Pie Charting


Something there is, to paraphrase (contrariwise) a famous poet, that does love a pie.  Is it the round shape?  Is it the fluffy toppings?  Is it the gooey insides? 

Or maybe (just maybe…) it’s because we like to throw ’em…


And why throw?  Maybe it’s because…of that round shape (so well-formed for spinning through air).  And the fluffy toppings (so practical for that first impact).  And as for those gooey insides (so satisfyingly messy to watch).  Whatever.  When you’ve gotta pie, you’ve gotta toss.  Law of Nature, I think; as basic as breathing.  Have Pie, Will Throw.

Pie Throwing—or ‘Pieing,’ to give its technical term—actually has a history.  Per Wikipedia, pies in the face began as gags in music hall routines presented by Fred Karno (note that both Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel performed with the Karno troupe).  Inevitably, pieing moved into the movies.  A face pie was first given in Mr. Flip, a 1909 Essanay film, which starred Ben Turpin as a masher who, for his troubles, gets a pie shoved into his pan (an argument, I think, for always keeping that pie handy in the hand—there are times when a good splat is needed).  From thereon, cinematic pies have been flung, hurled, lobbed, launched, chucked, pitched, bowled, dodged, ducked, veered, tossed over shoulders, smacked into faces, banged atop heads, slammed into walls, stuffed into shirts, rubbed into hair, stepped on, slipped on, sat on, fallen into, and even—occasionally—eaten.  Which may have been their original purpose.  (Ah, but the temptation of those gooey insides…)

So if, this Turkey Day, you’re gonna be serving (even eating) Pumpkin, Apple, Pecan, Blueberry, Blackberry, Strawberry, Key Lime, Rhubarb, Lemon Meringue, Shoofly, Sweet Potato, Coconut Cream, Banana Cream, Chocolate Cream, Salted Caramel, Peanut Butter, Cherry Crumble, or Mississippi Mud—Then check below for a viewer’s compendium on how to toss the tart, pitch the pastry, and fling the flan.  

Not that we’re recommending it—oh no!  (Why waste a good dessert?)  But you never know when slinging a strudel might prove timely…

Battle of The Century (1927)

In what may be the best-known pie fight in cinema history, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy start (and escalate) a flipping fest structured in their famous tit-for-tat style (I throw one, you throw one, he throws one…).  It ends with what looks like half the extras from Central Casting perfecting their pitching aim, when not taking one for the team.  Note all the classic pie-fight tropes:  The innocent bystander joining in; the wrong target targeted; the seemingly endless supply of pastry.  Also of note is the behind-the-scenes talent:  Clyde Bruckman, Leo McCarey, George Stevens, all (especially the latter two) to become famous.  Which just goes to show how small pies can lead to Great Things…:

In the Sweet Pie and Pie (1941)

With that title, and starring Moe, Larry, AND Curly, you just know there’s gonna be a pie fight.  On hand (with pies in them) are Stooge regulars Vernon Dent, Dorothy Appleby, and Symona Boniface.  What’s the film about?  Does it matter?  Just give us pies, and more pies, along with the Stooges Three and plenty of elbow room, and nature will take its course:

Keystone Hotel (1935)

Something of a rarity is this two-reeler talkie that, as its title indicates, harkens back to the Mack Sennett comedy era.  Its second half features not only a pie fight but a Bathing Beauties contest and a recreation of a Keystone Kops routine, with Ford Sterling himself as the desk sergeant.  Also on view are silent-film veterans Marie Prevost, Hank Mann, Chester Conklin, Heinie Conklin, and first-movie-pie-faced Ben Turpin.  Note the surreal (and suggestive) gags of the lap-held, spring-action, pie-tossing top hat, and the telephone that spurts custard cream:

Behind the Screen (1916)

Charlie Chaplin as a film prop man battles with his main foil, the huge, hulking Eric Campbell, in a David-and-Goliath showdown with pastry thrown (literally) in.  In true pie fight fashion, hapless outsiders get involved, including actors in a historical costume drama on a nearby set.  Who’da thought there were pie fights in the days when Knighthood Was In Flower?  Chaplin regular Henry Bergman can be glimpsed as the harried director getting in the path of a coconut cream missile.  Chaplin himself manages to stay pristine throughout:  

That Ragtime Band (1913)

Included here because, per IMDB, this is said to be the first movie in which a pie is thrown, as a projectile.  Of more interest today is its beautiful and talented star, Mabel Normand, one of the greatest comics of the silent era.  The plot is slim, about the rivalry between a pompous bandmaster (Ford Sterling) and his chief trumpeter (Raymond Hatton) for Mabel’s attentions.  Sterling, a real pro, gives a remarkably detailed performance, of small, fussy facial and hand gestures, but Mabel’s spontaneity and naturalness may appeal more.  Oh, and as for that pie…scroll to the 10.10-minute mark to watch a glint-eyed Hatton heave the tartlet right at Sterling (who then heaves it back, only to hit…).  A young Edgar Kennedy is the stage manager.  The film’s funniest bit is the visual punchline that a dancing Salome, during an amateur talent show, displays at the end of her routine:

The Great Race (1965)

I include this pie fight scene not because it’s one of my favorites but because it’s a favorite with so many fans.  It’s said to be the largest pie fight ever filmed; for me, it’s an example of the kind of overproduced, elephantine comedies that a dying and clueless studio system was churning out by the 1960s.  The Warner Archive clip provides interesting logistics on how much materiel was used to put together this pie party.  Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, and Jack Lemmon (in two roles) are the stars, with help from Peter Falk, Keenan Wynn, and George Macready (surprisingly dignified even when his face is plastered with fruit):

Smashing Time (1967)

Appearing only two years after The Great Race, this British film, taking place in 1960s Mod London, is in an altogether different mode from Blake Edward’s big-budget blow-out.  Goofy innocent Lynn Redgrave, waitressing in a pie-specialty café (named Sweeny Todd’s), spots Rita Tushingham with the man (Michael York) she’s also interested in.  Flying pastry ensues (a smashing time, indeed).  In its merging of vaudeville humor and Swinging-Sixties style, the sequence feels almost post-modern—from its deliberate use of pie-fight tropes (such as how outsiders, like the street preacher and strolling girl, get tart-smacked) that date back to the silent era, to its New Wave film techniques (such as the snap-edit pacing of Redgrave’s pastry barrage).  Watched today, though, it’s a time capsule of an era that now seems as quaint as your grandmother’s paisley shawl:

“The Diner” – I Love Lucy, Season 3, 1954

“I’d like to see a good pie fight!”  (Well, don’t we all?)  A potted patron can’t make up his mind at which diner to eat—”Little Bit of Cuba” or “Big Hunk of America”—in this episode from the classic 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy.  When the Ricardos and the Mertzes open rival diners, literally side by side, and neither side can attract customers, frustration sets in…and then that tipsy tramp (Fred Sherman) goads them into self-expression.  An example of how the small screen can stage a small pie fight and still get big laughs:

“Crazy Pie Throwing” – Candid Camera, mid-1960s

Maybe only the television medium, with its intimate screen and unassuming presence right in our living rooms, could have made pieing ‘real,’ and not an act.  This 1960s episode from the hidden-camera TV show Candid Camera stages a situation in which actual innocent bystanders participating in a ‘pie-tasting’ find themselves pie fighting instead.  As the video shows (courtesy of the Candid Camera Classics YouTube channel), two ringers (Candid Camera staff members) start the ruckus by getting into an argument, pie-wise; then, as in a Laurel-n-Hardy routine, the whole thing escalates.  What makes it funny—and a bit weird—is how the bystanders—who, I’ve no doubt, were all serious, sober, tax-paying citizens—rather than ducking under tables, start to enjoy casting the custard, going at it like kids on a playground.  Could that say something profound about our civilization?  That it only takes a pie to bring out the gleeful child in us? 

Maybe we should start plenishing that pâtisserie…:

There really is something that does love a pie.  Gooey insides and all.  Happy Thanksgiving.


BONUS CLIP:  Moe Howard – The Mike Douglas Show, 1970s:  The Master Pie Flinger himself, Moe Howard, demonstrates the finer points of pie throwing during a guest appearance on Mike Douglas’s afternoon talk show.  Unfortunately, the video playback can be viewed on YouTube only, so click on the link here to watch.  Bring towels, just in case.

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