Monday, January 4, 2010

Tillie’s Punctured Romance (Keystone, 1914)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 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.