Pie-Eyed – In Search Of The Pie Fight’s Origins

Several of us classic comedy film fans have been trying to dispel the myth of pie fights and custard pie-throwing in silent movies. I’ve been pondering the myth’s origins for a while and have a theory. No factual or documentary evidence, but it the pieces of the puzzle seem to fit.

In case you haven’t read other people’s dissections of this, I’ll lay out a few things we do know about pie-throwing in silent movies.

Mainly, it didn’t happen much. I asked my friend Brent Walker — who (literally) wrote the book on Mack Sennett comedies — about pie-throwing at Keystone. He said that, if anything, there were more bricks thrown in Keystone comedies than pies, way more.

In doing research on The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, I found a review of the first bunch of films of the series in a March 1916 issue of Motography with an interesting mention. The reviewer remarked that thankfully only one pie was thrown in the entire series. I’ve read many instances of the propelling of custard pies referred to as “hokum” and passé. 

Then there’s the title card that introduces one of the only two pie fights — fights, as opposed to an individual pie thrown — in silent movies, in Chaplin’s 1916 Behind the Screen. It reads: “The comedy department rehearsing a new idea.” I’d always read this as being one of those wry, sarcastic titles Chaplin would write, like using “Arrival in the land of liberty” in The Immigrant just before the immigrants are brusquely roped off by officers, etc.

Charlie Chaplin pie fight

The confusing thing about the custard pie equivalent of a snowball fight is that it appears nowhere in silent movies except in this short and in Battle of the Century (1927). There are individual pies thrown in Keystone films, but no pie fights. Are all the pie fights in films from the Nickelodeon era…and are all lost films? I’ve searched the Media History Digital Library’s holdings via its “Lantern” search engine for “custard pie”, “custard”, “pie fight” etc and have turned up nothing.

My friends in the circus and vaudeville world who know their onions when it comes to their history have no stories or facts about pie fights on stage or in the ring. Which makes perfect sense, as the mess would be very complicated to clean up and re-stage. Just ask the participants in the annual New York Clown Theatre Festival, which opens with a pie fight between all the clowns in the festival, staged in the small black box theatre that is The Brick in Brooklyn NY.

So, let’s recap: pie-throwing is looked down on already in the mid-‘teens and there is no apparent precedent for the custard skirmishes everyone associates with silent comedy. This leaves me with this question, one for which I have no proof of an answer, but “all signs point to ‘yes’” — 

Did Charlie Chaplin introduce the pie fight in films, and could it be that he was the one who originated the idea?

What if “The comedy department rehearsing a new idea” wasn’t meant as light sarcasm directed at Chaplin’s former employer in Edendale, but instead meant to be taken as a statement meant to set up the pie fight sequence that follows? That the comedy department was rehearsing a new idea.

As far as I know, the pie fight in Behind the Screen (1916) is the earliest instance of a battle on this type in movies. It’s not like there are dozens of Keystone comedies with pie fights in them. There are zero. (The first Keystone pie fight on film happens in the 1935 WB/Vitaphone short Keystone Hotel.)

Charlie Chaplin pie fight steps
The pie fight is laid out in slow, deliberate steps to Charlie and to Eric, with Charlie and Eric each physically repeating them back to the director; if this wasn’t actually “a new idea”, this sequence would have been either shorter or unnecessary.

Stan Laurel’s idea to go over the top, full throttle, high gear, DEFCON 1 on custard pies in Battle of the Century was because he felt the pie fight had been done so much – that pie-throwing had gone out with Keystone – that they would really have to top everything that had been done. Again, aside from the Chaplin short, there are relatively few — again, more like zero — pie fights in silent comedies made in the ten years between the production of the two custard-containing shorts made by the two Karno ex-pats. 

Could Stan’s and everyone else’s impression of the proliferation of pie fights have come from a conflated memory produced by the fact that – as Michael Hayde has documented so well in his book on the Mutual comedies – the Chaplin two-reelers had never been out of release, and been reissued and re-reissue and on screens for years?

Which leads to a follow-up question — 

Could the pie fight have had its roots in a Karno sketch? 

It’s of note, I think, that the two iconic silent movie pie fights are in films made by two of Fred Karno’s leading comics, one of whom was the other’s understudy.

These are just theories, questions I’m posing, and I’m not saying this is what happened. I hope proof of some of this turns up.

Michael Hayde’s Chaplin’s Vintage Year: The History of the Mutual-Chaplin Specials is available on Amazon. So is Randy Skretvedt’s Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies.

I hope you’ll consider signing up for my email list. I’ll only be in your inbox a couple times a month, with info about my shows and insights about what I’m working on. Plus, when you confirm your sign-up, you get to watch a rare silent comedy!

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Paul Fitzpatrick

It does seem to me that while pie-throwing was a frequent gag from the early days of silents, to the point where it was considered time-worn early on; the “pie fight” was not really a “thing” until later, especially when individual sequences, including at least one in a talkie, were seen so frequently in retrospectives. Similarly, on Soupy Sales’ television show, there were numerous individual pies thrown, but probably very few pie fights, and the one with Frank Sinatra and Trini Lopez has taken on legendary status just as THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY has. I really believe that the… Read more »