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London Film Festival screening notes, 8 October 2015

The long-awaited restoration of The Battle of the Century had its first UK screening at BFI Southbank on 8 October 2015 (with a second screening scheduled for the 16th). This restoration was carried out by Lobster Films of Paris, whose logo also preceded the copies of You’re Darn Tootin, Double Whoopee and Big Business that formed the rest of the programme.

The first screening was introduced by the BFI’s Vic Pratt, who also mentioned his membership of the Sons of the Desert (a few other members made their presence known!). Piano accompaniment was by Costas Fotopoulos.

As has become known, the middle section of Battle – actually the end of the first reel, in which Eugene Pallette sells L&H an insurance policy – remains elusive and the restoration covers this missing footage using the stills and title cards prepared for the old Blackhawk Films edition. This presumably was also the source of the opening boxing sequence, which on this occasion actually looked quite disappointing in terms of picture quality. Contrast was relatively low, with the background of the fight arena in long- and mid-shots seeming to be too light. The close-ups looked better. The title card in which Noah Young tells the referee not to count because `it’s gettin’ late’ seemed somewhat short. The original amber tint has not been restored to this sequence.

The recently discovered complete reel two was, of course, the main attraction of this screening. For the few people who don’t already know this, all that had previously been known to survive was the condensed version prepared in the late 1950s by Robert Youngson for his compilation film The Golden Age of Comedy. The film as a whole was not copied before the 35mm material decomposed. What wasn’t known until recently was that Youngson had kept a 16mm print of the entire second reel, which is the source for this new edition. Quality is very good indeed, allowing for the slightly less sharp definition of 16mm.

After seeing the original `part title’ card for Battle reel two, the initial impression one had was how similar the first section of the reel looked to You’re Darn Tootin, in scenes where Ollie – trying to cash in on the insurance policy taken out on Stan – places a banana skin in Stan’s path, only for him to step over it each time. It was filmed in the same street set (in the Roach back lot) and it is likely that Youngson, who included similar scenes from You’re Darn Tootinin the same compilation, eliminated that section so as to minimise the resemblance between the two. The scene concludes with a policeman taking the fall instead, and giving Stan a mighty truncheon blow to the head. Stan reacts to it belatedly – a gag repeated in later films – and goes into a prolonged `freeze’, which concludes with Ollie finding a large bump on his head (`I’ll get $1,000 for that pineapple’).

The second impression was how familiar this previously-unseen footage seemed to be, partly – one suspects – because of the similarities to You’re Darn Tootin but also because of prior acquaintance with the previously available surrounding footage and production stills. One wonders if, should it ever resurface, Hats Off might produce the same effect, given the familiarity of the stills, its locations, its parallels to their other `street fight’ films and the fact that the opening scene, where they are ejected from their jobs as dishwashers, probably takes place outside the same `ABC Restaurant’ that features so prominently in Tootin.

After the altercation with the cop, L&H meet pie deliveryman Charlie Hall. Youngson’s cut minimises the action but Hall receives more time and closer camera scrutiny in the original. We see also that Ollie’s unsuccessful attempt to pass the banana to Stan is actually a reprise of similar business from their encounter with the policeman. The shorter version includes a misfired pie landing on Dorothy Coburn’s rear, thus bringing her into the action, but the complete reel sees her continuing to participate long after the bit of business where Stan politely moves Hall out of her firing range. Her first pie, aimed at Ollie, lands instead on a man at a shoeshine stand. At this point, Youngson used an optical wipe to replace some footage of a sideways view of the wagon, with the man joining the fray then the entire group forming a circle before pelting Eugene Pallette, who has reappeared to say `Stop! It’s foolish to fight without insurance!’ Youngson resumed with the Mayor’s (unsuccessful) attempt to bring order then removed a section where an old woman (almost certainly a man in drag, something not mentioned in the cutting continuity) beating a rug joins in after the rug is hit by a pie. There is no sign of the old woman, or of two French artist types (again not specifically described in the continuity) who follow her into the fight, in Youngson’s abridgement (understandably, the same goes for a brief shot of the black shoeshine boy). Perhaps surprisingly, the rapid cutting between the woman at the upstairs window, the postman and those in and outside the nearby shops, is much the same as in the familiar version (it was long assumed that Youngson had drastically hastened the cutting between them). When Blackhawk reinstated the title cards – which Youngson had removed – it was obvious that these had sometimes not been inserted in quite the right spot. For example, the Mayor’s dialogue card appears a second or two away from the dissolve that Youngson had employed to mask the jump left by the card’s deletion. Similarly, when a man in a pie shop says `Gimme a pie’, Blackhawk placed the card in such a way as to suggest that he wanted one to use as ammunition when joining the fight. In the original film, it is instead a genuine order that precedes a pie flying towards him from the battle outside.

Even more surprising is that the famous gag with Anita Garvin sitting on a pie, and making her leg-shaking exit, drew nothing like the usual volume of laughter at the screening. That this was not the result of over-familiarity is suggested by the fact that most of the audience – a few Sons aside – were clearly not greatly familiar with any of the four L&H films in the programme and reacted with amused surprise almost throughout. The only likely explanation is the different placement, and subtle alteration to pacing, between the two edits, or else perhaps a greater sensitivity to vulgarity – especially concerning women – at a venue such as the BFI, and at the London Film Festival in particular. A far bigger laugh greeted the cop’s subsequent query to L&H - `Did you start that pie fight?’ – and, following a long, wide shot of the fight itself, Ollie’s innocent response - `What pie fight?’. Once a further pie had landed in the policeman’s face, and he had chased Stan and Ollie out of shot, it was all over ... leaving one big question: when’s it coming out on DVD?

Glenn Mitchell

PS: I have since been informed that the Anita Garvin gag drew the expected loud laugh at the festival in Pordenone and at the second BFI screening!

 

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