(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Having been immortalized in print (by author Henry Miller, among others) and film legend, The Battle of the Century comes off as a disappointment when finally viewed. For years, the movie’s final sequence–that of a massive pie-fight–was the only remaining part of the movie. Robert Youngson slightly re-edited it (and preserved it, as he worked on the only known print of it) for his compilation film The Golden Age of Comedy. Then the movie’s opening sequence–showing Stan as a hapless boxer named Canvasback Clump, with Ollie as his manager–was rediscovered in the 1970’s. Now the only missing part is the movie’s mid-section, with Eugene Pallette as an insurance salesman who makes Ollie see dollar signs, if only he can get Stan into an accident.
The film has now been reconstructed (with still photos and script excerpts taking the place of the missing middle sequence), and neither the first segment nor the last seems worth the legend. Knowing that Stan is a boxer, and early-L&H heavy Noah Young is his opponent, tells everything you need to know about the opening boxing match. Some of Stan’s movements are funny enough, but it’s all quite predictable, and Stan-as-inept-boxer was done far more energetically and effectively in L&H’s later talkie Any Old Port (1932).
Then Ollie buys the insurance policy on Stan and continually throws a banana peel in his path to try to injure Stan and collect on the policy. Although Laurel and Hardy were well-established as a team by this point in their film careers, this very concept of this scenario shows that their characterizations still needed tinkering. The whole banana-peel bit is only a set-up for the film’s grand finale, and as such, it seems unusually nasty of Ollie to want to benefit from Stan’s misfortune. (When a similar concept was reworked into L&H’s Twentieth-Century Fox film The Dancing Masters, many L&H buffs derided it as another of Fox’s out-of-character actions for The Boys.)
Eventually a pie vendor (Charlie Hall) stumbles on the banana peel intended for Stan, and the pie fight begins. According to John McCabe’s famous L&H biography, Stan Laurel thought the sequence would be funny, not because of the pies, but because of the famous L&H “reciprocal destruction” sequence of events, where an innocent bystander would be dragged into the chaos and would have no choice but to retaliate. But the kind of hostile interplay that worked so brilliantly a year later in You’re Darn Tootin’ lays pretty flat here. As much as Laurel-the-filmmaker relied on character motivation for his comedy, the only real motive in this sequence is to get thousands of pies flying.
Beyond that, there’s little to enjoy, other than the subtler moments: Stan nonchalantly handing out pies from the pie wagon, as though he was a waiter filling some orders; Anita Garvin’s dainty reactions when she lands fanny-first onto a waiting pie. This sort of comedy was the kind of massive overkill that would be sniffed at in the team’s later Fox films, not to mention “tribute comedies” such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979). As was well-proven before and after this film, Laurel and Hardy’s comedy was on too intimate of a level to incorporate such a cold-blooded approach.