Tillie’s Punctured Romance (21 December 1914)

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Released: 21 December 1914, Keystone

Director: Mack Sennett

Writer: Mack Sennett

Duration: 74 mins (six reels)/85 mins (2003 restoration)

With: Marie Dressler, Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, The Keystone Kops, Charles Bennett, Charley Chase

Story: World-weary city man (Chaplin) meets fresh, innocent country girl (Dressler), and plots to get his hands on her father’s fortune…

Production: Widely regarded as the first proper ‘feature length’ comedy film made in Hollywood, Tillie’s Puncture Romance was created by Mack Sennett as a vehicle for stage actress Marie Dressler. If she’s recalled at all these days, it is more likely to be for her acerbic role in the brilliant Dinner at Eight (1933), co-starring Jean Harlow. Before 1914, the Canadian-born Dressler was a theatre and vaudeville veteran taking her first steps in the new-fangled world of movies. That Sennett built his film around the mis-cast Dressler and not his newest native movie star Charlie Chaplin betrays something of the projects lengthy and tortured gestation.

Sennett’s Keystone was only two years old when he embarked upon his first feature film production, inspired by news that his one-time mentor D.W. Griffith was working on a similarly lengthy project then called ‘The Clansman’ (later released as Birth of a Nation). Sennett employed most of his regular Keystone players in roles in the film, with Chaplin and Mabel Normand at the top of the list. The film, was, however, expressly designed to launch the then 44-year-old Dressler as a movie star. Sennett called her ‘a star whose name and face meant something to every possible theatre-goer in the United States and the British Empire.’ The project started shooting in April 1914, before Chaplin’s astonishing star status was fully established. Sennett feared that his regular Keystone performers, even Normand, would not automatically command theatre bookings, so he was relying on Dressler as a ‘known name’ to attract an audience. By the time the film was released at the very end of 1914, the audience were coming for Chaplin not to see some stage actress, although—as we’ll see—Chaplin wasn’t exactly playing his Tramp character.

Sennett secured Dressler for the film on a twelve week contract, paying her $2,500 per week. The film was based upon the musical play Tillie’s Nightmare by Edgar Smith with which Dressler had enjoyed some success on stage in 1910 (and she’d revive the production in 1920). Filming filled 45 working days across eight weeks, and the production had wrapped by June. All the while, the Sennett crew were continuing to produce their regular shorts. Sennett recalled: ‘I had to continue the steady flow of short comedies each week. This meant that I never had my Tillie cast all working together on any given day. One or two of them were constantly out of the picture acting in a two reeler.’

The film had a budget of $50,000, well in excess of the cost of six single-reelers. In fact, while Tillie’s Punctured Romance was in production Chaplin featured in no less than five other shorts: The Fatal Mallet, The Knockout, Her Friend the Bandit, Mabel’s Busy Day, and Mabel’s Married Life. That’s another reason why he wasn’t the star of the show: he had too many other Keystone commitments to be released to work solely on the feature film.

Dressler’s career was suffering one of it’s regular downturns, so the offer to star in a film couldn’t have come at a better time (she’d made two previous film appearances but as herself; Tillie’s Punctured Romance would be her first on screen performance as a fictional character). According to Glenn Mitchell in The Chaplin Encyclopedia, Dressler showed a great deal of business sense in organising distribution of the film through her husband’s company (this proved problematic later when distribution was actually handled by the Alco Film Company instead) and in claiming a co-ownership in the film itself. It was Keystone’s writer (or ‘scenario editor’, as they were then known) Craig Hutchinson who suggested filming the play that had brought Dressler great success, a notion no doubt welcomed by the actress as an opportunity to revisit past glories.

Sennett was determined to make a big success of America’s first feature length comedy film, but wanted to focus more on the character of Tillie rather than in making a straight adaptation of Tillie’s Nightmare. Every resource his studio had was put in service of the film, with production weaving in and out of the studio’s regular output. It wasn’t an easy task as Dressler, more used to the environment of the stage, found it difficult to adapt to the techniques of film acting, something that Charlie Chaplin had quickly grasped instinctively. He was, in fact, in the process of pioneering a whole new approach to screen acting, something Dressler seems to have failed to grasp. The film was promoted as ‘The Impossible Attained: a SIX REEL comedy!’

Playing a ‘city slicker’ type villain in a standard, if over long, Keystone caper probably did not appeal to Chaplin at this point. This film was made just as he was beginning to develop his Tramp character in new ways, taking ever more control of his own projects. Now, he was playing second fiddle to a theatre ‘star’ who employed the standard neo-Victorian over-emotive screen acting previously used by Ford Sterling (long gone from Keystone by this point). Under the direction of Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand’s role (she gets a significant close-up) was probably considered of more importance than Chaplin’s moustache twirler (his two piece minimalist moustache is not long enough for him to actually twirl it, nor is it full enough to hide his youth). It would be the last time (apart from guest appearances) that Chaplin would appear in a movie under someone else’s direction.

Even more irritating to Chaplin may have been Dressler’s later claim (in her own unreliable memoirs) to have ‘discovered’ the screen comedian. ‘I went up on the [Keystone] lot and I looked around until I found Charlie Chaplin who was then unknown,’ she said of beginning work on Tillie’s Punctured Romance. ‘I picked him out and also Mabel Normand. I think the public will agree that I am a good picker for it was the first real chance Charlie Chaplin ever had.’

The film’s theatrical origins are occasionally painfully obvious: it is split into six acts, separated by title cards. The opening sees Dressler appear in front of a curtain apparently as herself, before the scene dissolves to show her in character (a theatrical curtain also closes the film, and the principals, including Chaplin, take their bows). Despite being middle-aged, Dressler portrays Tillie as a ‘girl’ who quickly falls for Chaplin’s city slicker, although he’s only interested in her as a way to access the family fortune. He convinces the love-struck Tillie to elope with him and escape her abusive father, kicking off a series of adventures as the country ‘girl’ encounters city life. Cars and clothes give her problems, as does her new-love’s unexpected girlfriend (Normand). Plying Tillie with drink, Chaplin and Normand make off with her purse, buying themselves new clothes while Tillie deals with the law. After a brief stay with her uncle, Tillie finds herself homeless and penniless, finally winning a job at a local cafe. At the movies, Chaplin and Normand see a film in which a thief gets his just deserts. Feeling guilty, they track down Tillie—but learning of the family fortune they hatch a new plan. Much chaos follows, especially during a sequence set at a society ball in which Tillie pelts Charlie with ornaments and finally shoots off a pistol wildly in his direction. Tillie is then disenfranchised, so she pursues Chaplin and Normand, still waving the gun, and chase is soon joined by the Keystone Kops. Inevitably, in the way of Sennett and Keystone, several major players end up running off the end of the pier and splashing into the water. By the end, Tillie and Mabel are friends, and both turn their backs on the city slicker.

Chaplin’s character resembles more some of the earlier non-Tramp roles he played, people who have fallen low in society and are simply out for themselves. There’s enough comedy here, though, to make up for the absence of the Tramp character. His seduction of Tillie is well-done. Chaplin’s biographer David Robinson saw hints of a much later character in Chaplin’s performance here: ‘At moments, Chaplin’s characterisation of the deft, funny, heartless adventurer anticipates Verdoux, even though Verdoux could never insult the footmen and an effeminate guest at a party as Chaplin does.’ Robinson also noted that the screen experience of both Chaplin and Normand put them in a different league to Dressler whose ‘warm personality wins through’ nonetheless. Indeed, of the trio it was Normand who had the most film experience in front and behind the camera.

When the finished film was screened at a trade show on 14 November 1914 (ads began appearing in the press during the previous week), it was Chaplin rather than Dressler who found himself the centre of attention. When the film had been completed in the summer, Chaplin’s star was only just beginning to rise. Now, as the year was coming to a close, he’d become the most famous screen personality on the planet, and his services were much in demand. It was Chaplin, too, who drew comment from the critics. ‘Chaplin outdoes Chaplin,’ wrote Moving Picture World of Tillie’s Punctured Romance. ‘That’s all there is to it. His marvellous right-footed skid … is just as funny in the last reel as it is in the first.’ While Variety rightly highlighted Dressler as the film’s putative star, their correspondent went on to note that ‘Chaplin’s antics are an essential feature in putting the picture over.’ While his supporting role was seen as essential to the film’s success. It wasn’t a production that Chaplin thought much of. ‘It was pleasant working with Marie,’ he wrote in My Autobiography, ‘but I did not think that the picture had much merit. I was more than happy to get back to directing myself.’ While Sennett was hailed for his groundbreaking move in producing the first comedy feature film, Chaplin had outgrown the Keystone way of making movies and was ready to further develop his craft elsewhere. Many kicks up the backside were to follow.

Slapstick: A brick tossed by ‘the girl’ knocks ‘the stranger’ to the ground—that’s a 1914 example of cinematic ‘meet cute’. The pair then play footsie. However, courting proves painful for the city swell. Traffic proves a baffling obstacle for the ‘country girl’ in the big city, as does alcohol. There’s a lovely Tramp-style foot skid as Chaplin and Normand exit the cafe having stolen the country girl’s purse. At the police station, she drunkenly puts the bite on the desk sergeant. Chaplin has his usual trouble with swing doors as he enters the clothes store. Chaplin doesn’t appreciate the musical accompaniment to the film-within-the-film, nor the appearance of his analogue on screen. The reveal of Charley Chase’s lawman badge (he’s sitting next to them in the cinema) is the final straw… When the girl recognises Chaplin in the cafe he gets a face full of food and makes a swift exit. In attempting to get to the new heiress first, Chaplin has to navigate a wet floor, with inevitable consequences. High society proves to be physically challenging for the new groom (and for new servant Mabel), especially on the dance floor. A run-in with Chester Conklin’s party guest unleashes the usual Keystone tit-for-tat slaps and punches. A follow-up encounter sees punches thrown around the punch bowl. Chaplin struts his stuff on and off the dance floor with Marie, while Mabel drains the punch bowl. Cakes then a gun are Marie’s weapons of choice when she discovers Charlie and Mabel in a clinch, kicking off the long-time-coming climatic chase sequence. Charlie and Mabel exit, pursued by a bear, sorry, by Marie Dressler. A footman calls the Keystone Kops, who chase everyone off the end of the pier.

Verdict: The ultimate Keystone-Mack Sennett movie, for good or ill… 3/5

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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 Prehistoric Past (7 December 1914)

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Released: 7 December 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 22 mins

With: Mack Swain, Sydney Chaplin, Fitz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Gene Marsh

Story: In the Stone Age, Charlie is still the Tramp…

Production: Spurred by the 1912 discovery of ‘Piltdown Man’ (early human remains later revealed to be a hoax), a host of films, comedic and more serious, dealt with the topic of ancient man and prehistory. For Biograph, D.W. Griffith had produced Man’s Genesis (1912). Buster Keaton included prehistory as one of his Three Ages (1923, spoofing Griffith’s Intolerance, 1916). Much later, in 1928 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared individually (before they were teamed up) as cavemen in Flying Elephants for Hal Roach. His Prehistoric Past—the last of his shorts released by Keystone—was Chaplin’s idiosyncratic take on the same subject matter.

Chaplin uses dreams as a way in to telling his story, with the Tramp falling asleep on a park bench and imagining his prehistoric adventure. This neatly explains the brilliant comic conceit of having Chaplin’s prehistoric figure sporting the same bowler hat, cane and moustache he always does (not that this would have particularly needed explaining, as it is such a brilliant move). His usual well-worn costume is replaced by movie-friendly animal skins. Chaplin’s character, called Weak Chin, comes across another tribe lead by Mack Swain’s King Low-Brow. Weak Chin quickly falls in love with the King’s favourite of his many wives, and then replaces the King when it is thought he’s died by falling off a cliff. The return of the King leads to comic violence and a rude awakening for the sleeping Tramp in the park.

The policeman at the short’s climax, whose taps on the head awakens Charlie from his alfresco slumbers, was played by Chaplin’s older half-brother, Sydney. It had long been believed that Syd had started work at Keystone after Charlie left, but in the early 1980s Bo Berglund (of Classic Images) identified Syd as the policeman in His Prehistoric Past. It would have been the first time the brothers worked together on film.

In his autobiography, Chaplin recalled how one simple joke had given rise to a two-reel short comedy: ‘I started with one gag, which was my first entrance. I appeared as a prehistoric man, wearing a bearskin, and, as I scanned the landscape, I began pulling the hair from the bearskin to fill my pipe. This was enough of an idea to stimulate a prehistoric story, introducing love, rivalry, combat, and chase. This was the method by which we all worked at Keystone.’ This may have been enough to get Chaplin started, but it is unfortunate that his final two-reeler is one of the less inventive from his time at Keystone, resembling nothing more than (as James L. Neibaur points out) ‘a disjointed version of a Keystone “park” comedy, with a different setting and costumes.’

In a series of appearances in Chaplin’s late-Keystone works, Mack Swain’s bulk had been effectively contrasted with Chaplin’s own slight frame, and in the previous two shorts with that of Mabel Normand, too. Here, Chaplin has the large man play against type as the King of this prehistoric tribe. Swain seems to have thrown himself enthusiastically into this role, following Chaplin’s acted-out directions fairly closely. This approach to coaching his co-stars to give exactly the performance he needed would follow Chaplin through his work at the next few studios where he set up shop.

The reception of Chaplin’s work was to change over the coming years, with his 12 month stint at Keystone often relegated to a long forgotten past. Even as soon as 1919, a mere five years later, Chaplin’s earlier work was being dismissed in comparison with his films for Essanay, Mutual, and First National. When His Prehistoric Past was revived in 1919, the New York Times dismissed it as ‘an early Keystone product of the time when Chaplin’s mastery of pantomime had not been developed or discovered’. Contrary to that opinion, it is clear that in re-viewing Charlie Chaplin’s first year of work in movies from Keystone in 1914, not only did his art develop dramatically across those 12 months but his ‘mastery of pantomime’ was, in fact, in place early on, even if the material didn’t always allow him to display it.

There may have been other good reasons why this short (made after Tillie’s Punctured Romance, but released before that feature film) was underpowered. Chaplin claimed that he was distracted both by the impending end of his contract at Keystone and by the offers now coming in from rival studios for his services. Chaplin notes in his autobiography that completing his final short was ‘a strain, because it was hard to concentrate with so many business propositions dangling before me.’ The comic had attended a Motion Picture Ball in November 1914, when both this and Getting Acquainted were made, and the offers from other studios seemed to gain new urgency around then. There was nothing Mack Sennett could do to either keep his star name ignorant of the possibilities of work elsewhere nor was there any offer he could make that would keep Chaplin at Keystone. He’d learned all he could within the limiting confines of that studio’s working methods, and while grateful for the education, it was time for him to try something else somewhere new.

Sennett was outbid for Chaplin’s services by Jess Robbins at Essanay who offered the comic star a $10,000 signing bonus and a weekly fee of $1250: that was enough for Chaplin and his business manager, half-brother Sydney, to sign on the dotted line. By the middle of December what the Washington Post described as ‘one of the most popular comedy artists in the motion picture industry’ had a new home. ‘It was a wrench leaving Keystone,’ Chaplin admitted. ‘I had grown fond of Sennett and everyone there. I never said goodbye to anyone; I couldn’t. I finished cutting my film on Saturday night and left the following Monday.’

Slapstick: An arrow in the rump gets the prehistoric Tramp’s attention, then the rocks start flying. Soon, the Tramp’s a (rather violent) jester at King Swain’s prehistoric court. A frolic in the waves with the King’s best gal pal gets the Tramp into trouble. A slap-happy duel follows and the King takes quite a tumble. A rock dropped on his head brings the Tramp back to all-too-modern reality.

Verdict: A soft end to Chaplin’s Keystone capers, 3/5

Next: Tillie’s Punctured Romance (21 December 1914)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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Getting Acquainted (5 December 1914)

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Getting Acquainted

Released: 5 December 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 13 mins

With: Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Harry McCoy

Story: In the park, two couples find their romantic interests intertwined.

Production: Getting Acquainted is something of a spiritual sequel to His Trysting Places, released immediately before it. It features the same core cast playing similar characters, but it takes the romantic complications to another level. It’s actually a wife swap situation, as Charlie is now paired off with the frumpy Phyllis Allen, while Swain gets to canoodle with Mabel Normand. This was the last short Chaplin shot at Keystone (the next one released, His Prehistoric Past, was shot weeks before this in October 1914), and it was all filmed in one day in Westlake Park. While that might conjure up images of yet another pointless Keystone park runaround, Getting Acquainted is a park-set comedy made by a far more experienced Chaplin. This one doesn’t feature much in the way of brick tossing, nor does it end with one or more of the participants predictably falling into the lake just before the end. As Glenn Mitchell noted in The Chaplin Encyclopedia: ‘The inter-shubbery intrigues are better choreographed than usual.’

The plot is basic stuff. On a day out in the park with his wife (Allen), Chaplin’s Tramp can’t help himself from flirting with other women, including Cecile Arnold and Mabel Normand. In the process he falls foul of an improbable Turk brandishing a knife and an irate cop (Edgar Kennedy), while Mabel’s husband Ambrose (Swain) turns his attention on Charlie’s wife. It’s an odd film, with Chaplin’s Tramp acting like a dog in heat, pursuing anyone in a skirt regardless of the consequences (some might say this would also be part of Chaplin’s real life character in years to come).

There’s not a lot else to this one. Chaplin works in one of his trademark anthropomorphising of inanimate objects when he deliberately lifts Mabel’s skirt with his cane, but when caught proceeds to thwack the cane and give it a telling off, as though it had acted without his volition. It’s a cute moment, and while this is a superior example of a Keystone ‘park’ comedy, it’s one of the high points of an otherwise run-of-the-mill short.

There is a feeling here that this was the work of a man who knew he was coming to the end of his time working with Keystone, keen to meet a contractual obligation and move on to something new. It feels as though Chaplin was chomping at the bit to get on with developing his cinematic craft. While he’d claimed to be ignorant of the interest other studios had in him at this time, it must’ve been become clear that he was being held back (financially and artistically) at Keystone. He’d exhausted all that Mack Sennett’s bright and breezy outfit could offer him.

Aware that his star turn was threatening to leave, Sennett offered Chaplin a raise to $450 per week to continue toiling at Keystone. Chaplin writes in his autobiography: ‘About this time, Sennett began to talk of renewing my contract and wanted to know my terms. I knew to some degree the extent of my popularity, but I also knew the ephemera of it and believed that, at the rate I was going, that within a year I would be all dried up, so I had to make hay while the sun shone. “I want a thousand dollars a week,” I said deliberately. Sennett was appalled. “But I don’t make that,” he said. “I know,” I answered, “but the public doesn’t line up outside the box office when your name appears as they do for mine…”’ Chaplin was beginning to get an idea of his own appeal to audiences, and was determined to get his current worth in salary. He wouldn’t get it at Keystone, however.

There’d be one more short, His Prehistoric Past, and a final appearance as the Tramp for Keystone in the Christmas-released feature film Tillie’s Punctured Romance (directed by Sennett), and that would be it for Chaplin and Keystone. A chance to refine and further develop his craft was on the horizon, and the man who was well on his way to becoming the biggest film star in the world was not going to miss the opportunity.

Slapstick: Ambrose struggles with the hand crank on a car stalled in the park. A knife in the backside makes the Tramp retreat from the Turk. Propositioning Mabel earns the Tramp a smack in the face. An enthusiastic cop chases the Tramp around the Mulberry bush. Ambrose gets familiar with Charlie’s wife and he too gets a slap in the chops. The Tramp runs between the Turk, the cop, and his wife, spinning on his heels as he does so. Husbands meet wives and wives meet husbands, with the cop knocking some sense into the menfolk.

Verdict: Familiar stuff, but well enough done, 3/5

Next: His Prehistoric Past (7 December 1914)

Available Now!

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.

Amazon US | Amazon UK