TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE
(Mack Sennett, 1914, USA, 73m, BW
Tillie's Punctured Romance 1914
Directed by Mack Sennett
Produced by Mack Sennett
Written by Hampton Del Ruth
Based on Tillie's Nightmare
by A. Baldwin Sloane and Edgar Smith
Starring Marie Dressler
The Keystone Cops
Charley Chase (uncredited)
Cinematography Hans F. Koenekamp
Frank D. Williams (uncredited)
Keystone Film Company
Distributed by Alco Film Corporation
December 21, 1914 (United States)
Running time 74 mins.
Country United States
Tillie's Punctured Romance is a 1914 American silent comedy film directed by Mack Sennett and starring Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, and the Keystone Cops. The picture was the first feature-length motion picture produced by the Keystone Film Company, and is the only one featuring Chaplin. The film is based on Dressler's stage play Tillie's Nightmare by A. Baldwin Sloane and Edgar Smith. Tillie's Punctured Romance is notable for being the last Chaplin film which he neither wrote nor directed, as well as the first feature-length comedy in all of cinema. In it, Chaplin plays an entirely different role from his Tramp character, which was relatively new at the time.
Charles Chaplin portrays a womanizing city man who meets Tillie (Marie Dressler) in the country after a fight with his girlfriend (Mabel Normand). When he sees that Tillie's father (Mack Swain) has a very large bankroll for his workers, he persuades her to elope with him. In the city, he meets the woman he was seeing already, and tries to work around the complication to steal Tillie's money. He gets Tillie drunk in a restaurant and asks her to let him hold the pocketbook. Since she is drunk, she agrees, and he escapes with his old girlfriend and the money.
Later that day, they see a picture show entitled "A Thief's Fate", which illustrates their thievery in the form of a morality play. They both feel guilty and leave the theater. While sitting on a park bench, a paperboy (Gordon Griffith) asks him to buy a newspaper. He does so, and reads the story about Tillie's Uncle Banks (Charles Bennett), a millionaire who died while on a mountain-climbing expedition. Tillie is named sole heir and inherits three million dollars. The man leaves his girlfriend on the park bench and runs to the restaurant, where Tillie is now forced to work to support herself as she is too embarrassed to go home. He begs her to take him back and although she is skeptical at first, she believes that he truly loves her and they marry. They move into the uncle's mansion and throw a big party, which ends horribly when Tillie finds her husband with his old girlfriend, smuggled into the house and working as one of their maids.
The uncle is found on a mountaintop, alive after all. He goes back to his mansion, in disarray after Tillie instigated a gunfight (a direct result of the husband smuggling the old girlfriend into the house) which, luckily, did not harm anyone. Uncle Banks insists that Tillie be arrested for the damage she has caused to his house. The three run from the cops all the way to a dock, where a car "bumps" Tillie into the water. She flails about, hoping to be rescued. She is eventually pulled to safety, and both Tillie and the man's girlfriend realize that they are too good for him. He leaves, and the two girls become friends.
Tillie's Punctured Romance, directed by Mack Sennett and released in November 1914, holds the distinction of being the first feature-length comedy film ever made. At the time, feature films were only two years old and were generally the domain of "important" literary adaptations and historic epics, such as Cleopatra (1912), Shakespeare's Richard III (1912) and D.W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (1913). Comedy was considered best served in small doses, but Sennett, already a pioneer in the field of slapstick, was confident that the two-reel barrier could be broken.
Marie Dressler stars as Tillie Banks, a vivacious if ungainly farm girl who falls under the spell of Charlie, a big-city chiseler (Charlie Chaplin). Charlie romances Tillie, steals her money, and flees the scene with his girlfriend/confederate (Mabel Normand). When Tillie's wealthy uncle falls from a mountaintop, she stands to inherit a massive fortune, inspiring Charlie to resume their romance. Charlie marries Tillie and they move into a lavish estate, and the jealous Mabel takes a job as a housemaid to be close to her former partner in crime. A series of comic episodes, including a hilariously inept tango, Tillie's discovery of Charlie in a compromising position and the sudden return of Tillie's "deceased" uncle launches the film toward its madcap finale, in which the Keystone Kops are called in to restore order to the newlyweds' disrupted domicile.
By the end of 1914, when this movie came out, film audiences were demanding two things: feature-length films and as much Charlie Chaplin as they could get, so it’s not surprising that the two were combined. Chaplin had single-handedly put tiny Keystone Studios on the map by signing with them earlier that year and had become a true blockbuster star just by putting together slapstick shorts built around the formula (as Charlie would later describe it) of “a girl, a park, and a policeman.” That wasn’t enough to fill ninety minutes, though, so for this story we get a rather more complex story structure, in which Charlie (in a somewhat slick variation on his “Little Tramp” getup) is the “City Stranger” who comes into the life of homely farmgirl Marie Dressler (who was later in “Min and Bill” and “Emma”) and promises to take her away from her abusive father (regular Chaplin foil Mack Swain, who had been in “His Trysting Place” and would later co-star in “The Gold Rush”).
Once he’s lured Tillie back to the city, he meets up with his regular girl (Mabel Normand, another Chaplin regular, who had been in “Mabel at the Wheel” and “The Masquerader”) and the pair proceed to get her drunk and arrested, fleecing her of her purse. This is a parody of the standard “lost girl” melodrama of the day, and the satire carries on from there, becoming increasingly ridiculous and uproarious. One thing I’ve mentioned before about the Keystones is that they lock the camera down for each shot, framing a “stage” (sometimes corresponding to the size of a room) on which actors may perform, and which they enter and exit. The camera never moves, never follows, them, it merely defines a space for them to work in. However, in contrast to the days of Melies, complex editing structures allow the various shots/stages to interact with one another.
The slapstick engendered into every scene is, nevertheless, smoothly continual, with rears being kicked, people falling down, food being catapulted into faces, floundering in a traffic-filled street, mix-ups with policemen, and Tillie’s first alcoholic imbibing (resulting in subsequent entanglements with the authorities), all transforming into spot-on physical mayhem. The carefully choreographed stumbling onto a step while Dressler kicks up her legs to strike Chaplin’s chin is a prime example of the combination of all the players’ acrobatic capabilities. Smartly, the story itself doesn’t rely only on slapstick, instead also infusing a perpetual note of misdirection, in which the various roles switch back and forth from poverty to abundance. Lengthy moments of dancing and fighting at a grand party to utilize the newfound wealth slows the pace a touch, however, as this 74-minute film (or 82-minutes for the restoration) retains the distinction of being the first feature-length comedy.
Chaplin sports a straw hat, a thin mustache, and his signature cane and awkward splayfooted gait, looking very much like a slightly more primped version of his tramp. Notably, he’s the villain of the picture and not the primary protagonist, though his success of the time and future accomplishments would make him the most praised and remembered actor in the production (it’s the first feature he would appear in and it would also mark the last time he would be directed by someone other than himself – here, Mack Sennett). Repeatedly swindling Tillie for her fortunes proves to be quite the dastardly deed, though he still possesses an undeniable charm.
Tillie's Punctured Romance is funny from start to finish. Sure, slapstick is the most elementary of all comedies, but when done right it is also the most universal. Silent film acting is unique as they only had facial expressions and mannerisms to project an emotion. They had to overact to make the point. Without the use of closeups they really had to play it big. This does however, work for comedies. It is important to note we see Chaplin beginning to create his tramp character. The cane, mustache and the way he walks are very close to the most iconic silent film personality. The biggest thing to note is that here Chaplin is playing a heartless gold digger while the Tramp was a man whose only currency was his heart of gold.
THE HEYDAY OF SILENT COMEDY
At least until 1913 the standard length of a film was one reel; multi-reel feature films
were at first resisted in many quarters of the film trade. It was, then, a dramatic revolution
when Sennett announced the first multi-reel comedy at the end of 1914. Tillie's Punctured
Romance ( 1914) was designed to star the famous comedienne Marie Dressier in an
adaptation of one of her stage successes. Charlie Chaplin was cast as her leading man.
Despite the success of this film, it was to be several years before the feature-length
comedy was established. Chaplin made his first two-reeler, Dough and Dynamite ( 1914),
at Keystone, but not until 1918 and A Dog's Life did he embark on feature length films.
Keaton made his first feature in 1920, Lloyd in 1921, Harry Langdon in 1925.
Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon ~ the four giants of American silent film comedy ~
all emerged from the one and two-reeler period to reach the apogee of their careers in the
1920s. Chaplin trained in the British music hall and, in the manipulation of the image at
Keystone, created in his Tramp character the most universal fictional human image in
history. Like Chaplin, Keaton was above all a highly accomplished actor, who gave each
of the characters he played-they ranged from millionaires to cowhands-its own validity.
The myth of 'The Great Stone Face' misrepresents his startlingly expressive face and still
more eloquent body. A lifetime of creating comedy and solving stage problems (he was
working professionally from the age of three) gave him an impeccable sense of comic
structure and mise-en-scene. The characteristic, escalating Keaton gag entertainments
make him the equal of any director working in 1920s Hollywood.
Harold Lloyd was exceptional among the silent film comedians since his background and
training were not in vaudeville. Stage-struck from youth, he had worked in little stock
companies before landing a job as a $5-a-day extra at Universal Studios, where he met
Hal Roach. Lloyd joined Sennett after the Willie Work films and a disagreement with
Roach; but they reunited to make a new series, with Lloyd as a hayseed, Lonesome Luke.
The films proved successful enough; but in 1917 Lloyd put on a pair of horn-rim glasses
for a film called Over the Fence ( 1917), and discovered a far better character which was
to bring him lasting fame. The Harold character evolved through a series of shorts, and
was fully formed by the time of his first feature A Sailor-Made Man ( 1921). Harold was
always aspiring to be the ail-American boy, the Horatio Alger hero, an enthusiastic go-
getter. The drive for social or economic betterment that always motivates the plot of a
Lloyd comedy probably represented a sincere moral belief Lloyd was in real life the
embodiment of his own success stories.
With Safety Last ( 1923) Lloyd introduced the special style of comedy of thrills with
which his name is always associated. The plot somehow called upon the innocent Harold
to take the place of a human fly; and the last third of the picture is a rising crescendo of
gags as Harold encounters ever more horrible hazards in attempting to scale the side of a
skyscraper Lloyd's eleven silent features, including Grandma's Boy ( 1922), The
Freshman ( 1925), and the culminating The Kid Brother ( 1927) and Speedy ( 1928), were
among the biggest-earning comedies of the 1920s, even outcrossing Chaplin's films.
Harry Langdon's output was smaller and more uneven than the others; but he merits his
place in the pantheon of great clowns on the strength of three features. Tramp, Tramp,
Tramp, The Strong Man (both 1926), and Long Pants ( 1927) ~ the first scripted by Frank
Capra, the others directed by him. Langdon's screen character is quiet, cute, and rather
weird. His round, white face and pudgy figure, his tight-fitting clothes, and his stiff
slightly uncontrolled movements give him the look, as James Agee pointed out, of an
elderly baby. This childlike, guileless quality gives an eerie edge to his encounters with
the grown-up world of relationality and sin.
In this enchanted age of comedy, the reputation of other comedians has been unjustly
accursed. Raymond Griffith emulated the sartorial elegance of Max Linder and
encountered catastrophes and peril with insouciant ingenuity; his masterpiece Hands Up!
( 1926) cast him as a Civil War spy. Marion Davies's fame as the mistress of William
Randolph Hearst has accursed her contemporary celebrity as a comedienne of particular
charm whose fun was seen at its best in the films in which King Vidor directed her. Show
People and The Patsy (both 1928). The Canadian-born entertainer Beatrice Lillie left her
mark in a single wonderful silent comedy. Exit Smiling ( 1927). Migrants from Europe,
the Italian Monty Banks ( Monte Bianchi) and the English Lupino Lane enjoyed
successful if brief starring careers; Banks subsequently turned director Larry Semon, with
his distinctive white mask like a Pierrot lunaire started the 1920s as Hollywood's highest-
paid comedian, but his later features met with diminishing success, and hardly bear
revival today. W. C. Fields and Will Rogers made sporadic forays into silent films, though
their essentially verbal style of comedy was only to come into its own in the era of talking
The extraordinary flowering of silent film comedy in Hollywood was not to any great
extent reflected anywhere else in the world ~ perhaps indeed because American comedies
enjoyed such huge international distribution and popularity that there was no chance of
competing with them. In Britain, Betty Balfour, who made two feature films in her
character of Squibs, was the nearest to a star comedienne: attempts to put popular music
hall comedians on the screen lacked both skill and success. In Germany the child star of
1909, Curt Bois, grew up to be the bright star of a few comedies, the best of them The
Count from Pappenheims. In France Rene Clair brought the comedy style of the French
stage vaudeville to the screen with The Italian Straw Hat (Un chapeau de paille d'ltalie,
1927) and Les Deux Timides ( 1928). But screen comedy was distinctly an American art
It was to remain so, although the golden age of silence was abruptly extinguished with the
coming of sound. The causes were manifold. Some comedians were disoriented by the
fact of sound itself ( Raymond Griffith was an extreme case, having a severe throat defect
which restricted his power of speech). The new techniques ~ the microphones and the
cameras enclosed in sound-proof booths -suddenly restricted the freedom of film-makers.
More important the escalating costs and profits of film-making led to much closer
production supervision, which generally proved inimical to the independence which had
been vital to the working methods of the best comedians. Rare ones, like Chaplin and
Lloyd, were able to win themselves freedom of operation for a few more years, but
others, including Keaton and Langdon, found themselves employees of huge film
factories which had no place or concern for individualists. After 1929 Keaton never
directed another film, and Langdon vanished into obscurity. A new art had been born, had
flowered, and died in little more than a quarter of a century.
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