US Release Date: 12/21/1914
Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler in Tillie's Punctured Romance.
Before the release of Tillie's Punctured Romance in 1914, comedies (and most other movies for that matter) were shorts, ranging in length anywhere from 8 or 9 minutes to a full two reels or about the length of a television sitcom. Director Mack Sennett of Keystone studios made history when he adapted this story from the stage hit and made a comedy that ran over an hour, or what came to be known as 'feature length'. Marie Dressler reprised her stage role as the middle-aged, unattractive Tillie. The all-star cast also includes Charlie Chaplin (in a rare appearance not playing the little tramp and in the role of the heavy), silent screen's greatest female comic Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Chester Conklin and The Keystone Kops.
A golddigging city slicker (Chaplin), while on a jaunt through the country, happens upon wealthy farmers daughter Tillie. He quickly convinces her to run off to the big city with him, bringing along her father's stash of money of course. Once in the city they immediately run into his old girlfriend (Mabel Normand). The two of them hatch a scheme to get Tillie drunk and run off with her cash. They leave her alone and intoxicated in a bar where she is soon arrested and thrown in jail.
Of course she turns out to be the niece of a multimillionaire and after a quick phone call she is released. She soon finds work as a waitress in a nearby restaurant as her rich uncle sets off on a hike to the summit of a local mountain. Meanwhile Charlie and Mabel, now decked out in fine clothes, go to the movies. The film within a film is of course about a man and woman who swindle another innocent woman and get caught red-handed. They leave the theatre and end up in the exact restaurant where Tillie now works. She sees them and chases them off with a knife.
Cut to a shot of Tillie's uncle falling down the mountainside. Cut to Charlie and Mabel on a park bench reading the paper. Charlie reads that Tillies uncle is dead and has left her his entire estate worth 3 million dollars.
He finds her, convinces her he is sorry and that he loves her. They get married and decide to throw a huge party at their new mansion for all of her Uncle's rich friends. Mabel of course, follows them and sneaks into the party as a servant girl. When Tillie catches Charlie canoodling with her in the alcove she goes ballistic and chaos ensues as she chases them through the house with a loaded pistol.
Surprise, surprise, we next find out that Tillie's uncle is not really dead. He returns in time to chase everyone out of his house. The movie climaxes with an elaborate chase along the pier, culminating with Tillie and a car full of Keystone Kops ending up in the bay.
Yes this movie is incredibly dated; still it is impossible to ignore the seminal influence it has had on the past 89 years of Hollywood comedy.
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Marie Dressler and Charlie Chaplin in Tillie's Punctured Romance.
Okay, sure this movie might be historically important, but it hasn't aged well at all in terms of entertainment value. It's really just a series of people being kicked in the behind. In fact, if you made it into a drinking game where you took a shot of alcohol every time it happened then you would be passed out drunk before it ended.
Patrick, you aren't exaggerating when you say Dressler was unattractive. I might have suspected that she was really Fatty Arbuckle in drag, only I've seen Fatty Arbuckle in a dress and he was much prettier than she ever manages to be here.
The acting is typical of the period, which means that it's not so much acting as over acting. Even Chaplin hams and mugs it up as much as anyone. There's very little to indicate that he would one day become a superstar, although there are a few recognizable mannerisms of the Tramp mixed in to his performance.
Perhaps the irony of this being the first feature length comedy is that I would have enjoyed it more as a short. Watching someone get kicked in the behind is only amusing for so long and the joke wears out its welcome long before the inevitable big chase finale.
Like with most of the very early silent movies, there's always something fascinating about watching something from so long ago. Although it wasn't the thought at the time, filmmakers of the period were leaving a visual record of their age and for the first time in history we are able to literally see into the past. The number of people who were alive when this movie was made must be miniscule and their memory of the period fading, but thanks to the magic of the movies, it will never be truly lost.
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Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler dealing with the hired help in Tillie's Punctured Romance
I disagree Scott, 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. Perhaps having sat through so many Three Stooges films with my son, I have developed a taste for this sort of humor. Either way, I think you are selling it short.
Tillie, as mentioned above, is a hideous looking overweight woman well past her expiration date. She is thrilled when the stranger played by Chaplin, 20 years her junior, convinces her to runaway with him. It is clear Dressler was a stage actress as she always plays to the audience. Often something happens in which she will turn toward the general direction of the camera and make a face and then slightly pause as if waiting for the audience to react.
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. Dressler dancing or Chaplin reacting in disgust to her are hysterical moments. In Patrick's review, in which he gave away the entire plot, he mentions that Dressler gets drunk early on. She then dances around thinking she is a good dancer. Later during the party at the mansion, Chaplin again gives her a drink and she decides to dance for the guests as she still believes herself to be a fine dancer, when she is actually anything but.
Scott was bothered by all the butt kicking. It was an early slapstick action that elicited many laughs. The following year, Chaplin would practically make it the theme of his film The Tramp. Clearly this is where the taunt to fight came from.
The humor becomes a bit dark when Dressler and Chaplin are at the mansion. Neither has a clue how to act with the servants. They both kick and slap the help with awkward glee. During the party a very gay acting man prances up to Dressler and Chaplin with a handkerchief daintily hanging from one hand as he touches them with the other. A clearly annoyed Chaplin almost kicks the feminine acting guy in the butt when he turns his back.
Both of my brothers wrote of the importance of this film and I agree. As Scott mentioned, you 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.
Mack Sennett threw nearly everything he had at this film. It is a very early example of an all star cast. The only one absent is Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, who often worked with Mabel Normand and has been given credit for helping Chaplin create his Tramp persona. I am sure the last minute appearance of the famous Keystone cops brought a smile to the audiences of the time. Although some of the editing is poor and the staging a bit tiresome, Tillie's Punctured Romance is the silent film comedy of it's time.
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Photos © Copyright Keystone Film Company (1914)