In this Monday feature, I’ll be taking a look at the films of Charlie Chaplin. I’ll be including the shorts and will delve into what makes him such an indomitable social and cultural figure to this very day. As with my Hitchmania feature, my approach will be as
haphazard meticulous as possible. Things will run chronologically and there may be an essay or two to further discuss a particular period. I hope you’ll join me for what should be a lot of fun.
Produced and directed by Mack Sennett with a screenplay by Sennett, Hampton Del Ruth and Craig Hutchinson, Tillie’s Punctured Romance is often cited as the first feature-length comedy in cinematic history. Based on the stage play Tillie’s Nightmare by A. Baldwin Sloane and Edgar Smith, it is the first feature-length film produced by Keystone Studios.
It is also very funny. It follows the standard Keystone rules of farce, but the structure is widespread and weaves the characters through a variation of different locations. The situation is strangely reasonable and well-appointed and the slapstick performers do what they do best.
Marie Dressler stars as Tillie, a country girl living in the middle of nowhere with her father (Mack Swain). One day, a stranger (Charlie Chaplin) appears and encounters Tillie. He initially dismisses her, but when he sees her dad packing away some money he changes his mind. Tillie and the stranger head to the city with designs on eloping.
The stranger runs into an old sweetheart (Mabel Normand) and he starts to feel things again, so he lets her in on his plan to snip Tillie’s cash. Together, they take advantage of the country girl. After seeing a moving picture, guilt sets in. But the inspired culpability is fleeting, as they see the newspaper and discover that Tillie’s been left some serious money thanks to a supposedly dead uncle.
There are complications and things generally fall apart from everyone involved, but this morality play is underscored by some fine performances and some side-splitting comedy. There are many coincidences and many cases of distortion, with characters often getting the wrong idea.
Tillie is a wonderful character, full of life and a bit of countrified ingenuousness. But thanks to Dressler’s dynamic performance and the appearance of one remarkable hat, the audience never slips into cheap pity. She handles her business to the point of flying around a high society party with a gun – a possible ode to Fatty Arbuckle, who ran through the same sweltering paces in The Knockout.
Chaplin is a rascal in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which sets him several degrees away from the misconstrued family man of His Trysting Place. He’s out for money and doesn’t care what he has to do to get it. And he’s a coward. He thinks nothing of shoving Normand’s character aside if it’ll save his bacon.
Speaking of Normand, she’s a treat. Her character goes through quite a journey and she seems morally impacted by the movie-within-the-movie. This is driven home by the picture’s final shot, which showcases an empowered resolution that many may not see coming.
There are lots of neat details in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, like when the film goes meta for the “Keystone Studios” flick A Thief’s Fate. Normand and Chaplin watch from the front row and see better-looking actors play out their parts, with the palpable exhibition of their chicanery planting ethical seeds.
The comedy is on-point. Chaplin’s skill is well-documented and Normand is a marvellous co-conspirator, as she’s able to keep pace with his progressively physical activity. They showcase their unmistakable get-up-and-go when Dressler chases them around. Naturally, the Keystone Kops also get involved.
But this is Dressler’s show and she’s an extraordinary presence. The Ontario-born actress left home to pursue her dream and wound up starring in this unique bit of cinematic history. She’d go on to win an Oscar in 1931 for her part in Min and Bill, but her first break came thanks to fellow Canadian Sennett and his designs on crafting a full-blooded, full-length comedy. Now that’s something.