Friday, September 7, 2012

Tillie’s Punctured Romance (Keystone, 1914)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010, 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Tillie’s Punctured Romance, a 1914 production of the Mack Sennett Studio that was Sennett’s first full-length feature. He bought the rights to a 1910 musical called Tillie’s Nightmare — which, according to, only ran 77 performances, though that was long enough to give its star, Marie Dressler, one of the biggest hits of the “teens,” a song called “Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl.” Sennett also hired Dressler to repeat her role as Tillie — even though it was a silent film and therefore audiences wouldn’t get to hear her sing her big hit — and threw just about everyone else under contract to him into the film, including casting Charlie Chaplin as the principal villain (!) and Mabel Normand as “the other woman.” The plot is pretty simple — Tillie is a big-hearted farm girl who’s seduced by city slicker Chaplin into stealing her father’s (Mack Swain) cash stash and eloping with him to the big city — actually specified as New York — where Chaplin hooks up with girlfriend Normand and the two plot to steal Tillie’s money and leave her alone and broke. (Interestingly, Chaplin reprised this plot seriously in his 1923 film A Woman of Paris, with Edna Purviance as the farm girl and Adolphe Menjou as the villain.) Various versions of this film exist, ranging in length from 55 to 83 minutes — like a lot of other silent features, especially ones that featured people who later became big stars, it got cut, chopped and channeled in various directions and, after sound came in, was outfitted with musical accompaniment ranging from the silly to the generally appropriate.

The version we were watching was about 70 minutes and had recently been shown on TCM, whose host, Robert Osborne, said that Chaplin hadn’t liked making the film. Osborne seemed to think that was because Sennett himself directed — Chaplin had already starting directing his short films himself (and the five-film compilation Chaplin at Keystone, including three films he didn’t direct and two he did, highlights just how much better his comedies got once he was director as well as star) and didn’t want to go back to working for another director (and indeed he never made another film he didn’t direct, unless you count his cameo as himself in King Vidor’s Show People, which he did as a favor to the film’s star, Chaplin’s good friend Marion Davies), but I suspect it was also because Chaplin was all too aware of how totally he was miscast as a villain. Though Chaplin would essentially revive his character here in Monsieur Verdoux 33 years later, he’s simply unbelievable as a black-hearted creep who plans to seduce a farm girl, steal her dad’s fortune and run off with someone else. I remember the first time I saw Tillie’s Punctured Romance — in the early 1970’s, in a hole-in-the-wall revival house (the sort of place you went to see classic films that were too obscure to play on television in the days before cable, videotapes and DVD’s) — and it was one of the few times I’ve sensed a visceral hostility to a movie from an audience, which I think was because they didn’t believe Chaplin, with all his sympathetic and endearing “tramp” gestures, as the bad guy.

What’s more, Tillie’s Punctured Romance simply isn’t a very good movie; about all that happens is a series of scenes in which the three principals travel around L.A. (“playing” New York and giving the film a welcome degree of authenticity from the fact that the city streets are the real thing, not a studio backlot) barely missing each other. There’s an interesting interlude in which Chaplin and Normand take in a movie — this may be the first film in history that has a film-within-the-film, and the gag is that the internal movie, A Thief’s Fate, mimics what Chaplin and Normand are actually doing. (It’s also amazing when you realize how difficult it was to do a film-within-a-film before the invention of process screens and optical effects: either the film-within-the-film had to be acted on the same stage, and in real time, as the main action, the way Buster Keaton did it a decade later in Sherlock, Jr. — or, as I think was done here, a section of the screen had to be matted off in the camera so the scenes involving the film-within-the-film could be shot on the same strip of film, rewound inside the camera, on the part of the screen that had originally been masked out.) It’s a good film and it’s funny, but it remains only moderately amusing and doesn’t really build up the kind of till-it-hurts laughter Sennett regularly achieved in his shorts … until the plot takes a turn by which Tillie inherits a fortune from her millionaire uncle (only temporarily; in this version it turns out the uncle isn’t dead after all, though there’s another cut — the one described by Theodore Huff in his biography of Chaplin — in which the uncle is dead but the will leaving Tillie his fortune is invalidated legally and his money goes to the state).

She throws a party in her uncle’s home and, while there, catches Chaplin — her supposed husband — and Normand necking. Does she merely register jealousy and leave it at that? Oh, no-o-o-o-o: she has a total nervous breakdown that leads her to get out a gun and start shooting it not only at her man who done her wrong, and the girl he done her wrong with, but everybody at her party — and her guests seem to hang out a lot longer and flee a lot less suddenly than one would expect from people at a party whose host has suddenly gone berserk and is shooting at them. Dressler flees and the Keystone Kops (well, they had to be in there somewhere) go after her and the other two principals, and it ends with her nearly drowning off the pier, the harbor patrol (who are at least marginally more competent than the land-based police) rescue her, and Chaplin and Normand are arrested. The End. Tillie’s Punctured Romance was a huge hit — enough so that Dressler reprised the role of Tillie in a series of sequels for another studio, World; and Paramount recycled the title for a 1928 comedy (still a silent) with Louise Fazenda and W. C. Fields that had nothing to do with this one plot-wise — and it elevated Chaplin from minor star to superstar and allowed him to write his own ticket from then on, and to give up villainous roles in favor of the sympathetic “tramp” character he would develop the next year at Essanay studio. But it’s one film from the classic era that, despite the star talent and the brilliantly comic ending, does date rather badly. — 1/2/10


I watched the 1914 movie Tillie’s Punctured Romance on Turner Classic Movies and heard Ben Mankiewicz (sitting in for Robert Osborne) deliver an introduction in which he stressed what a radical movie this was for its time. Though foreign companies had been making features since 1908 (The Assassination of the Duc de Guise, the debut production of the Film d’Art studio in France, whose producers hired Camille Saint-Saëns to do the musical score for live performance in the theatres where the silent film was screened — the first time a “name” composer was hired to write music for a film, blazing the trail later followed by Britten, Prokofieff, Copland, Bernstein, Shostakovich, Ravel and virtually every major 20th century composer except Stravinsky), U.S. studios were still convinced that no one would sit still for a film longer than one reel (about 10 to 12 minutes at silent speed) … until D. W. Griffith shot a two-reel version of Enoch Arden in 1912.

His studio, Biograph, released the two reels as two separate movies — only audiences demanded to see the second part immediately after the first, so theatre owners got the message and booked the two together, whereupon the bosses at Biograph and the other Edison Trust companies said, “O.K., we were wrong when we thought no one would sit through a movie longer than 10 minutes. No one will sit through a movie longer than 20 minutes.” Griffith pushed the envelope a year later with the film Judith of Bethulia (based on the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes), which he shot in four reels — and the “suits” at Biograph responded by firing him. Then he went to Mutual and shot a five-reeler called The Avenging Conscience (an anthology film based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe — later filmmakers would use the same solution to put Poe’s stories on screen despite their brevity), but at the time Mack Sennett announced he had bought the movie rights to the Broadway musical hit Tillie’s Nightmare and was hiring the stage star, Marie Dressler, to repeat her role on film, just about everyone in Hollywood thought he was nuts. Even the French (and the Italians, who pioneered the two-hour blockbuster with films like The Last Days of Pompeii, Quo Vadis? and Cabiria in 1912-1914) hadn’t thought of making a feature-length comedy, but Sennett boldly plunged into the task of shooting a six-reel comedy feature, though predictably he used little of Tillie’s Nightmare but the central situation: a young, naïve and hefty woman being lured from her farmer father and small-town life by a nefarious city slicker only after her money.

What really throws people about this movie when they see it today — I remember the first time I ever saw it at one of those storefront revival theatres in the Bay Area that abounded in the days before home video and cable, and the audience neither laughed nor fidgeted but greeted the movie with a sort of stony hostility — is that as the nefarious city slicker who’s only after Tillie’s money, Sennett cast Charlie Chaplin, and instead of his familiar “Tramp” getup Sennett had him wear a dandyish outfit (though still with pants too large for him!), and a twin-tufted “roo” moustache instead of the familiar toothbrush one associated with both Chaplin and Hitler. Sennett also changed the title to the more “movie-ish” Tillie’s Punctured Romance and cast his own girlfriend, Mabel Normand, as the vampy girlfriend Chaplin is dating in the city — and naturally she and Tillie are jealous of each other. I’ve blown hot and cold on this movie — sometimes I’ve enjoyed it and sometimes it’s seemed like just a long series of barely connected chase scenes. (In his autobiography, Chaplin recalled being put off when he first arrived at Sennett’s Keystone studio and Sennett told him that chase scenes were “the essence of our comedy.” “Personally, I hated a chase,” Chaplin said. “It dissipated personality; as little as I knew about movies, I knew that nothing transcended personality.”)

It may help that the version TCM is showing is a 72-minute restoration of a film that had been badly butchered along the way by various reissuers, obviously pieced together from several extant prints because there are some otherwise inexplicably abrupt changes in video quality from scene to scene and even within a scene, but on this go-round Tillie’s Punctured Romance emerges as a screamingly funny and surprisingly well-constructed movie: Marie Dressler’s outfits are practically laugh-o-ramas in themselves (particularly the hat she wears when she leaves the farm, with two fake sunflowers sticking out of either end and a model duck glued to the top) and the plot is a serviceable one with some great ideas, notably a metafictional scene in which Chaplin and Normand (who’s saddled with some of the God-awfullest clothes ever draped over a basically attractive woman; in 1914 she was stuck between the gloriously over-the-top dresses of the 1890’s and the boyish flapper outfits of the 1920’s and ended up with clothes that would have worked only on a much larger woman than she) go to a movie theatre and watch a fictitious Keystone comedy called A Thief’s Fate — and get more and more uncomfortable because its plot exactly mirrors what they are doing to Tillie. (At the time there were only two ways to do a film-within-a-film — either cut a hole in the set of the back wall of the theatre where the screen would be and have live actors enact the film-within-the-film at the same time, or mask off the part of the camera image representing where the film would be shown and shoot the film-within-the-film separately on the same film, and the latter was obviously the technique used here.)

The plot bounces Tillie back and forth between rich and poor: when she’s growing up on the farm her dad has a cash stash which, at Charlie’s behest (Chaplin’s and Normand’s characters have their real first names, though the cast list refers to them only as “The City Guy” and “The Other Girl,” respectively), she steals. Then he takes her to a café (Chaplin said he was always inspired by scenes in a café) and he and Mabel steal her purse with her dad’s money, and stick her with the bill. Unable to pay it, she’s put in a jail cell (with male prisoners; Tillie and the matron guarding her are the only women there) — until her rich uncle (Charles Bennett) hears about her incarceration and bails her out. Then the rich uncle goes on a mountaineering expedition, reaches the summit of Mount Baldy (it’s in the L.A. area and therefore it’s quite possible Sennett sent a second unit and actually shot there, though there’s some pretty obvious stock footage — even that early! — on the mountaineering trip) and then falls down the mountain. The newspapers announce his death and that Tillie is the sole heir to his multi-million dollar pie fortune, and Charlie learns of this when he buys a newspaper from a newsboy (child actor Gordon Griffith, though years later Milton Berle claimed in his autobiography that he played this part) and he immediately seeks out Tillie — who’s working as a singularly inept waitress at the café where she got busted (maybe it’s supposed to be another establishment but it’s clearly the same set) — and rushes her to the altar. Once Tillie hears of her good fortune she, a good deal smarter than most comedy heroines of the day, thinks (in a title), “I wonder why he rushed me so fast.”

She celebrates being an heiress by hosting a huge party at the mansion, and when she catches Charlie and Mabel necking in an alcove she responds by getting a pistol and firing not only at Charlie and Mabel, but at random at her other guests as well. Meanwhile (and Sennett, along with Griffith, was actually one of the pioneers of cross-cutting to indicate that two story strands were taking place in different locations at the same time) the presumably “dead” uncle is rescued, still breathing, and brought back to life. Then there’s a final chase featuring the Keystone Kops and some almost as inept harbor police, in which the cops chase Tillie, Charlie and Mabel to the Santa Monica Pier and Tillie falls off the pier. Ultimately she’s rescued and Charlie is arrested. Tillie’s Punctured Romance is something of an outlier in Chaplin’s filmography ­— not only is he playing a villain but he isn’t directing or writing himself (the five-film Chaplin at Keystone collection, consisting of three films he didn’t write and direct as well as perform in and two he did, makes it clear how much Chaplin’s work improved once he became a complete filmmaker and not just a performer) — and in his autobiography Chaplin dismissed the entire experience in about one sentence (“It was pleasant working with Marie, but I did not think the picture had much merit”) — but it was an enormous hit and helped Chaplin rise from star to superstar. — 9/7/12