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The rediscovery of a long-missing pie fight is great news for film buffs
Stan Laurel naps in the boxing ring after a strenuous bout, as his manager Oliver Hardy looks on with disgust in the first reel of the 1927 short silent film "The Battle of the Century," which was a lost film until 1976. You can see it now on YouTube. - photo by Chris Hicks
Once upon a time, slapstick was king. And its crown was the pie fight.

Young audiences may sniff at the idea of movie characters throwing pies at each other and dismiss it as juvenile or childish or simply chaotic, but thats just because theyve never seen it done right.

Unlike todays attempts at physical comedy, slapstick of old was not just bumping into a glass door or falling over a childs toy. It was all about grace and timing, about starting small and escalating, about perfectly modulated synchronization of whatever comic action was taking place.

As exhibits A, B and C, I give you the trifecta of silent-movie comedy: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

But lets also make room for Laurel & Hardy.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made many silent movies as solo comics and were in quite a few together before they were officially paired in 1927.

During their first two years as a team, they made 22 silent two-reel shorts (each about 20 minutes in length), earning worldwide fame. And their celebrity only increased as they entered the sound era, starring in another 40 shorts through 1936 and 23 features through 1950.

Though not as well known as the sound films, many of the Laurel & Hardy silent shorts are hilarious, meticulously constructed with slow-to-build, increasingly manic craziness, often leading to a great deal of destruction. And among the best is The Battle of the Century, which contains what critics and fans agree is the greatest pie fight ever put on film.

And it really is hysterically funny.

The mayhem begins quietly as the boys are walking in front of a bakery, fronted by a delivery truck loaded with pies. A deliveryman slips on a banana peel, sees Ollie holding the banana and smacks him in the face with a pie. Ollie picks up another pie, takes aim and inadvertently strikes a woman getting into her car. She stomps over, throws a return volley, and a pie hits the shoes of a man getting a shine. And it builds from there until everyone in the neighborhood is throwing pies at each other.

By 1927, movie pie fights had become a passe cliche. Keaton, who began making shorts in 1917, famously renounced pie fights after his first feature in 1920.

But seven years later, Laurel conceived a pie fight to end all pie fights, even though he had to argue with studio head Hal Roach to get it made.

What makes it work so well is the intricate buildup, the inventiveness of each new pie in the face, or elsewhere. And this wasnt slapdash filmmaking. Laurel, Hardy and their co-conspirators (including Leo McCarey and George Stevens, both of whom became two-time Oscar-winning directors in the sound era) worked long and hard to get every nuance just right, using up to 3,000 pies in the process.

There are lots of pie fights in lots of shorts and features, but none spike the laugh-o-meter like The Battle of the Century. And that includes two major movies of the late 20th century that tried to revive the formula, Mel Brooks Blazing Saddles (1974) and Blake Edwards The Great Race (1965).

Brooks pie fight, peppered with silly jokes, is unwieldy but brief, lasting less than 90 seconds. Edwards goes on longer, nearly four minutes, and since the film is dedicated to Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, its safe to say that he intended the sequence to emulate The Battle of the Century. But it doesnt come close.

Even Stanley Kubrick shot an extended pie fight, intended as the finale of his 1964 end-of-the-world satire Dr. Strangelove, but wisely felt it didnt work and cut it before releasing the film.

What these filmmakers, talented as they were, could not master in their pie fight recipes was this most important ingredient: pacing. Its all about how you do it, how dedicated you are to perfecting it so that its funny and then funnier but never redundant.

On the other hand, the pie fight in The Battle of the Century as available now is nearly four minutes and leaves the audience wanting more.

Well, hold on to your pie tins, because the audience is about to get more.

That second-reel pie fight in The Battle of the Century has been in bits and pieces as part of Robert Youngsons silent-film compilation When Comedy Was King (1958). The sequence was edited and abbreviated from the original, lengthier version, which then promptly went missing.

In fact, this edited-down pie fight was the only surviving element of The Battle of the Century until 1976, when the first reel depicting a boxing match with Laurel up against a bruiser and Hardy as his manager was discovered in the vaults of New Yorks Museum of Modern Art.

This first half of the short was later restored, spliced onto Youngsons edited version of the pie fight and released on DVD (you can see it on YouTube).

This was great news for film buffs, though the complete pie fight was still absent. But even better news came this past summer when the second reel of The Battle of the Century which contains the pie fight in its entirety was discovered among films purchased by a collector in an estate sale (part of which sprang from Youngsons personal collection).

The Battle of the Century in its nearly complete form (missing just a brief segue from the boxing match to the pie fight) was shown for the first time in nearly 90 years at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month.

Patience really is a virtue.

The general public release of this newly restored Battle of the Century has not yet been announced. But after so many years, we can wait a little longer.