Sunday 21 December 2014

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Marie Dressler, Charles Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and Charles Bennett
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
It's strangely appropriate that the last Chaplin picture at Keystone to be released to theatres turned out to be the only feature he shot there, Tillie's Punctured Romance. While it's far from his most memorable work for the studio and it was far from the last thing he shot there, it was a notable milestone in cinema and it works well as a broad dividing line between the two halves of his Keystone career, the first half in which he learned his trade acting for other directors and the second in which he finessed his skills while directing himself. Shooting began on Tuesday, 14th April, three days after Sennett had shot Chaplin in a one day film, A Busy Day. Before that, Chaplin had made fourteen films for six different directors, sitting in the director's chair himself for only one and a bit. By the time shooting wrapped on Tuesday, 9th June, he had made five more, all directed by Sennett. However, the remaining fifteen he would go on to make were all under his own direction; this was the final acting job he did for another director at Keystone.

The milestone isn't merely that this was Chaplin's debut feature, not to be followed until The Kid in 1921, or that it was the first feature shot at Keystone Studios; it's generally regarded as the first feature length comedy ever made (though some cite Battle of Gettysgoat instead). Features weren't new, but they had never been comedies before. The first dramatic feature, the Australian film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, predates this by eight years. France followed in 1909 with Les Misérables; and Italy and Russia produced their debut features in 1911. The US caught up in 1912 and it produced at least four features that year, the same year in which Sennett left Biograph to found Keystone, one of fifteen production companies in what would become known a year later as Hollywood. 1913 was the real year of expansion, as theatres replaced nickelodeons and the middle class accepted motion pictures as respectable entertainment. In only half a decade, the US went from producing four features a year to over six hundred.

It's no surprise that early efforts were rough around the edges and the first American feature to be widely acclaimed as a masterpiece wouldn't arrive until 1915, that being D W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. It's no great challenge to find flaws in Tillie's Punctured Romance, even if it was adapted from an established stage play, Tillie's Nightmare, written by A Baldwin Sloane and Edgar Smith and first staged in 1910. The lead actress who Sennett hired, Marie Dressler, was clearly the best choice, given that she had originated the role on Broadway and toured with it for three years. This was her first movie, though she was already 45 years old and had been successful on Broadway since 1892, so to support Dressler, Sennett cast most of the recognisable faces in his company, led by Chaplin and Mabel Normand. Only a few, such as Roscoe Arbuckle, are notable for their absence. So, Sennett had a successful play, its successful leading lady and a successful supporting cast. What could go wrong?
Well, the most obvious problem is that nobody had done this before. Sennett knew that what might work on stage wouldn't necessarily work on screen, but he had no conception of what would keep his audience laughing for the then unimaginable length of 85 minutes. While he kept the script moving, the pacing is utterly broken, mostly because the concept of time is non-existent. We literally have no idea how much time has passed at any point, a need that seems obvious in hindsight given that there are two separate stories unfolding for half the movie and we're constantly waiting for them to collide. This problem is why the pace is off and there's neither suspense nor surprise. My better half, watching this for the first time with no foreknowledge of events, found it easy to explain what would happen later in the current act and to what that would subsequently lead in the next. It really is a predictable affair, painted in broad strokes and constantly telegraphed. Anything positive to say on those fronts is wrapped up in the word 'first'.

So let's take a look at what this first comedy feature had to offer. It's all about Tillie, as you might expect from the title, even though Chaplin's star rose long before Dressler's on the silver screen and so reissues tended to shift his name above the title and hers below it. She's a country girl who works the family farm and she's outside with her hoe when Chaplin arrives, throwing a brick for her dog to fetch and hitting him instead. We see him from behind first but his outline is instantly recognisable, even though he's not the Little Tramp this time out. He does have tears in his jacket and a familiar bamboo cane to twirl, but he's a lot more dapper than usual, with a pork pie hat, a tie and a sash. His jacket fits for a change and there's a suave moustache rather than his usual toothbrush. His hair makes a statement too, as if to highlight that this is the Little Tramp playing the Latin Lover. Naturally, Tillie is quickly smitten and she gets all girlish after she literally carries him inside to recover from the brick.

Thus far, we've learned that Dressler is more than able to work the slapstick routines Sennett wanted. We also realise that he's inordinately fond of having characters kick each other in the ass, a frequent move in Chaplin's early Keystone films but one which gradually vanished after he gained some creative control. It appears so often in this one that it's almost like the picture's heartbeat. Chaplin's character, an unnamed City Stranger, learns from a casual kitchen transaction that Tillie's father is rolling in dough. He knows its location too, because he hides it poorly. So he escalates the flirtation, eventually upbraiding Tillie's father for kicking her ass yet again and becoming firm and devilish with her, almost stalking her as he suggests an elopement, paid for with her father's money, of course. Tillie has enough sense to hold on to the cash, but little enough that she goes along with the stranger's plans. Yes, this good country soul is robbing her dad to elope with a stranger she met an hour earlier. Credulity is certainly stretched.
That's the end of the first of the six acts which are layered on top of each other to comprise this feature. I wonder if the title cards that announce each of them were a means for the audience to keep track of how long they had to wait until it was over. Act two begins with the couple in town, Tillie floundering around in traffic, and the third wheel about to make her appearance. This is Mabel, looking a lot more dreamy in an Oriental outfit with a huge ruff than Tillie does in her outrageously awful dress and still more horrendous hat, complete with duck standing up between its flowers. Mabel is Charlie's girl, or at least she was; she's a little taken aback to see her man back with someone else. This escalates in a bar, where Dressler hams up her first drink with abandon. Charlie ends up with the cash, so does a runner with Mabel and Tillie is a drunken pauper, ejected with prejudice for being unable to pay. A few minutes later she's in the Keystone Kop station, biting the booking officer's finger, while Charlie and Mabel purchase clothes in a posh store.

You can be sure that we're going to get a lot more to the 'punctured romance' of the title than that and it all happens through Charlie getting back with Tillie whenever it's fortuitous for him to do so then doing a vanishing act whenever it stops being fortuitous. The discovery that her uncle is a millionaire sparks only a first return to her, but Charlie bounces back and forth between Tillie's money and Mabel's looks so often that we do wonder why either of them would put up with him. Eventually, of course, they don't, and how the three of them end up is far from surprising. What's surprising is that it's Mabel who gets to grow with the story; Charlie is exactly the same person at the end that he is at the beginning and Tillie doesn't find any real change either, even though most of the things that happen in this movie happen to her. Mabel's character grows both through realising what Charlie is and through a clever parallel in a movie, A Thief's Fate, that Charlie takes her to see, inadvertently sitting next to a cop in the process.
So, while the feature itself is generally clumsy, predictable and unimaginative, there are moments where the combination of actors and situation generate some magic. Charlie's amorality, Mabel's growing guilt and the increasingly suspicious glances from the future Charley Chase as the cop sitting next to her are one of my favourites. The brief flirtation between Tillie and Charlie is another, with Dressler acting giddy and coquettish, no mean feat for someone of her size; she throws flowers at him, while he throws a brick at her. Tillie's drunk scenes all raise a laugh, even though Dressler overplays them throughout; she's fun in jail and she's even more fun dancing a jig over crossed swords at her uncle's mansion. Mabel is given drunk scenes too, which also work well, but they're later in the film during the rapid fire finalé, where the technical side of the film finally decides to earn some praise through some capable editing. It's hardly an impressive picture otherwise from any technical standpoints, though it could have been a lot worse.

Most of the problems are understandable for the first comedy feature ever made. Everyone involved with this picture, whether in front of or behind the camera, was used to making short films, one reelers or two reelers but never a six reeler, and it's very obvious that they treated it like six short films that they could lump together into one feature. They had no idea how to scale, so the aspects that annoy the most over a six reel length could have been easily shrugged off in a single reel. For instance, there's a stretch of road that appears more often than many of the name actors, as it's right outside every location. It's in front of the bar Tillie gets drunk in, Tillie's uncle's mansion, Heywood's clothes store, the theatre playing A Thief's Fate, you name it, always shot from the same position. It's not the location, it's the repetition. A different sort of repetition is annoying too, because this picture checks off all the usual Keystone locations: a park, a bar, a pier. Often this feels like Keystone's Greatest Hits, especially after Chaplin's 35 other 1914 films.

Critics haven't been kind to Tillie's Punctured Romance, which tends to be remembered for nothing more than being a milestone. They might grant a little leeway here and there for a century old picture, but not much. Of course, Marie Dressler would go on to much greater success on screen but not until she'd left it in 1918 and returned again in 1927. While she showed that she was capable of performing slapstick on a debut outing just as well as the veterans who supported her, it was sound comedy that led her to win an Oscar in 1930-31 and become the biggest star in Hollywood in both 1932 and 1933. She died in 1934 at her peak. In my opinion she's unfairly slighted for this picture. Certainly she overacts throughout, unlike the far more realistic style she'd use in the early thirties, but this style fit the material and she did it well, enough to return to the role for two sequels, Tillie's Tomato Surprise in 1915 and 1917's Tillie Wakes Up. A more grounded portrayal might have dated better but would have felt out of place at the time.
Mabel Normand has been remembered more positively than Dressler, but her sympathetic performance is grounded in a character written with sympathy. Tillie's too much of a fool, a bouncing village idiot, for us to really feel for her when she ends up in the mess we knew she would always end up in. Mabel may be a fool too, but she comes to realise it and, once she's at that point, she does something about it, thus garnering some real sympathy, especially at the end. We feel for her when we don't feel for Tillie and we cheer for her when we don't cheer for Tillie. Bizarrely, what Normand does here to gain our sympathy is precisely what she doesn't do to gain our sympathy in Mabel's Busy Day, shot right in the middle of the shooting schedule for this feature. Here she grows her character and gets us onto her side through well phrased subtleties; in the short film, she merely plays the 'woe is me' card throughout and we can't feel for her in the slightest. This is a much better opportunity to see her really act.

But, of course, we're not here because this is a Marie Dressler picture or a Mabel Normand picture. We're here because it's a Charlie Chaplin picture, his first feature, made as he was starting to be really noticed and released as his star was rising. He didn't think much of this film. 'It was pleasant working with Marie,' he remembered in his autobiography, 'but I did not think the picture had much merit.' He was right, but it didn't matter. While his character has little depth, certainly none of the complexity that the Little Tramp would find in later years, he does play him more as a crook than a villain. It would have been simple for him to reprise the stereotypical silent movie villain that he played in his first film at Keystone, Making a Living, but he'd moved far beyond such banalities already. By the time this was released, he'd moved on again, his work in a recent short like Getting Acquainted far more clever. Chaplin was still singled out for praise, the big success of the film, ending his Keystone career on a high note with the future wide open.
Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Tillie's Punctured Romance can be viewed for free on YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered; the full version debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

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