Sunday, March 6, 2011

Buster Keaton's Pie Recipe

An excerpt from my upcoming essay about early silent film comedy.

It's impossible to say with any certainty who invented the pie-in-the-face gag so much associated with silent film comedy. The pie itself was probably invented by the ancient Egyptians during the Neolithic Period, around 9500 B.C. and my best guess is that the first pie was thrown for laughs somewhere around 9500-and-ten-minutes B.C. The tomb of pharaoh Ramses II, who took power in 1304 B.C., included etchings of royal bakers preparing galettes, a thin-crusted pie stuffed with honey and nuts—maybe the first artistic representation of a pie in history.

Legend has it that Mabel Normand threw motion pictures' first pie, hitting an unsuspecting Roscoe Arbuckle in the short A Noise From The Deep (1913). The fact is though, it was the otherwise forgettable Mr. Flip (1909) starring veteran comic Ben Turpin that was the first film to feature an actor getting hit in the face with a pie. Famous for his crossed eyes and brush moustache, Turpin began his career in burlesque and vaudeville before making his film debut in 1907 at the Essanay Studios. Mr. Flip has all the appearances of being based on a stage routine Turpin had earlier perfected, leading me to believe that the pie-in-the-face gag was already an old one by the time it showed up on film.

Still, there are historians who insist Normand should get credit for throwing the first pie (as opposed to merely shoving it into the victim's face). Well, maybe. Even that much is hard to confirm. I've read that Normand in fact threw the first pie at a stagehand who had made a pass at her, and that the story has morphed over time into credit for inventing the thrown-pie gag. I've also read that it wasn't Normand who threw the pie at all but Arbuckle himself and that he hit co-star Nick Cogley. A copy of A Noise From The Deep resides in New York's Museum of Modern Art where it is screened periodically. If I ever see it, I'll let you know the scoop.

For those interested in the fine art of pie throwing, Buster Keaton described the process in some detail in an interview with Fletcher Markle in 1964:

"[N]umber one is we don't use a regular baker's pie," he told Markle, "and throwing the pie in a cardboard plate is no good because that plate flying off detracts. So, what we used to do is our prop man would get our baker—whoever is closest to the studio—to make pie crust, two of them, with nothing in them, and take just a little flour and water to make a paste, just enough to glue the two together. That was so that your fingers wouldn't go through the bottom of it. Now you fill it, about an inch, with just flour and water mixed, which clings like glue and stretches. Now, on top of it, if I'm going to hit somebody in dark clothes, a brunette, you put a lemon meringue type of topping on it and garnish with whipped cream, you see. When it was a light costume, a blond, something like that, you put in blueberry, and then enough whipped cream just to splatter.

"Then when you threw the pie, you shot put up to a distance of about eight feet. But from there on back, you brought that pie from here [points to shoulder] right overhand, 'cause with a little practice you can learn to make that pie come in this way [vertically] and not crossways." The better to maximize the splatter, he said.

Keaton was credited with once hitting a movie villain "plum in the pus" from a distance of twenty-seven feet.

The pie-in-the-face gag became passé around the same time comics such as Chaplin and Keaton began making feature films. "[T]he minute we got into features," Keaton said, "where an audience had to believe the story we were telling, we had to stop pie-throwing. There was never a pie thrown in any of our pictures once we started into features. No impossible gags were done."

The Three Stooges later revived the art of the pie fight in such shorts as In the Sweet Pie and Pie, and Mel Brooks staged one of the best known pie fights in Blazing Saddles. And then serious film fanatics are aware of the pie-fight-that-wasn't that was originally to end Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The fight was to have broken out in the war room and the sequence was filmed, but Kubrick later decided to delete it. If you look closely though you can still see the pies when the Russian ambassador partakes of the war room's lavish buffet.


John Tells All said...

I knew Buster Keaton was a genius, but I had no idea his startling skills extended into the lofty reaches of expert pie throwing. Huzzah! Thanks so much for the article.

whistlingypsy said...

Monsieur of the monkey Mythique, an excellent tribute (as always) to silent film and those lovely folks who can still take our breath away. I'm looking forward to reading the complete essay, and I'm really feeling the love for Ben Turpin and his sideways glance at Chaplin . . . a look is worth a thousand inter-titles.

Ginger Ingenue said...


-- I'm fascinated, too. Right on the arm.

And here I always thought Southern Belles invented pie. :)

VP81955 said...

If only Buster Keaton had explained the secrets of pie-throwing to William Randolph Hearst -- perhaps he would have allowed the lovely Marion Davies to undergo the experience in the classic "Show People."

Hey -- my word verification is "comic." As Rich Ashburn would have said, hard to believe, Harry, hard to believe.

Mythical Monkey said...

As Rich Ashburn would have said, hard to believe, Harry, hard to believe.

Speaking of hard to believe, Richie Ashburn's daughter used to babysit Katie-Bar-The-Door way back in the day, Katie being a Philadelphia redhead.

Amazing but true.