thy way elsewhere until these effusions blow by, for I’m among ones whose pulse verily stopped when at last I saw what time and passing miles of nitrate had so long denied.

The Hal Roach negatives were distressed already by 1957 when Youngson brought what was extant of them to editing tables he and fellow historian William K. Everson hovered over to look at what was, in most instance, fresh footage to both. Youngson (b. 1917) likely saw silent Laurel and Hardys when new, but fewer of them since, while for Everson (b. 1929), most silent L&H would have been a new experience, at least in prints that were intact  and presentable to a modern audience. It was for Youngson and Everson to evaluate The Battle Of The Century and decide how much of it was worthy of inclusion in The Golden Age Of Comedy. Everson later recalled watching the short in negative form on a tabletop moviola. Neither he nor Youngson were impressed until the pie fight began in the second reel. Even this could be improved by tighter editing, thought Youngson, his preferred melee just over three minutes, down from twice that length as prepared by Roach artists and staff in 1927. Youngson obviously took a lot upon his own judgment here, the idea being to incorporate a highlight from The Battle Of The Century, not the whole thing. What pained fans to come was Youngson failing to preserve footage he didn’t use for The Golden Age Of Comedy in addition to that which he did. To do so would have impacted Golden Age cost, or come out of Youngson’s pocket. Whatever accommodation was reached, it seems Youngson did rescue at least Reel Two of Battle Of The Century, for it was this reel in 16mm that surfaced after his passing, and quite inadvertently.

Those tight-wound three minutes of pie toss in The Golden Age Of Comedy were an undoubted peak to Youngson’s reckoning, for he’d use them again in Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20’s, which came eight years later. Does the battle royale play better in tightened form? We can now judge, with both versions finally available. The original has inter-titles, always first to go whenever Youngson applied himself to silent artifacts. That for me affects the rhythm of all his compilations, narration no substitute for wit inherent in H.M. Walker asides. We have to assume, of course, that a 1957 audience for The Golden Age Of Comedy would not have sat for a movie they’d have to read, but if we can do so now, why not then? This was clearly a decision Youngson made from a beginning, and stuck to, throughout his career.

Eager narration prepped us for “The pie-throwing triumphant --- this is it,” a gauntlet thrown to anyone who’d suggest a better pie-fight elsewhere. Everson pointed out in his Films Of Laurel and Hardy book that there were far fewer of these than most assumed, pies thrown, he said, as punctuation to gags where they otherwise did not figure. My own impression, formed long before seeing The Battle Of The Century or its excerpt in The Golden Age Of Comedy, was of pies hurled in earnest by members of Our Gang in 1929’s Shivering Shakespeare, run on a virtual loop by Charlotte’s Channel 3 from the late 50’s onward. That pie-sling lasted two and a half minutes, and involved a crowded room full of combatants. I’d assume it was at the least a conscious reprise of a finish that had played so well in The Battle Of The Century (L&H engaged enough encore "Battles" to make the title an almost generic one for their silent comedies). Everson didn’t mention Shivering Shakespeare though, which surprised me a little when his book came out in 1967.

Most of a first reel of The Battle Of The Century was a comic prizefight, a good enough routine that Youngson and Everson didn’t much care for when they screened it in 1957. Youngson evidently did not preserve that reel and would not consult it for later Laurel-Hardy excavations. The boxing open did survive, however, subsequent rights-holder Richard Feiner using it for his mid-sixties “Laurel and Hardy Laughtoons” series, made up of silent L&H clips trimmed to approximate length of cartoons. It was a reasonable means of marketing shorts that might otherwise be problematic for TV, due to lack of dialogue. A 35mm print of the prizefight, being Reel One of The Battle Of The Century minus three and a half minutes, was discovered by Leonard Maltin in 1975 as he was preparing a comedy season for the Museum Of Modern Art. Shock wave from that put Blackhawk Films to work on an enhanced Battle that would incorporate the new-found footage plus what there was of the pie fight as edited by Robert Youngson back in 1957. 8/16mm collectors were closer to their goal, but according to Hal Roach historian Richard W. Bann, this was still only half, if that, of a complete Battle Of The Century.

Does it all matter so much? Well, no more than ongoing search for Hats Off or The Rogue Song, and those are just missing pieces of the Laurel and Hardy puzzle. There are lost manuscripts by great writers, compositions long unaccounted for by giants of classical music. Do we put these down among trivial pursuits? It becomes a matter of cultural hierarchy. Since most will tell us that a missing Mozart easily trumps any unearthed Laurel and Hardy, it boils down, as with all things, to one's own opinion. Too many still regard a dedicated interest in film as trifling waste. Most of you reading this know well what I mean. To celebrate The Battle Of The Century is to enter a margin, niche, such place as the mainstream won’t go, but who would have dreamed that 2018-19 would see a brand-new Stan and Ollie in theatres, and done on what appears to be a quite lavish scale. They’re even playing it in Winston-Salem, starting January 25, at a theatre right up the street from where I saw March Of The Wooden Soldiers in 1972. I’ll get there on foot if necessary, to observe how many others turn up to see this first-ever screen bio of Laurel and Hardy.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

CBS SUNDAY MORNING did a great feature on STAN & OLLIE December 30th.

6:59 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I saw the reconstructed BATTLE OF THE CENTURY (from the same source) a few hours before reading your post. I enjoyed it, I love Laurel and Hardy, but I found that it is not their greatest film. Having seen these kind of pie fights in Three Stooges shorts, in complete form (or reedited, as in their later productions)I got particularly tired of the device. Some of the other massive fights in Laurel and Hardy films are actually funnier.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The German Laurel & Hardy police just shot down the YouTube posting.

Bill Everson told me about the preparation of THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY, and how much he and Youngson were looking forward to seeing BATTLE OF THE CENTURY -- and how their enthusiasm soon faded: "It was a terribly disappointing short." But then, Everson was also disappointed by other Laurel & Hardy pictures that the fans enjoy just the same.

I've seen the "new" BATTLE OF THE CENTURY with an audience, and I'm happy to report that it played like a new movie. The audience was fascinated by the long-missing footage and intertitles, and really enjoyed the film.

We can only hope that the various parties who control the rights to the Laurel & Hardy silents can get together and release a set of these on DVD, including BATTLE.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

I also watched the reconstructed short online. I was very disappointed in the first reel. I'd have to go back to the filmography to see what came before and after, but the characterizations of Laurel and Hardy were almost generic, not nearly as well developed as they would be later.

I'm sorry that the majority of Eugene Pallette's footage is still missing, as I'd like to see him interacting with Stan and Ollie. Liking his performances so much in My Man Godfrey and The Adventures of Robin Hood, I'd guess that he contributed laughs to his section.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Alas, the 'most complete' version of THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY' seems to have been deleted from Youtube already. I did get a chance to see it over the weekend, the copy I saw had, unfortunately, an adjusted frame rate much that was disconcerting. Hope legalities can be ironed out soon, so a DVD is on the way.

11:58 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

On STAN AND BABE, Leonard Maltin loved it, while Mark Evanier hated it. Evanier's complaint was that the movie falsified history to create artificial friction and offer a depressing, downer version of their later years.

A nice bit of Anita Garvin talking to the Sons of the Desert, and mentioning "Battle of the Century":

4:06 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I managed to download the video from YouTube once I was alerted that it was there. I didn't like the soundtrack that they added to it, but at least I still have it and I will try to preserve it until a formal version becomes available.

11:29 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I've seen "Battle" three times now, at the TCM Festival and the SF Silent Film Festival (both times accompanied by Jon Mirsalis, who unearthed it), and it went over like gangbusters. Huge laughs from packed houses.

I watched the German version last night and had to mute it, choosing to accompany it with a random Beau Hunks tunestack, which worked nicely. Still enjoyed it mightily.

As for "Stan and Ollie," I went to a preview a few weeks ago. I was extremely skeptical going in, but came out a little teary-eyed at the end. Another packed house adored it. Reilly did a talkback afterward, and it was clear that it was a labor of love for him. I'm not a real fan of his, but he's a great, great Ollie (and Babe).

As for reviewers, I love Mark, but he's beyond wrong on this one. This morning, Randy Skretvedt -- who knows more about this than all of the rest of us -- reviewed it and (factual quibbles aside) gave it a thumbs up, and that's all the validation I need.

2:24 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

7:40 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer sums up Laurel-Hardy, and Mozart's, respective places in Heaven:

Would the discovery of a missing composition by Mozart be more important than a restored Laurel and Hardy short? Perhaps, but I understand that Heaven has a variety of climes and places, with angels content in their particular stations. All the acknowledged glories of a Mozart do not diminish the special sublimity found in the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, nor its ability to open the heart and mind—and certainly the mouth, in laughter—in ways which make this world a better place and Heaven not so far distant. I believe that whatever better reveals the boys in their own special goodness is a cause for rejoicing, whether for us or the angels, for surely love and beauty are ever a matter of degree.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Meeting Laurel & Hardy is pretty much the only thing that makes me hope heaven really exists. Well, them and Wheeler & Woolsey.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Let's not forget that Lou Costello was an extra in the boxing scene!

4:44 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Where is Skretvedt's review?

10:54 PM  

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