Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)
"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."
|Marie Dressler as Tillie|
|Charlie Chaplin as the stranger|
|Tillie shows off her elopement outfit|
|Tillie has trouble commuting in the city|
|Tillie is escorted by the Keystone Kops|
|Enraged, Tillie tries to shoot Charlie|
|Tillie and Mabel embrace|
|Vintage silk card depicting Mabel Normand|
"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.
|Thanks to movie magic, Marie transforms from herself...|
|Charlie, Marie and Mabel take a bow|