By Christian Gay
Viewed by today’s audiences, Mack Sennett’s 1914 film Tillie’s Punctured Romance might appear to be a broad slapstick comedy that relies on fat jokes, drunken caricatures and butt-kicking for laughs –unremarkable, save for the fact that it was the first feature-length film comedy ever released. Contemporary viewers might also recognize silent film megastar Charlie Chaplin (here billed as “Charles”) and Sennett’s silent comedy mainstays, “the Keystone Kops.” But why revive and screen the film, especially as part of a series entitled “The Women Who Built Hollywood?”
Chaplin certainly pulls focus throughout the picture – despite being somewhat shackled by the writing and directing of others (this would be his last appearance in another artist’s film), there are shades of his “Tramp” persona here, as his character dons an oversized suit and undersized hat, walks with a cane and steals a few of the party and restaurant scenes with physical gags and pratfalls. It’s hard to say if Chaplin draws the modern viewer’s eye merely by the merit of his performance or if we have been trained to study his antics closely by his countless other, more inspired cinematic performances. Missing here is Chaplin’s trademark charm and altruism – we do not identify or empathize with his grifter gigolo as he bounces from his partner-in-crime Mabel Normand to Marie Dressler’s Tillie Banks with little to no regard for their feelings. The archetype has been played innumerable times since, often funnier (e.g. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) or with more charm and pathos (e.g. Shadow of a Doubt, The Grifters). Looking beyond Chaplin’s performance, though, the film is notable for two other reasons: the roles played, both onscreen and off, by its female stars.
Broadway star Marie Dressler had top billing as the film’s oh-so-titular country girl Tillie Banks, whose dreams of romance are repeatedly punctured by the exploits of a stranger who happens upon her farm. Dressler had starred in the original stage version, titled Tillie’s Nightmare, and gets most of the screen time. At five-foot-seven, Dressler is not an extraordinarily tall woman, but the costumes designed for her and her five-foot-five paramour seem aimed at exaggerating their physical differences to comic effect. While Chaplin wades in oversize suits, Dressler’s size is emphasized in tall, gaudy hats and shapeless floor-length white drapery, bound with horizontal dark ribbon. One key outfit has a horizontal and vertical ribbon tied with a bow in the back, adding needless volume and giving her the appearance of a walking gift box from the rear. The title cards in the film liken Tillie to “one of Ringling’s elephants” and “a battleship” – the film’s comedy apparently coming from the attempts of such a large woman in ridiculous outfits to master avant-garde dance moves, or work as a demure waitress in a busy restaurant.
I must say, I was awestruck by Dressler’s resemblance to another comic foil to Chaplin, actor Eric Campbell. Adding to my confusion was the pancake face makeup and dark eye shadowing of both, used in films at the time to emphasize eye movement and expression. I was, for a time, convinced that Dressler was Campbell in drag, or vice-versa. In fact, both are distinct, accomplished stage and screen actors who worked with Chaplin and became known as overbearing bully-types in slapstick comedies of the era. Following Tillie’s Punctured Romance, her screen debut, Dressler went on to star in several more silent comedies as Tillie – becoming a popular screen actress despite defying the standards of Hollywood beauty and femininity, both then and now.
Mabel Normand was already a well-known silent film star when she played the role of Chaplin’s partner in Tillie’s Punctured Romance. Working with D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios, she met Mack Sennett and went on to collaborate with him on many films during her time at Keystone Studios. For a time, Normand worked alternately with both powerhouse directors. Sennett and Normand had an ongoing personal and professional relationship that resulted in a string of popular short comedies, and many credit Normand’s influence with Sennett for fostering Chaplin into the film star he became while at Keystone. Normand and Chaplin worked together often, and, like Dressler’s Tillie, Normand’s Mabel had the title role in a series of successful Keystone shorts.
Normand’s performance invigorates what, for me, is the film’s key scene, in which she and Chaplin take their misbegotten earnings into a screening of “A Thief’s Fate.” In a scene that would make Shakespeare proud, the couple watches as the film being screened mirrors their own situation exactly. As the central couple in the film-within-a-film is caught by police, we see Normand becoming more and more uneasy in her seat. Complicating matters is the fact that she is seated between her accomplice Chaplin and an off-duty police officer. Normand looks from the screen to the officer, squirming to comic effect, until she finally rushes Chaplin out of the theatre and onto the street. The scene still holds up as solid comedy, and it is clear from Normand’s face and behavior that she is having a change of heart about her role in robbing Tillie. She gives her character emotion in a film otherwise devoid of it.
Throughout the film, Dressler’s and Normand’s characters are beholden to the whims of Chaplin’s. One of the film’s intertitles explains: “curse the beauty that holds women slaves to such men.” Is this suggesting that it’s Chaplin’s (questionable) beauty that keeps the two in his thrall? Chaplin abandons each of them in turn, then goes back to them, and rather than calling his motives into question, the women violently attack each other. However, in the film’s dramatic climax, Tillie finally comes to her senses, giving Chaplin back her wedding band. Chaplin offers it to Normand, who takes a stand, refusing to again victimize and abandon poor Tillie. Chaplin and the other men exit the scene and, in an empowering and somewhat queer ending, the women share an embrace and a kiss. “He ain’t no good to neither of us!” a title card announces, and the curtain closes on the film.