Tillie’s Punctured Romance: A note on release dates

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Although many sources cite today—14 November—as the release date for the first feature length comedy film Tillie’s Punctured Romance, it is generally now taken to have been a trade screening only. I’ve decided to go with the BFI and accept the Alco Film Company (the film’s ultimate distributors) official release date as 21 December 1914, so will publish an entry on the movie on 21 December 2014. This means that Chaplin’s first feature film appearance will be the final entry in my series on his 1914 Keystone work, following his final two shorts, Getting Acquainted (5 Dec) and His Prehistoric Past (7 Dec).

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

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His Trysting Places (9 November 1914)

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Released: 9 November 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 20 mins

With: Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen

Story: Romantic complications follow when the Tramp (Chaplin) and Ambrose (Swain) mix up their coats…

Production: This short is unusual for Chaplin’s Keystone period in that it shows the Tramp in a domestic setting with both a wife (Normand) and a baby son. However, this is not the sympathetic father figure of Chaplin’s later The Kid (1921). Here, he seems rather indifferent, if not cruel to his young charge, hoisting him about by his clothes, letting him play with a gun, and ignoring the child’s proximity to a lit stove. Chaplin would develop the softer side of the Tramp character over time, and there are some aspects of his demeanour here that hark back to the earliest days of the character when he was certainly much crueller to those around him. In his autobiography (as noted in the notes to the BFI collection of Chaplin’s Keystone shorts), Mack Sennett pointed out that Chaplin ‘preceded W.C. Fields by many years with scenes in which he got laughs by being mean to a baby.’ At one point, Charlie dumps the baby on the hard wooden floor and climbs into its crib himself.

That said, His Trysting Places remains one of Chaplin’s more accomplished two-reelers from Keystone. Across its extended running time, the film tells a fairly complete story with somewhat deeper characterisation and character interaction than was evident in the likes of the preceding His Musical Career. Domestic life doesn’t seem to suit this version of the Tramp: his home life seems rather claustraphobic, as if he misses the freewheeling adventure on the streets and in the parks (an oft-visited Keystone venue the film returns to for its climax). Mabel is seen to be doing housework and looking after the baby, while Charlie lolls in an armchair perusing a magazine. Their tiny apartment barely gives them room to move around without bumping into each other, in stark contrast to the wide yonder the Tramp has most often previously inhabited.

There has historically been some confusion over whether the title of this film should be a singular ‘Place’ or plural ‘Places’. Contemporary advertising, and the original Keystone title, would seem to indicate ‘Place’ is correct, however beginning with a WA Films reissue with new titles by Chaplin’s half-brother, Sydney, the film’s title seems to have become ‘Places’. This was the title used by Blackhawk films for their home movie re-issue, and is indeed the contemporary title given to this short in the BFI DVD restoration (which neglects to address the variant title history in its notes). Many Chaplin movies were re-issued, officially and unofficially under a variety of titles over the years (His Trysting Places was put out again as ‘The Hen-Pecked Spouse’ and ‘Family House’ at different times). I’ve gone with the current BFI usage here, but it should be noted that some older reference texts and biographies will use the singular version of the title.

The plot is kicked off when Charlie leaves to get a new bottle for the baby, with the narrative cutting to the other two, more happily married characters, Swain’s Ambrose and his wife, played by Phyllis Allen. This pair don’t have any children, and their relationship still appears to be in its early stages of mutual attraction, a stark contrast to the seemingly fraught home life being endured by Charlie. He and Ambrose meet in a diner, where they come into conflict. They accidentally leave with each other’s heavy overcoats, meaning that Ambrose has Charlie’s baby bottle (leading his wife to suspect he has a child hidden away somewhere) while Charlie ends up with the love letter from Ambrose’s coat which he was delivering for a neighbour (and which leads Mabel to suspect he has another woman). The romantic mix up is well established, and setting it up and following through on the consequences provides the bulk of the narrative material for this accomplished short.

Character and incident compliment one another throughout, with their reactions and behaviour flowing naturally from the crazy mixed-up situation all the protagonists find themselves in. The longer two-reel format gives Chaplin, as director, the chance to delve more deeply into the background situations of each of his sets of characters before throwing them into the usual rowdy Keystone park-set confrontation. The scene in the cafe, for example, between Charlie and Ambrose as they clash over their respective meals, builds slowly to the climax rather than rushing straight to a physical slapstick confrontation as an early Keystone short might have done. All this is in service of the main plot point of the resulting confusion caused when the men mix up their respective coats. Chaplin was now happier to take his time over comedy ‘business’ establishing deeper character through action and allowing the storyline room to unfold and breathe, unlike most of the breakneck paced Keystone output favoured by studio boss Mack Sennett.

Chaplin was nearing the end of his time with Keystone when this film was released. His next released short, Getting Acquainted, was the last one made at Keystone while the final short released from the studio, His Prehistoric Past, was the penultimate one shot. Then there was his appearance in the feature film Tillie’s Punctured Romance (directed by Mack Sennett) which ended the year. ‘I had a month to go with Keystone,’ Chaplin recalled in his often unreliable My Autobiography, ‘and so far no other company had made me an offer. I was getting nervous and I fancy Sennett knew it and was biding his time. He usually came to me at the end of at the end of a picture and jokingly hustled me up about starting another. Now he kept away from me. He was polite, but aloof. In spite of [that] fact, my confidence never left me. If nobody made me an offer I would go into business for myself. Why not? I was confident and self-reliant.’ In fact, unknown to Chaplin at this time, other studios were showing interest in hiring him, but Sennett was able to keep that from his star performer (for a while, at least), realising that if Keystone lost Chaplin, Sennett would have lost one of his major star assets.

Writing in Moving Picture World, a cinema trade journal, Louis Reeves Harrison wrote of Chaplin’s His Trysting Places: ‘Productions of obvious merit need no publicity. They take care of themselves, whatever critics, favourable or carping, may say. Their commercial value lies in their inherent opposition of good structure, better treatment and the best of acting. The comic spirit is entirely too deep and subtle for me to define. It defies analysis. The human aspect is certainly dominant. It is funniest when it is rich in defects of character. The incongruity of Chaplin’s portrayals, his extreme seriousness, his sober attention to trivialities, his constant errors, and as a constant resentment of what happens to him, all this has to be seen to be enjoyed.’ Even at this early stage in his long career, Chaplin’s comedy was beginning to be seen as critic-proof.

Slapstick: A spilled pot and an open flame cause Charlie some pain. The baby ends up with a dough diaper. Charlie and Ambrose get in a tangle at the lunch counter, which turns into a full-on brawl during which an innocent by-stander gets a pie in the face. A furious Mabel pelts Charlie with laundry (and the ironing board). Having followed him to the park, Mabel knocks Charlie into a bin, twice. When Ambrose comforts Mabel, Charlie very delicately prepares to kick him up the backside. The trio resume their altercation, only subject to the interruption of a passing policeman.

Verdict: Domestic strife and romantic mix-ups come to a head in a clever-than-usual Keystone park frolic, 4/5

Next: Getting Acquainted (5 December 1914)

His Musical Career (7 November 1914)

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Released: 7 November 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 13 mins

With: Mack Swain, Charley Chase, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Frank Hayes

Story: The Tramp (Chaplin) is hired for a job in a piano store and with his boss Mike (Swain) has to deliver one piano and repossess another…

Production: The most obvious thing about this Chaplin short is its uncanny similarity to the later Laurel and Hardy Oscar winner The Music Box (1932). The Stan and Ollie connection is further emphasised by the presence of Charley Chase (billed as Charles Parrott) as the piano store manager, then a rising comedian who’d appear beside Laurel and Hardy in their feature film Sons of the Desert (1933) and whose brother, James Parrott, was the credited director on The Music Box (although by that point Stan Laurel was really the creative driving force behind the boys’ shorts).

The hazards of moving any large, unwieldy object were easy pickings for silent comedians, and a piano is an obvious choice. However, whereas Stan Laurel would make his and Ollie’s attempts to get a piano up an extensive flight of stairs the centrepiece of The Music Box, Chaplin treats a similar scene in His Musical Career as little more than a brief throwaway moment. Of course, both shorts feature sequences in which the piano is let go and runs out of control—in the Chaplin short it goes down a steep road and into a lake.

Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box was itself a remake of their earlier 1927 short Hats Off (in which they attempt to deliver a washing machine, rather than a piano, up the same set of iconic stairs), and as that is a lost film it is difficult to determine whether it more closely followed the Chaplin version or not. Others made variations on the same theme, with Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy co-star Edgar Kennedy featuring in It’s Your Move (1945), a version of Hat’s Off from the same director, Hal Yates, and even the Three Stooges had a go in An Ache in Every Stake (1941), in which a melting block of ice supplants the pianos and washing machines of the previous pictures. However, of all these films, it was Laurel and Hardy’s memorable version which scored the Oscar.

The scenes of Chaplin and Swain loading the piano up were filmed at a real piano store then extant on South Broadway called Wiley B. Allen Co. However, the loading of the donkey wagon, supposedly immediately outside the store, was filmed five blocks away on 9th Street, presumably because filming on South Broadway was in someway problematic (the detective work on this was done by silent movie locations chronicler John Bengston).

Throughout His Musical Career, Chaplin focuses on the difference in size between his Tramp character and that of his boss, piano-mover-in-chief Mack Swain, as well as the bulky piano itself. Almost all the gags in the film revolve around this contrast, with camera angles carefully chosen by Chaplin to further enhance the disparity and so elicit viewer sympathy for the ‘little fellow’. It is Charlie, the smaller of the pair, who does the bulk of the work in moving the piano around, especially in the home of the instrument’s owners who cannot decide precisely where to place it.

Collecting the other piano from the second house proves just as problematic, due to the cluttered nature of the home. In the course of moving this piano, items are broken and a servant knocked to the floor.

It is also evident from viewing His Musical Career that Chaplin was once again relying on far fewer individual shots compared to the number that usually featured in a Keystone comedy. Chaplin biographer David Robinson noted this in Chaplin: His Life and Art. ‘The single reel consists of a mere 27 shots; usually Chaplin and the other Keystone directors used up to 90 shots in a film of the same length. Here, as Buster Keaton was later to do, he bypassed the current fashion in editing, recognising that each shot needed to be a stage for his own extended comedy routines. [Chaplin] declared this early that cutting was not an obligation, but a convenience.’

Mack Swain is here a fully-fledged co-star alongside Chaplin, rather than just one among several comic foils. As in his brief past teaming with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, in Swain Chaplin found a comic partner he could work with, much of the humour being based around their contrasting sizes. Swain, who would die in 1935, featured in many Keystone shorts as a character known as ‘Ambrose’, always sporting his trademark walrus moustache, and that’s basically the who he plays in His Musical Career. Although he was later replaced by another ‘big fellow’ in Eric Campbell, Swain did feature in several Chaplin shorts after his Keystone period, notably The Idle Class (1921), Pay Day (1921), and The Pilgrim (1923), all at First National. However, Chaplin’s best use of Swain was as his foil in The Gold Rush (1925).

The ending of His Musical Career is rather perfunctory, with the pair of removal men losing control of the piano and watching as it runs down hill and into a lake. As speculated by James L. Niebaur in his book Early Charlie Chaplin, it is as though Chaplin suddenly realised he was coming up against the limits of his budget for a one reel short, and wary of incurring the wrath of Mack Sennett once again (as he had down over the expensive Dough and Dynamite—it’s box office success hadn’t happened at the time His Musical Career was in production)—he opted to wrap things up as quickly as possible with an easy gag.

These longer shots mean that His Musical Career has a more relaxing, less frenetic pace than some of the other (and some of the earlier) Chaplin Keystone shorts. This was a maturing of Chaplin’s style as a director, which marked him out from his fellow filmmakers at Keystone. He frames each shot carefully to fully account for all the action that is to take place within each sequence, especially evident during the delivery of the piano by Charlie. As ever, Chaplin was using his time at Keystone to experiment, try out new filmmaking approaches and working on his own developing skills as a director.

Slapstick: Gearing up for the prospect of some physical work, Charlie oils himself before punching Mack, which in turn earns him a kick up the backside. Resting on a piano keyboard, Charlie tumbles to the floor. Dragged by Mack, Charlie is happy to slide along hanging onto the piano they’re moving (note the faces of the crowds watching the filming, just visible reflected in the piano shop window). Tying up the piano in rope sees the pair getting themselves caught up in knots. Charlie drops the piano on top of a recumbent Mack, then gets his own foot trapped (another crowd of curious onlookers can be seen as they load the piano onto the wagon). Mack thwacks Charlie with his cane, then Charlie tries to use the cane to push the piano up a flight of steps, which the piano promptly plummets back down (as does Charlie). The Tramp buckles under the weight of the piano and is then unable to straighten up without a helping hand from Mack (note that the Tramp sports a clay pipe rather than his usual cigarette). As the lake-bound second piano slides out of their control, both Mack and Charlie are carried into the water with it.

Verdict: Strikes many of the right notes, 3/5

Next: His Trysting Places (9 November 1914)