American Movie: Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)

TilliePuncturedRomanceOnce the sheer novelty of motion pictures had given way to filmed narratives produced regularly for public exhibition, questions of genre became important. While some filmmakers were concerned with producing films for purely artistic or didactic reasons, the largest audience, then as now, could be found for movies that offered pure entertainment. And, of course, few genres are as purely entertaining as comedy. In America, the success and proliferation of movie comedy dates from 1912, with the foundation of the Keystone Comedy Studio by Mack Sennett. Dubbing himself the “King of Comedy,” Sennett enjoyed immense success during the next several years. His film production mill churned out hundreds upon hundreds of comedy shorts with the help of a stock group of typecast actors including the fantastically popular Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

The studio name remains best-known today for Sennett’s “Keystone Cops,” an ever-shifting group of incompetent policemen who starred in a number of shorts in addition to playing supporting roles. These characters exemplify Sennett’s violent, vulgar, almost anarchic brand of slapstick comedy. His movies are models of entropy run amok, degenerating from sense and order into chaos and incoherence. Sennett’s life followed a similar trajectory as he declined steadily from wealth and success as head of his own studio to the loss of his foothold in the movie business shortly after his studio folded in 1933, a casualty of the Great Depression. When Sennett received an honorary Academy Award for “his lasting contribution to the comedy technique of the screen” five years later, he was already well on his way into personal semi-obscurity (despite the lasting fame of his name and contributions to the industry).

In the early ‘teens, however, Sennett was still at the top of his game. His comedies are exaggerated portraits of the everyday life of the time, riffing on contemporary American values, fears, occupations, and past-times with ease and fluidity. Of course, short one-reel films were the natural medium for Sennett’s fast-moving multitude of comic ideas and players, as for all other American comedy of the time. However, in 1914, as the idea of feature-length multi-reel films continued to make headway among American moviemakers, Sennett displayed his ever-present willingness to experiment with the production of the first ever full-length comedy: Tillie’s Punctured Romance.

The film starred 46-year old vaudeville comedienne Marie Dressler as the title character, a naive country girl who is seduced by a slick city con-man, played by 24-year old newcomer Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was on his second tour of America in late 1913 when he was spotted by Sennett and Mabel Normand (one of Sennett’s stars, and his lover at the time). Based on Normand’s recommendation, Chaplin was hired, and Normand is believed to have persuaded Sennett to keep Chaplin on after his first appearance proved less than successful. Normand is the third star of Tillie’s Punctured Romance, playing Chaplin’s con-artist girlfriend.

After Charlie has lured Tillie away from Yokeltown to the big city, Mabel spots him and believes that he is cheating on her. The two women quarrel, but eventually Charlie has a chance to explain himself to Mabel. Now working together, they manage to get Tillie drunk and abscond with the pocketbook containing a large amount of money which Charlie had persuaded her to steal from her father. Shortly thereafter, Tillie is arrested for her disorderly behavior, but she is bailed out by a very convenient millionaire uncle and gets a job waiting tables at a small restaurant. Various hijinks ensue until the rich uncle dies in a freak mountain-climbing accident in the Alps, leaving her all of his money.

Catching wind of Tillie’s good fortune before she does, Charlie rushes back to her side and quickly marries her before word of the inheritance can reach her. However, after a number of misadventures in high society, it is revealed that rumors of the uncle’s death had been greatly exaggerated and he returns to have them arrested for destroying his house. A wild chase ensues involving the famous Keystone Cops which ends with a lot of people going off the end of a pier, and the film concludes as Tillie and Mabel realize that Charlie is no good and decide to become friends instead.

Throughout Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Sennett and his cast poke fun at contemporary anxieties while subtly reinforcing them, particularly tensions over growing urbanization. The attitude is best illustrated by a title card that announces, “From the pure breath of the open spaces to the fetid atmosphere of the wicked city is but a step—but what a step!” However, Sennett’s comical critique of city life is apparent throughout the film, not by way of contrast with the country (which is not particularly idyllic), but by virtue of the situations which the characters encounter. The city is a place of danger, dehumanization, and decadence.

When she first arrives, Tillie encounters the usual difficulties involved in crossing a busy street. She is, of course, plied with alcohol and subsequently arrested while the real criminals are left to roam free. Once she has been released (thanks to the financial influence of her uncle), she is forced to take the first job she can find; a position that eventually finds her serving the very people who imposed this hardship on her.

None of this is particularly grim, of course. Everything is played for laughs, and the characters are meant to amuse rather than evoke sympathy. They are never seen to feel sorry for themselves, and nothing too bad can happen, so it is acceptable for them to be the brunt of the joke. In fact, one might successfully argue that Sennett’s intention was to lampoon rural fears and prejudices towards life in the big city. The criminals are as bumbling as the police officers, and Tillie always manages to land on her feet.

The best, funniest, and most interesting scene in the film arrives about halfway through, when Charlie and Mabel, having just purchased new clothes with their stolen money, decide to go the movies. They slide in next to a severe looking gentleman, and are horrified to discover that the first short is a morality play called “A Thief’s Fate.” This movie within the movie plays out a condensed version of the exact crime they have just committed, ending with the arrest of the con man and his girlfriend. Just as the short ends, Mabel happens to notice that the man sitting next to them is wearing a badge, and the pair flee the theater in terror.

The scene offers a hilarious metanarrative commentary on film as art imitating life. Additionally, by inserting a scene in a movie theater into a story about the foibles of the everyday world, Sennett shows that the new medium of cinema has already become a part of the current American scene. Here, film art (even of the lowbrow comic variety) is both legitimate and relevant to the modern experience. Comedy as a film genre, though frequently devalued for its lack of seriousness, can be the most informative about contemporary attitudes and activities because it is designed to appeal to the ordinary mass and they must be able to relate to it in some way. The value of this perspective is apparent throughout Tillie’s Punctured Romance.

~ by Jared on June 1, 2009.

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