Buster Keaton’s Pie Throwing
The art of making and throwing them as told by Buster Keaton.
Ironically, even though most people associate pie throwing with silent film comedies, Buster Keaton never took a pie in the face in any of his silent films – and he only threw a pie once (at Fatty Arbuckle in The Garage) where he missed. Later in his career, however, he did throw pies on television on the Ed Wynn show and had a color pie fight with a young Alice Faye in Hollywood Cavalcade. Quoting Buster from his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick:
“I had not thrown a custard-pie for years and lost no time in getting in some practice when not busy on the set.
I started by drawing a circle on the wall in white chalk, this was the approximate size of Alice Faye’s lovely blonde head. I used a wooden plate as my practice “pie”. When this proved too light I kept on driving nails into it until it weighed about as the custard-pies Roscoe, Al StJohn and I had so much fun throwing at one another in the old days. I practiced throwing the plate from various distances. I have always considered myself the world’s champion custard-pie thrower, and slowly my old marksmanship returned.”
[A note about the pies used by Buster Keaton in his pie-throwing routines. Many people presently use real pies, complete with a tin or aluminum plate, when throwing a pie. This is actually hazardous, as it’s possible to break a nose. As Kenny Ahern, one of the instructors at the UW La Crosse Clown Camp explains, “splat, don’t slam” — in other words, you use your body language to make it look like you’re throwing the pie, but in actuality, you’re lightly placing the pie in the person’s face. Buster Keaton, however, used a different kind of pie entirely.
Buster had the studio’s bakers make two crusts cooked until they were brittle and then glued one inside the other with a paste of flour and water. The double crust served as the pie tin, so there was no risk of injuring the other person.]
“I worried about her flinching. Besides spoiling the shot, this would mean hours of delay while Alice took a shower, got a whole new make-up job, a hairdo, and was fitted for duplicate clothes outfit.
I decided not to warn her when the great moment approached. After talking it over with Dwan, we placed George Givot, who was playing the villain, between Alice and me. Givot faced me, but Alice standing right behind him was faced in the opposite direction. Givot was told he should turn the girl around slowly as I started to say my line, which was “We will see who gets the girl!” He would hold her in front of him using her as a shield. After timing this using another girl for Alice, I suggested that if the word ‘now’ where added, it would give me time to deliver the pie at the right split second.
When we made the shot Givot turned Alice round too quickly, which forced me to speed up my throw. Consequently the pie hit her in the face harder than was necessary.
You never saw a more stunned looking girl in your life than Alice Faye that day. We required no retake, but Alice did not thank me for that. As the camera was being moved to the next location I saw her go over to a table on which the pies for the other scenes were waiting to be used. Alice picked one up and weighed it in her hand, then tried several others. When she found one she liked, she headed towards me on the run. I leaped up and ran, but Alice chased me off the sound stage and clear out of the studio holding all the while that menacing custard-pie in her hand.”
When Buster Keaton taught pie throwing technique to Ed Wynn on his TV show, he described the 5 different types of pie throws that they used.
- The Walking Thrust – Walk up to the person to be pied, push the pie in their face, and before you walk away give it a slight twist. This makes the sticky part of the pie cling to the recipient.
- The Shot Putt – Thrown from a distance of three to five feet.
- With shots over eight feet, you need to make sure the pie is of the right weight to fly perpendicular as it leaves your fingers.
- The Ancient Roman Discus Throw – Spin halfway around turning the pie as you whirl and then let go, hitting the victim square in the face.
- Catchers Throw to Second Base – The hardest of all. Pull back your arm just as far as it will go, and then bring the pie in “all the way from East St. Louis” – and let it fly