Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tillie's Punctured Romance

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Tillie's Punctured Romance

"Tillie's Punctured Romance" is often cited by film critics and historians as the first American feature-length comedy. Unfortunately, this is often the only commentary they offer about it. Even Leonard Maltin has called the film "Not terribly funny, or coherent, but there are good moments; mainly interesting for historical purposes." So many critics have disregarded the film as being only important for its historical value, that I embarked on my viewing of it expecting something altogether unwatchable. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. Later feature-length comedies, like Harold Lloyd's "Grandma's Boy"(1922) and Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid" (1921) are no doubt better crafted and less dated. But "Tillie's Punctured Romance" is vital in helping us reach the brilliance of these features while managing to entertain us along the way. Is it a masterpiece? No. But it is also much better than the 2.5 stars Maltin gives it. Let's take a closer look at "Tillie's Punctured Romance."

Synopsis

Tillie's Punctured Romance
Marie Dressler as Tillie
Tillie Banks (Marie Dressler) is a poor, hardworking girl who lives with her abusive father. When a city slicker stranger happens into the Banks' home (Charlie Chaplin), Tillie immediately falls in love with him.

Tillie's Punctured Romance
Charlie Chaplin as the stranger
Of course, not being a typical "beauty," Tillie's love goes unrequited...until the stranger learns that Tillie's father has a hidden stash of cash. Convincing her to elope with him and leave her father behind, Tillie and the stranger run off together, headed for the town.

Tillie's Punctured Romance
Tillie shows off her elopement outfit
Tillie's Punctured Romance
Tillie has trouble commuting in the city
As inexperienced as she is with city life, Tillie finds herself dodging automobiles and looking terribly out of place. The stranger's true love interest, Mabel (Mabel Normand), spots the couple and confronts her lover. She learns of her beau's plan, and when Tillie is sufficiently drunk and distracted, Mabel and Charlie take off with Tillie's purse. The pair treat themselves to a new wardrobe at Tillie's expense. Meanwhile, Tillie is incarcerated  for a short amount of time before her identity -- the niece of the town's millionaire -- wins her release. Taken to her uncle's mansion, Tillie remains rambunctious and disruptive, which results in her uncle and his servants throwing her out on the street.

Tillie's Punctured Romance
Tillie is escorted by the Keystone Kops
Destitute and alone, Tillie gets a job as a waitress at a local cafe. Charlie and Mabel take in a film, aptly entitled "The Thief's Fate," depicting a thieving couple who are sent to jail for their crimes. Feeling guilty, the pair leaves for the park where Charlie discovers that Tillie's rich uncle has died in a mountain climbing expedition. Tillie is the only heir to his incredible fortune. Sneaking away, Charlie pressures Tillie into elopement. Overwhelmed, Tillie only discovers her newly-bestowed fortune upon returning to the restaurant  and rushes off with Charlie to claim her inheritance. The pair immediately move in and begin their entry into high society by hosting a ball. Mabel sneaks into the festivities disguised as a servant but is discovered by Tillie when she's found kissing Charlie.

Once again betrayed by Charlie, Tillie goes on a rampage. She begins by throwing objects at Charlie and ends up producing a handgun, firing shots wildly in his direction.

Tillie's Punctured Romance
Enraged, Tillie tries to shoot Charlie
The action climaxes when Tillie's uncle returns home, injured by alive and the entire party is kicked out and Tillie's fortune is revoked. With nothing to lose, Tillie pursues the lovers, gun still in hand. The Keystone Kops get in on the action, chasing the crazed trio, when both Tillie and the Kops run off the edge of a pier. By the time Tillie is rescued, she has given up on her marriage to Charlie. Similarly, Mabel no longer wants him and the women end up embracing and declaring that he doesn't deserve either of them.

Tillie's Punctured Romance
Tillie and Mabel embrace

The Stars


Marie Dressler
Marie Dressler
Although this was her film debut, Marie Dressler was already 45 years old, compared to the 22-year-old Mabel. An already accomplished vaudeville and stage star, Dressler brought a slapstick sensibility that rivaled Chaplin and Normand. In fact, there are several instances throughout the film where Dressler s reminiscent of Fatty Arbuckle. Sure, her size was used for the same comedic effect as Arbuckle's often was, but she brought a kind of mischievousness that few other comediennes -- or comedians, for that matter -- brought to the table. In later talkies, like "Dinner at Eight," Dressler gets laughs because of her impeccable comedic timing. In "Tillie," however, she proves that she can mug and take a fall with the best of them -- an essential part of any Sennett film.

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin had many films for Keystone under his belt by this time and had already created his Little Tramp character. Unlike Chaplin's Little Tramp-based films, however, his character in "Tillie" is quite villainous. In "Tillie," he's completely self-serving, willing to drop Mabel or Tillie whenever it suits him. Although Chaplin is not portraying the Little Tramp here, his personality still shines through. His awkward flirtation with Tillie is hilarious and his physical comedy is perfect, as usual. There is also evidence of tiny bits of improvisation throughout the film. When Tillie falls into the ocean, Mabel and Charlie run to the water police mini telephone box to call for help. Rather than just open the box's tiny door to access the phone, Charlie first knocks on it repeatedly, as if he's entering someone's house or office.

Mabel Normand
Mabel Normand is also in fine form in "Tillie." Although Dressler is given the best material, Normand still has several little moments where her comedic talent truly shines through. One particular moment follows her first encounter with Charlie and Tillie. After having their squabble broken up by a cop, Tillie and Charlie storm off, leaving Mabel behind with the officer. In an effort to follow them without his knowledge, Mabel tosses down her muff, asking the officer to retrieve it for her. When he tells her to get it herself, the indignant attitude she immediately adopts is hilarious and unexpected.

Vintage silk card depicting Mabel Normand
Normand had been working with Sennett, and linked romantically with him, since 1911. She had filmed some shorts for Keystone with Chaplin, and would soon star alongside Fatty Arbuckle in more. Normand was a fine comedienne and a fine actress, but much like her costar Arbuckle, her name was to become linked with two separate Hollywood scandals, causing her career to suffer. She also battled tuberculosis and drug addiction and, tragically, died in 1930 at the age of 37.

The Film

"Tillie's Punctured Romance" has been called "uneven," but for the first American foray into feature-length comedy, it is remarkably even. The screenplay was adapted from the play "Tillie's Nightmare," and the resulting film still bears some resemblance to its stage cousin. It's presented in six acts, with title cards separating them. Some of the act divisions are haphazardly placed, however, and seem to split scenes in half. Marie is introduced at the beginning of the film in a very staged way. She appears before a curtain, bowing as the scene dissolves into Marie in character and costume as Tillie. It then dissolves again, revealing Tillie in her yard instead of in front of a curtain. This technique is recalled at the end of the film when the curtain is pulled on Marie and Mabel's embrace, and they and Charlie emerge to take their bows. The 'act' division may simply be a carryover from the play itself, but it is also likely that it served as a kind of marker for audiences not used to sitting through films more than 15 or 20 minutes long.

One of the biggest problems the film suffers from is Sennett's lack of time-based intertitles. The way events are presented would suggest that all of the events take place in the course of a day, but thanks to the newspaper reporting Tillie's inheritance, we learn that the day Charlie proposes is the day after her uncle dies -- giving us at least two days, if not more. Had Sennett included some intertitles to help transition from one day to the next, it would have prevented some confusion. Perhaps this (and a poorly truncated print) are what account for Maltin's claim that it is incoherent. There are also some simple continuity issues that could have been solved with just some reshoots (namely the absence/presence of the pier railing when Tillie and the Keystone Kops go off the edge).

That said, the film also shows some impressive editing techniques. The dissolves and transitions involving Marie's transformation into Tillie are impressive and smooth. The same can be said of the dissolves where Mabel and Charlie disappear at the end of the film. There is also a clever little closeup of Mabel as she spies on Charlie and Tillie from afar. The closeup highlights Mabel's frustration with Charlie and is the only shot of its kind in the film.

Tillie's Punctured Romance
Thanks to movie magic, Marie transforms from herself...

Tillie's Punctured Romance
...to Tillie

Tillie's Punctured Romance
Mabel's closeup
"Tillie's Punctured Romance" helped usher in a new form of American comedy. Without "Tillie" we might not have "City Lights" or "The General." Yes, "Tillie's Punctured Romance" should be appreciated from a historical point of view, but why limit ourselves to just that? The story is entertaining, the actors are great, and the slapstick is some of the finest to come out of Keystone. Maybe with the likes of Fandor and the newly restored version of the film, "Tillie's Punctured Romance" will finds more fans willing to challenge its poor reputation.

Tillie's Punctured Romance
Charlie, Marie and Mabel take a bow
You can watch "Tillie's Punctured Romance" below.

tillies_punctured_romance

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