by Dana B. Larrabee — While the films of the silent era (1902-1927) are mostly forgotten curiosities, those of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd have survived and regularly turn up at cinema retrospectives and on the Turner Classic Movie Channel. But there are other lesser known silent era comedies that can still startle and delight in the era of CGI, Panavision, 3-D and Dolby Surround- Sound — perhaps even funnier today than when they were shot back in the 1920s.
If any one “custard pie” feature comedy tops the list of all-time greats, it’s His Just Desserts starring Susie Murillo, who was to silent films what Ilana Becker is to today’s TV sitcoms. Desserts zips along at a breakneck pace, setting up all its characters and basic plot in the first two reels. The last three build to a trio of hysterically funny sequences; non-stop onslaughts of inventive pie gags all worked out by Murillo herself, who also co-directed with Larry Danabe.
But when the picture was made in 1927, “custard pie comedy” was considered old hat; passé. After all, Laurel and Hardy did it best years before in Battle of the Century and critics opined so-called “pie pics” were dead. Nevertheless, no other movie tops the inspired pie-plastering melées we get in Desserts.
Susie plays Sylvia McVye, who inherits the Mother McVye’s Pie Company and discovers the firm is near collapse due to plummeting sales. To turn things around Susie recruits the dapper fast-talking “efficiency expert” Peter Calverton (Norman Desmond) with whom she quickly becomes infatuated. Completely conned, she gives him carte blanche to implement an automated pie-baking system to put the company in the black — in “apple pie order,” so to speak. Disorder is what results!
Unbeknownst to Susie, Calverton plans to layoff most of her female workforce. They get wind of the scheme and two baker-activists (Rosie Sudrigez and Aleta Suntan) vow to sabotage Calverton. Their well-targeted campaign begins when Rosie stages a fake tryst with Calverton behind the pie-making machinery — making certain Susie catches him in the act. That’s when Susie enthusiastically delivers Calverton’s first pie in the eye!
Another pie-perfect sequence is where Peter in a presentation to potential distributors, challenges the workers to a bake-off and taste test competition against his new auto-pie system. In a sequence outdoing Chaplin’s Modern Times, the mechanized assembly line goes haywire (Suntan has reversed some electrical connections and amped up the power) so pies fly fast and furiously into the faces of Calverton and the astounded attendees!
The entire fiasco is recorded on film by the newsreel crew Peter hired. In one trick shot, Murillo hurls a pie directly at the audience, in effect, right in our faces! Then the camera pulls back to reveal a disgruntled operator clearing banana cream off the lens.
A Arnold Sersen, who worked on DeMille’s Noah’s Ark created Desserts’ special effects. “We set up a sheet of tempered glass about a foot in front of the Mitchell,” he recalls. “We had Susie lob a pie — smack! Right at it! She had a hell of an arm, too, that woman! Then we’d clean off the glass and have her do it over ‘til we got what we wanted. And that shot got one of the biggest laughs in the picture!”
To add insult to injury, Murillo appropriates Calverton’s newsreel footage for a Mother McVye’s screen ad that sucks in theater staff, the audience, police, fire fighters, everyone — into an uproarious pie-throwing maelstrom. The ingenuity of this sequence is staggering, with pies flying right off the movie screen into the face of the audience!
For the crowded theater scenes, Sersen had catapults loaded with pies strategically placed out of camera range. A master control let him send pies flying on cue to enhance whatever the actors were doing. “The most challenging part,” Sersen confides “was preparing the damn pies and all the clean-up after.”
The simple but deliberately contrived plot is the perfect framework for classic gag sequences that build to a frenzied melée of pie-flying slapstick raining down on Calverton and everyone around him in the final reel.
Thanks to the comical movie ads, McVye’s Pies become big sellers. Calverton’s assembly-line methods are scrapped, but along with his walking papers, he does wind up with a cash bonus for arranging the filming. So like all good “custard pie” comedies, everyone lives hap-pie-ly ever after!
His Just Desserts was so successful, Kinegraph-Mutual added new scenes plus a sound track and re-released it in 1934 to equally enthusiastic audiences. A national pie distributor even paid for the rights to use the name “Mother McVye’s” with a photo of Susie Murillo to market pastries under that brand name well into the 1950s. Footage from Desserts’ best pie-fight sequences turns up in some later Three Stooges shorts as well as Chase Weaver’s excellent 1972 Comedy Stew compilation film celebrating comedians of the silent film era.