Saturday, September 13, 2014

Stubs – Tillie’s Punctured Romance

Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) Starring Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand, Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain. Directed by Mack Sennett. Written by Hampton Del Ruth (Scenarist) Based on the musical comedy Tillie's Nightmare, book by Edgar Sloane, lyrics by A. Baldwin Sloane (New York, 5 May 1910) by A. Baldwin Sloane and Edgar Sloane. Produced by Mack Sennett. Black and White, U.S. Comedy, Silent

Late last year, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the production of The Squaw Man (1914), the first full length feature film shot in Hollywood. Earlier this year, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s first film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). To round out our celebration of 1914, we’ll take a look at Tillie’s Punctured Romance, known as the first full length American comedy.

In 1914, the center of the film comedy world was Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in Edendale, California, now called Echo Park. The Canadian born Sennett had first appeared as an actor in films, but moved into directing films at Biograph. Sennett was definitely prolific as an actor (according to the IMDb he appeared in over 360 films), a writer (95 films), director (311) and producer (1115). He was also experimental as well, directing and producing this, the first feature-length comedy; he would also be the first to get a talkie short to market in 1928.

Mack Sennett, founder of the Keystone Studios.

He founded Keystone in 1912, with the financial backing of the New York Motion Picture Company; Keystone was the testing grounds for many of the big names of comedy, including Chaplin (whom Sennett discovered), Mabel Normand (whom he made a star), Marie Dressler, Roscoe Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Ford Sterling and Chester Conklin. Gloria Swanson made comedies here, but was not one of Sennett’s Bathing Beauties, before moving to romantic roles at Paramount.

Based on the Broadway musical, Tillie's Nightmare, Sennett had big plans for this movie. To begin with, he planned on taking two weeks to film and set a budget for $200,000. For a studio that was releasing multiple shorts a week, two weeks is a long time. And with a lot of money riding on the project, Sennett enlisted Marie Dressler, the musical’s star, to appear in the film and, according to Sennett, "a star whose name and face meant something to every possible theatre-goer in the United States and the British Empire." Sennett himself would direct this film.

Tillie Banks (Marie Dressler) is a country girl who meets Charlie (Charlie Chaplin) when she hits him in the head with a brick that she is using to play fetch with her dog. Tillie brings Charlie inside, where he meets her abusive father (Mack Swain) and observes the father’s large bankroll of money, which he uses to pay his workers.

Chaplin plays Charlie, the stranger from the big city about to be hit in the head.

Charlie begins to flirt with Tillie, chasing after her outside. The father follows after them and does not approve. Charlie manages to convince Tillie to elope with him back to the city, which she does, putting on a special outfit for the occasion. But before they leave, Charlie gets Tillie to steal her father’s money. Tillie puts it in her purse, which she keeps close to her.

Charlie (Charlie Chaplin) flirts with Tillie Banks (Marie Dressler)
once he finds out her father had a large wad of cash.

Once they’re in the City, they run into the woman Charlie left behind, Mabel (Mabel Normand), who is not happy to see her boyfriend with Tillie. Charlie takes Tillie to a restaurant and Mabel follows soon afterwards. Tillie has never had alcohol before and spits her first drink into Charlie’s face. But it doesn’t take much for her to get drunk.

Charlie gets caught in the middle between Mabel (Mabel Normand) and Tillie.

While Charlie sneaks away to speak with Mabel, Tillie is entertained by some of the waiters and ends up dancing. She eventually asks Charlie to hold her purse, which he then takes and steals away with Mabel. They go out on a shopping spree, while Tillie, who is broke, drunk and far from home, is thrown into jail.

Mabel and Charlie spend the money they stole from Tillie on new threads.

With their new threads, they go to the movies, watching a faux Keystone film entitled A Thief's Fate, in which they see themselves in the tale of thievery. They openly discuss the similarities between themselves and the characters on screen until they realize they are seated next to a police detective (Charley Chase), after which they leave, feeling guilty over what they’ve done, but not guilty enough, of course, to return the money.

Charley Chase plays the movie patron on the right, who turns out to be a policeman.

Meanwhile, a police matron finds out that Tillie is the niece of millionaire Donald Banks (Charles Bennett). Once they confirm that, they let her go. Penniless, Tillie gets a job as a waitress for a restaurant owner played by Edgar Kennedy. Mabel and Charlie, of course, go into the restaurant where Tillie serves them. Recognizing them, of course, Tillie faints allowing Charlie and Mabel to escape. But Tillie is not out for long and starts to go after them with a knife before the other waitresses bring her back into the restaurant.

Mabel and Charlie try to eat at the restaurant Tillie is working at as a waitress.

Meanwhile, the Uncle leaves for vacation about the same time and goes mountaineering. While observing the view, he falls, rolling down the mountain where his body lays motionless at the bottom. His guide calls his house and informs the help that Mr. Banks is dead.

Even though the body is not cold as it were, Tillie is declared as his own heir and Secretaries from his company are sent out to find her.

Meanwhile, Mabel and Charlie have taken refuge in a city park and are still wondering what to do next with all that money when Charlie buys a newspaper from a paperboy. There he reads that Tillie has been declared the heir and will inherit $3 million. When Mabel turns her back, Charlie hurries away and goes back to the restaurant where Tillie is working and unaware of her inheritance.

Charlie knows Tillie has inherited a fortune and pressures her to marry him before she finds out.

Declaring his undying love for her, he convinces her to marry him immediately. Even though Tillie is reluctant, they are married. Back at the restaurant, the Secretaries have arrived looking for Tillie and they are still there when the newlyweds arrive back and Tillie finds out about her Uncle’s fate and her good-fortune. The Secretaries discover the newspaper in Charlie’s jacket and even though Tillie also realizes Charlie’s hurry, she is somehow convinced that she loves him and they go back to their new home, her Uncle’s mansion.

Charlie and Tillie arrive at her Uncle's mansion, which they think is their new home.

Mabel, however, has not given up on Charlie and follows after them, taking a job as a maid on the household staff.

Meanwhile, the Uncle’s body is recovered and the Uncle is still alive. He is taken to a remote cabin to recover, but no one is informed of his status.

Back at their new mansion, Tillie and Charlie are playing host to “The Four Hundred”, which are assumed to be the rich and powerful of the city. It is quickly apparent that Tillie and Charlie are not refined or cultured and don’t fit in with this crowd. During the party, Charlie discovers that Mabel is working there and sneaks away to speak with her.

Mabel takes a job as a maid at the Bank's mansion so she can be near Charlie.
Here she sneaks a kiss, which Tillie sees during a party they're throwing.

When Tillie finds out about Mabel’s presence, she grabs a gun and starts shooting, sending the party into disarray. The Uncle returns and is not amused at the damage that has been caused and chases everyone, including servants, from his house. Tillie keeps shooting her gun, chasing Charlie and Mabel down to the pier.

A publicity shot for Tillie's Punctured Romance depicting the aftermath of Tillie
discovering Charlie and Mabel kissing. This isn't how it happens in the movie, but we do
get a look at Uncle Donald Banks (Charles Bennett), who had been thought dead.

The Uncle, meanwhile, wants the police (The Keystone Cops) to arrest Tillie for what she’s done to his mansion. They drive down to the pier with much abandon, bumping Tillie through the rails and down into the water. Charlie calls for the Sea Police (Keystone Cops with boats) and they proceed to the scene. One group is in a powerboat and one in a row boat. You don’t need me to tell you, but the speedboat bumps into and sinks the rowboat.

Meanwhile, back on the pier, the police try multiple times to pull Tillie up from the water. Over and over again she gets dropped back into the water. Even one of her rescuers ends up in the water with her. More weight makes it even harder to pull them up, but eventually Tillie is pulled back up on the pier.

Now that she’s safe, Tillie doesn’t want to have anything to do with Charlie. Mabel feels the same way and Charlie leaves. Alone on the pier, the two women commiserate and hug one another.

You have to give Sennett credit for adapting a stage musical into a silent film. Being unfamiliar with the source material, I can only imagine the Keystone version has probably only a passing resemblance to the stage play. Shooting on Tillie’s Punctured Romance took a whopping 12 weeks, finishing on July 25, 1914, but the film, which was 6000 feet, was not released until November 14, 1914.

The film was so successful that Dressler would go onto star in the sequel, Tillie’s Tomato Surprise (1915), and use the character name Tillie in other films, including The Scrub Lady (1917) and Tillie Wakes Up (1917). She would also write and direct a short film, Fired (1917), and write and produce The Agonies of Agnes (1918) before leaving Hollywood for seven years.

The film would also be one of Chaplin’s last with Keystone; he would release only two more films for the studio, Getting Acquainted (1914) and His Prehistoric Past (1914). Even before Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Chaplin had already become an international star. He was also becoming hard to work with at Keystone. He wanted more autonomy and after the success of this film, he wanted more money. Sennett and his financial backers bristled at this demand and let him go. Chaplin would sign with Essanay by the end of the year, taking the Tramp character with him.

I’ve gone on record as not being a big fan of Marie Dressler’s in my review of Min and Bill (1932). At the time she made this film, Dressler was already 42, about 17 years older than her love interest and about three times Chaplin’s size. She doesn’t look right in the part of an ingénue, even though she had successfully played one on stage.

Marie Dressler as Tillie Banks at the beginning of the film.

One of the promises of film is the ability to have a similar experience to someone who watched it 100 years before. With so many films that have been lost over time, it is clear that promise is not always kept. The problem with watching an older movie like this one is the condition of the film. The version I watched via TCM was patched together from various prints of varying qualities from sharp black and white to third or fourth generation reprints.

The version I watched also had very few title cards. I don’t know if that’s how it was originally released, as if Sennett was sure that the visuals would tell the story so completely that few would be needed, or if they’d been edited out to shorten the running time. While I don’t know for sure, I lean toward the latter, though I’m sure it was not TCM’s doing. There are also bits and pieces missing, as the action will jump cut and sometimes repeat. While the film has been saved, this is not a restored version. (I had a similar experience with watching The Squaw Man).

The story pushes the limits of believability, even for a comedy. Maybe title cards would have helped, but the film is presented as happening in a very short amount of time, perhaps even in a single day, as night is never presented or any time is shown as passing. Never mind the speed of the dissemination of information that is worthy of the internet-age we live in now. Uncle Banks is thought to be dead and the afternoon papers already have a story about his heir, even before she knows of the accident. I would have to imagine that even audiences of the day would have noticed this.

I can’t say that the film has aged well. There is a lot of slapstick humor, but I can’t say I ever laughed and I do enjoy silent comedy. Part of this may be that what was new in 1914 has by now been copied and redone so much that I’ve seen everything that might have been unique about the film when it was released. But some of it may have to do with the changing times between 1914 and 2014. Humor has changed, not always for the better, and the novelty of a feature-length comedy can’t be over looked for its initial success, not to mention the caliber of the stars in it.

Besides Dressler, who headlined the film, the other star, besides Chaplin, was Mabel Normand. Having met Sennett in New York at Biograph, she had worked at Vitagraph before moving out west with Sennett when he founded Keystone.

A main stay at the studio, Mabel would appear in 32 films in 1914 alone working with the likes of Chaplin, Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, Mack Swain and Chester Conkling. Like Chaplin, Mabel grew artistically from performer to writer and director; even directing Chaplin in Mabel at the Wheel (1914), co-directing with him Caught in a Cabaret (1914) and being directed by him in such films as The Masquerader (1914) and A Gentleman of Nerve (1914).

Mabel Normand was a major star at Keystone Studios.

When her personal relationship with Sennett ended, she left Keystone and signed a $3,500 a week contract with Samuel Goldwyn and opened a studio in Culver City. While she continued to make films, she would be involved in a couple of scandals, the type that seemed to be too common in Hollywood. First was the murder of director William Desmond Taylor. Taylor was deeply in love with Mabel and had tried to wean her off of cocaine, even going to the police to get her suppliers arrested.

Mabel got involved in the scandal
surrounding William Desmond Taylor's murder.

On February 1, 1922, Taylor was shot to death in his apartment. Mabel was the last person to see the director alive. Though she would be ruled out by the police as a suspect, his murder remains officially unsolved.

Two years later, Mabel’s chauffeur Joe Kelly shot and wounded millionaire Cortland S. Dines with Mabel’s gun. Dines was at the time romantically linked to Edna Purviance, who was Taylor’s next door neighbor.

In 1926, Mabel signed with Hal Roach Studios. It was there she made her last film, One Hour Married (1927), directed by Jerome Strong and Hal Yates, co-written by Stan Laurel. Her health in decline, Mabel would die in 1930 at the age of 37.

Chaplin, who gets third billing here, is not the saving grace of the film. He is not playing The Tramp (gone, too, is the mustache we associate with that character) and while he performs many of the same pratfalls and antics, he is not likable this time out. This Charlie is much meaner as he woos, leads on and marries a woman just for the money. And while he’s still in love with Mabel, he is not above trying to cut her out when a better opportunity to make money comes his way. He actually leaves her in the park and runs to marry Tillie before she finds out she’s a millionaire. While the Tramp can be scheming, he is never so nakedly greedy and beyond reproach.

Charlie has a lot in common with, but is a meaner version of, the Little Tramp. Here he's
convinced Tillie to run away with him to the city, as long as she steals money from her father first.

While his performance shows some depth, he was capable of playing more than just the Tramp, it also shows that he is at his best when he plays that character. Charlie must have realized that, too, as he pretty much only plays the Tramp for the rest of his career. With that character, he would grow to be the biggest comedy star in the world and develop into one of cinema’s first great directors.

Typical of the era, the film was shot both on the lot at Keystone and in and around Los Angeles. Many of the locations, including the Hollywood Hotel and the Castle Sans Souci, are now gone from the urban landscape. The Hollywood Hotel, demolished in 1956, was once the center of Hollywood life. The Hollywood and Highlands shopping center now stands in its place. The Castle, built by Dr. A.G.R. Schloesser located at 1901 Argyle above Franklin, used to command breathtaking views from Hollywood from its six-story tower.

Dr. A.G.R. Schloesser poses on a post card in front of his house, which notes its use in the film.

Another locale, now gone, is the Abbott Kinney Pier in Venice, then the most prominent amusement pier at the time. The film makes it seem like the pier is near the Castle, as Charlie and Mable flee Tillie’s gun firing. The amusement park was destroyed by a fire in December 1920, but was rebuilt and reopened in six months. The pier’s demise came in 1946, when the City of Los Angeles did not renew the lease on the tidelands.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance was a film I wanted to like, but as I wrote, I never laughed at it when I watched it. I found this to be more of a curiosity than a real comedy and I’m sorry to say I can’t recommend it. Others may have a different experience that I did, but with the poor quality of the print and the scattered storytelling, I could never get into this film.

No comments:

Post a Comment