Throughout the history of silent film comedy there were pies everywhere, whizzing through the air like gooey bumblebees. Their purpose was to smash into the faces of cinemaÂ clowns, such as cross-eyed Ben Turpin and walrus-mustached Chester Conklin, as well as straight men like Mack Swain and Bud Jamison, not to mention innocent beauties like Mabel Normand or the statuesque Marie Dressler.
Whether the product came from the Mack Sennett Studio, Hal Roach, or the Christie Educational Studio, hardly any slapstick film during the 1920â??s was complete without someone getting a foamy pastry right in the kisser. Audiences expected it, demanded it, and laughed uproariously when it was delivered.
The most famous cinema pie fight of all time was undoubtedly Laurel & Hardyâ??s 1927 short film, Battle of the Century. Stan and Ollie, along with an entire neighborhood of deranged people, plunder a pie truck of its contents and send them hurling about with hilarious accuracy. No one has ever been able to count exactly how many pies were used in that film, but it could not have been less than several hundred!
How did the movie technicians make those pies? Were they real custard or fruit filling?
No, they were not!
As a former circus clown, I know how those pies were made, and are still made today when clowns want to toss them around under the big top. The old clowns I worked with told me that the formula has been the same for the past 110 years.
You see, if you were to throw a real pie, a pie with a thick filling of custard or fruit, into someoneâ??s face, youâ??d probably break their nose! The next time you are at the supermarket, just go ahead and lift up a fruit pie. Heavy, isnâ??t it? Should you hit someone with something that heavy, there could be some real damage. Besides, the filling is not very photogenic â?? on black and white film it looks rather gray and dirty. It canâ??t be wiped delicately out of the eyes with just the fingertips, the way Oliver Hardy would do it; it is too thick and pasty for that. Custard and fruit filling does not make the spectacular spatter you see in the old slapstick movies when the pie makes contact with the victimâ??s face. Besides, do you know how difficult it is to clean up after a direct hit with a generous helping of custard or fruit filling? You canâ??t do too many retakes using real pies.
At this point you may be thinking, â??Oh, right â?? it must be shaving cream!â?
Well, yes and no.
It is shaving cream, but not the kind that comes out of a pressurized can. That stuff wonâ??t keep firm for more than five minutes, especially under the hot lights of a circus tent, or a movie studio. It melts into a thin, runny stream of sweet smelling bubbles. It looks like milk.
To make the goo for a good slapstick pie, a pie that will sail across the room and land with a satisfying â??plopâ?? in someoneâ??s snoot, splattering all over the place, you first start with a dozen bars of hard shaving soap. The kind that your grandfather put in a ceramic mug and stirred with a brush for a thick, sturdy foam to lather up his chin. Next, use a carrot grater to grate up all twelve bars into a large galvanized trash can. When all the hard soap is grated into the garbage can, add cold water from any water source handy until the can is a third full. Add one full pint of glycerol. Glycerol is what gives the goo its body and keeps it springy and foamy for up to an hour. Â For a more stiffer foam, add a few drops of one of the essential oils, such as clove oil. Â If you want, you can add food coloring to change the color. Then whip the mixture with a paint mixer on an extended rod, like the old-fashioned malted milkshake mixer. It will need to be mixed for a good fifteen minutes, after which you will have a whole garbage can full of aromatic and creamy pie filling. You can put it in pie tins, buckets, fill syringes with it â?? itâ??s very versatile! This shaving cream filling stings a bit in your eyes, and is not very pleasant to swallow, but it has no permanent aftereffects and is relatively easy to clean up.
So there you have it â?? the next time you chuckle over some hapless silent film character getting walloped with a pie and spluttering with rage, remember itâ??s just good clean fun with shaving soap!
Tim Torkildson is a former circus clown who now works as a free-lance blogger. Â Among other things, he is writing a series about comedy and essential oils forÂ http://www.essentialoildetails.com/