Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler, and a Keystone Kop.
As the first feature-length comedy ever made, Tillie's Punctured Romance is of unquestionable historical significance. On top of this, though, it is surprisingly good, with a nicely articulated plot that, while it may not be interesting on its own dramatic merits, provides plenty of terrain for Keystone's finest to dig out the humor in their respective roles. Although Charlie Chaplin is featured prominently in Tillie, it would be a mistake to view this as a Chaplin film. It bears almost no similarity to Chaplin's later features, all of which he wrote and directed himself, and is very much a piece with the Keystone shorts of the mid 1910's.

Tillie was originally conceived as a showcase for the talents of stage star Marie Dressler, with Chaplin and Mabel Normand in supporting roles and other Keystone players rounding out the edges, including Charley Chase, Mack Swain, and the Keystone Kops. That producer Mack Sennett would choose to build a film around Dressler seems bewildering today. It would probably not be too much of an exaggeration to call her the least attractive woman ever to star in a film. Of course, the plot is built around her being ugly. If she were beautiful, the story wouldn't make sense anymore. But nowadays it seems we are so used to "TV ugly" that we've forgotten what "ugly ugly" looks like. Never fear, Marie hasn't forgotten. Yet somehow she was a hugely successful star, both in the occasional silent comedy and then later in a flurry of wildly successful sound films, and was even named the top box office draw of 1933 by the Motion Picture Herald.

Miss Sweet Young Thing 1914!
Tillie (Dressler) is a brawny farm girl who, in spite of her not-so-girlish stature, dreams of love and romance. When a reasonably handsome stranger (Chaplin) turns up on her farm by accident, she latches onto him and is determined to win him over, by force if necessary. The Stranger is clearly not interested in Tillie, until he catches a glimpse of her father's stash of cash, at which point he suddenly finds himself very much in love indeed. He convinces Tillie to run away with him (and the money), but once they get to town, he leaves Tillie for his old girlfriend, The Other Girl (Normand), taking Tillie's money with him. More twists and turns and general silliness ensue--you get the idea.

Not surprisingly, it is Chaplin's performance that makes the film memorable, even if it does not stand up in comparison with his mature work. Many of his most characteristic expressions and mannerisms are already in place: the way he covers his mouth when he laughs, thumbs his nose in reverse, his backwards kick, usually directed at the rear end of someone in uniform, the nose tweak, and of course, the one foot skid around corners are all instantly familiar devices. On a more basic level, Chaplin has an uncanny level of expressiveness, whereby he seems to communicate directly with the camera through his eye movements alone, which makes his character more appealing and sympathetic than either of the other leads, in spite of the fact that he is ostensibly the villain of the piece.

Even without close ups, Chaplin is expressive enough to convey emotion through his eyes alone.
Chaplin's character in Tillie resembles his Tramp, who made his debut earlier that year in Mabel's Strange Predicament and Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., although it is hardly the same character. The baggy pants and tight coat are the same, at least in the beginning of the film, although they are in better repair than we are used to seeing on the Tramp. He carries the same whangee cane. Like the Tramp, Tillie's Stranger wears a toothbrush mustache, but it is far thinner and more delicate than the Tramp's. He wears a straw boater in place of the Tramp's undersized bowler, although he trades this in for the bowler later in the film.

It is harder to compare the characterization, as the Tramp himself underwent several major changes in his early years. When he was introduced in 1914, the Tramp was dishonest, lecherous, and self-interested, and while these qualities never left him entirely, by even the early 1920's his dominant personality traits were kindness, sensitivity to beauty, and pride. Like the Tramp, the Stranger seems to have come from nowhere in particular, but where the Tramp comes from an indefinable Nowhere, like a page out of a fairy tale, the Stranger is simply a character about whom we know very little. More significantly, the Stranger has an agenda that guides his behavior, whereas even in his earliest incarnations the Tramp seems motivated less by any concrete goals than by an innate sense of mischief and adventure.

Even as the Tramp, early Chaplin was more lecherous than chivalrous.
The comedy in Tillie comes in several forms. The bulk of the humor, as in most Keystone films, comes from simple, unscripted physical gags. Chases, dancing, thrown objects, trips and falls (deliberate or otherwise) are all standard fare. Other gags are far more sophisticated. In one of the most well-developed scenes in the film, the Stranger and the Other Girl are sitting in a movie theater, watching a film that is touching on their situation a little too close to home. In the film, a man and woman have stolen some money from a poor, naive girl, and are found out by the police. As they watch the film, we see them getting more and more uncomfortable, obviously feeling guilty when confronted with their crimes (or at least afraid of getting caught). As the movie ends, the man sitting next to them (Charley Chase) shifts so his coat opens slightly, revealing a police badge just like the detective in the movie they were watching, and the pair dash out of the theater in terror. This parallel is slowly and elegantly revealed, showing a forethought and steady hand not frequently found in Keystone films.

Detective Charley Chase, in an uncredited appearance.
Technically speaking, Tillie is still relatively primitive. Apart from a simplistic form of parallel editing, the language of Sennett's camera is little different than that of the theater. His camera is generally stationary, with each scene having one view. He does use cuts to show movement, as in passing from one side of a doorway to another, but seldom does his camera move within a space, either through actual camera movement or through cutting, except in very large spaces like the ballroom or the docks, and he does not use close ups at all. The dynamics of the scenes are created through the movements of the actors, not the camera.

Once he's seen her father's cash, Tillie doesn't look so bad.
Chaplin himself did not think highly of the film, saying simply, "It was pleasant working with Marie, but I did not think the picture had much merit." As a visionary artist and a tortuous perfectionist, it is unlikely he would ever have been satisfied with a project that was not wholly his own. Contemporary critics were more generous. Moving Picture World wrote: "Chaplin outdoes Chaplin; that's all there is to it. His marvelous right-footed just as funny in the last reel as it is in the first." And, I might add, it is just as funny today as it was then, nearly a hundred years ago.

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