The Life of Pie


Just when I was wondering what to post today, it turns out to be Pie Day, and thus a piece I wrote a while ago sees the light of publication.

My first article for Eat Drink Films addresses the psychology of the pie fight on screen. How professorial that sounds! Here. Splat!

8 Responses to “The Life of Pie”

  1. “The Great Race” pie fight was a miscalculation. The outsized saloon fight worked because it played off a cliche still in active use (and already frequently parodied, but not on that scale). It was also anchored by a plot element (the villains using it as cover to destroy the hero’s gasoline) and several decent gags woven in.

    The pie fight came after the Ruritanian plot was resolved and had one and a half gags: Tony Curtis wandering around with face, hair and white suit untouched, and Jack Lemmon calling for another rum cake or whatever. It was an ancestor of the more-impressive-than-funny set pieces of “1941”.

    The payoff was surprisingly off for Blake Edwards: Curtis is finally sullied by a pie from Natalie Wood, but it’s accidental and she has an “Oh Dear!” reaction. What you sort of hope is that Wood, uncomfortably drenched in goo, will see the smug and spotless Curtis and deliberately mess him up out of rage.

    The genius of the Laurel and Hardy battle is that it’s of a piece with their other forays into escalation. The big laughs are people calmly going about their lives when a pie sails in from nowhere, unleashing an irrational passion for pastry-based vengeance. The mob of pie-throwers is funny because we know they’re all upright citizens, provoked to goofy anarchy at the slightest smudge to dignity. It also worked with shin-kicking, pants-ripping, car-damaging, and deliberate damage to home and business.

  2. We’re only a pie away from total anarchy!

    Terry Southern’s description of the deleted Strangelove pie-fight makes it seem a great idea in principle, but flawed in execution since Kubrick wasn’t allowed to retake it enough (lengthy re-dress time on a sequence like that, even with the late Sir Ken Adam’s drop-dry war room).

  3. I feel the Great Race pie fight is less a homage to slapstick comedy than it is the work of Jackson Pollack — and “Happening” performance art which was all the rage back in the 60’s.

    1941 is far and away my favorite Spielberg. His anarchic strain — largely suppressed throughout the bulk of his career –takes over. Moreover it was done pre-CGI. The Hollywood Boulevard set was built to three different scales. The model’s are especially awe-inspiring. My late campadre Rick Sanford, who worked as an extra on a great many films, was employed by 1941 for close to a year. He’d come back with all sorts of tales of the work being done. The dance scene alone is a marvel

  4. Yes, but “impressive rather than funny” still seems accurate. Large-scale comedy is very hard to pull off and seems to attract directors not particularly experienced in gags — Stanley Kramer was Spielberg’s role model. Blake Edwards, of course, had serious comic chops, but even he struggled — The Great Race is one of his weaker films of the era. I also find the bigger set-pieces in The Party quite actively unfunny, whereas the smaller stuff is fine.

  5. And when it comes to pies, leave us not forget —

  6. Our Father, which art in heaven,
    Harold Lloyd be thy name.

  7. Two nice uses of pies from the Three Stooges:

    — At a ritzy party, Moe startles one of the boys into throwing a pie straight up (at least one custard pie is always on the buffet table in a Stooge comedy). It sticks to the ceiling, but is clearly going to come down soon. Moe tries to get out from under it when a dowager grabs his arm and wants to converse. Moe breaks loose, The dowager, realizing Moe was looking up at something, looks up just in time to get the falling pie in the face.

    — Authority figure Vernon Dent is recounting a crime story to a visitor, and we go into a flashback of the Stooges as detectives. Every few minutes somebody gets a pie in the face for no reason whatsoever. Dent’s visitor keeps asking, with increasing exasperation, who is throwing the pies. When the crime is solved with no reference to baked goods, Dent finally says, “Oh, I threw the pies.” Then, of course, he gets it.

    Cakes, for some reason, are very rarely thrown. But they’re fallen into with some frequency. Often it’s a two-pronged joke: Something slowly and carefully prepared is ruined in a quick and silly way, and somebody’s dignity is mocked. Oliver Hardy, carrying a cake, is always a good bet to take a spectacular fall that adds injury to the mix. In “Twice Two” Ollie (in drag as Mrs. Laurel) ends up wearing a cake as an Elizabethan collar and crown.

    In cartoons, blowing out birthday candles will send candles and frosting flying into somebody’s face, but there are other uses as well. Here is my favorite use of cake in a cartoon:

  8. The Great Brutish Bake-Off!

    I like the abstraction of the stooges crime story you describe. As if pies are so inevitable they can now appear without the slightest logical reason.

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