14 November 2001 | wmorrow59
A milestone for film comedy, but not a work for the ages
Tillie's Punctured Romance, produced and directed by Mack Sennett for his Keystone Studio in 1914, is a movie milestone. It's the first feature-length slapstick comedy (restored prints run 70 minutes or more), and boasts three top players in the lead roles: Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler, and Mabel Normand. Although it's remembered primarily as a Chaplin film he was still an up-and-coming young performer at the time, and made no contribution to the script or direction. This project was based on a stage success called "Tillie's Nightmare," which was known for Dressler's high-energy performance and her rendition of the mock tragic lament "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl." Of course the hit song couldn't be used on the silent screen, but this adaptation offers lots of slapstick and a wild climax featuring a full scale chase, on land and sea, by the Keystone Cops. By Sennett standards this was obviously a major production, with scores of familiar players in supporting roles, extensive location shooting, and an elaborate set serving as Tillie's mansion for the grand finale.
Historic significance aside, however, Tillie's Punctured Romance is something of a letdown when viewed today. For starters, Marie Dressler was not entirely comfortable with the new medium, and simply repeated her stage performance for the cameras, gesticulating wildly, dancing drunkenly, and occasionally shouting her lines-- which, of course, we can't hear. (Her true movie stardom wouldn't come until the talkie era.) Dressler's bizarre antics are amusing to a point, but a little of this sort of thing goes a long way. Mabel Normand is cute in her stylish outfits, but her role gives her little comic business of her own to perform beyond reacting to the activities of her co-stars. And Chaplin, playing a cold-hearted villain who seduces, robs, and then abandons a homely farm girl, is about as far from the lovable Tramp as one could imagine. It's interesting to see Charlie in such an uncharacteristic guise, and it speaks well for his versatility, yet we wait in vain for those genuinely funny moments we find in his own films, even the early ones. He plays the scoundrel with relish, but the part could have been taken by any number of other comedians. Even so, in one late scene Chaplin managed to slip in a gag that suggests the Charlie we know: parading before servants in his new finery, he trips over a tiger rug, then 'punishes' the beast, lifting it by the tail and giving it a quick spank. That was practically the only laugh I found in Tillie's Punctured Romance. Otherwise, most of the humor comes from watching grotesquely-dressed people kick butts, fire pistols and fall off the pier into the ocean, all of which represents Sennett's taste in comedy, not Chaplin's.
'Tillie' is best appreciated by film scholars. It has its moments, but can't compare with Chaplin's own later features such as The Gold Rush and The Circus. Viewers who have never seen a classic silent comedy may get a distorted impression of what they were like from this one, in the same way that The Great Train Robbery of 1903 suggests that all silent drama was laughably primitive. Personally I find these very early movies fascinating, but they need to be seen in the larger context of their time; the silent cinema shouldn't be judged by its earliest products.
P.S. Autumn 2010: A newly restored version of Tillie's Punctured Romance has become available, one that is substantially longer than the various re-edited and truncated editions which have circulated for many years. Modern viewers can now get a better sense of what audiences of 1914 saw when the film was new. The restored 'Tillie' remains very much a vehicle for Marie Dressler, but it's gratifying to report that a fair amount of the "new" footage involves Mabel Normand. She has more to do during the party sequence at the end, disguised as a maid as she sips punch and spars with her employers and fellow servants. The flirtation sequence between Charlie and Marie at the beginning has been extended, and Dressler has more footage at the police station when she's jailed for drunkenness. The over all impact of 'Tillie' is essentially the same, but nevertheless it's good to see this historically significant film get the archival attention and respect it deserves.