The Custard Pie As Magical Theatrical Object

In honour of it’s appearance in this weeks Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner, here’s the piece I wrote for Icon about the custard pie in full for all you fan’s of over-thought and over-wrought cultural commentary:

Battle of the Century – Laurel & Hardy

I’m not entirely convinced that the custard pie even exists. Not a Pumpkin Pie, not a Flan, not even a Custard Tart but a real life Custard Pie like in the movies. How is it that something so plausible, so eminently possible, only exists in fiction? Nobody in films ever eats a custard pie, unless, that is, they are tasting it after having been flanned with that beautiful gesture of resignation perfected by Oliver Hardy. It is, it seems, a strange object: something that looks like food but has nothing to do with being eaten.

The custard pie seemingly appears in the 1909 out of nowhere in the slapstick short Mr Flip where a cad has a series of revenges visited upon him by the women who he ‘amusingly’ harasses: scissors up the bum, electrocuted by a telephone, shampoo in his eyes, squirted by soda syphons and finally, a pie in the face. Once pied, the eponymous Mr Flip turns to the camera and gurns that familiar just-pied gurn for the first time in cinematic history. Perhaps there were other pies pushed into faces before this, but for now, this stands as the moment that culture discovered the thrill of the flanning.

Pieing is – always – a moment of sublime magic. First, there is the shock of the pies meaning changing: from an inert foodstuff to a device dealing in humiliation. There is the action: the tension of the pies the gestural swoop from normative horizontal to a vertical pregnant with comedic potential. Then of course the splat, the pie plastered over the victims face.

It was Hal Roach’s 1927 Battle of the Century starring Laurel and Hardy that remains the masterpiece of custard pie choreography where 4,000 pies were flung in a raging street battle (‘real pies – filling and all’ Laurel later wrote).

But the grand era of the cinematic custard pie came to an end. The custard pie had been a product of early cinematic technology. Its exaggerated gestures and high contrast visual effect of a white-splattered face suited the silent, flickery black and white medium, the ne pas ultra slapstick gag. As motion picture technology changed, comedic performance shifted from motion to dialogue. The pie, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, was forgotten.

Whenever the custard pie appears now it appears as a slapstick object in quotation marks. When celebrities and politicians are flanned, like Rupert Murdoch at the recent Select Committee hearings, the pie arrives from another time and dimension and tries to cast its victim in a world of slapstick absurdity for a brief moment.

The custard pie is not an real object. It exists in the world of slapstick where objects behave differently. The word slapstick derives from a Commedia dell’arte prop, a flat paddle with two wooden slats whose loud smack would make it appear that an actor had been struck with real force.
This was appropriated by the English Harlequinade tradition. Here the slapstick, carried by the Harlequin, was both sword and a magic wand that could apparently magically transform scenery simultaneously. So this then, might be the key to understanding the custard pie as a double entity, as both food and a comedic object, an entirely ordinary object imbued with magical theatrical properties of transformation.

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