Back in 1914 Tillie’s Punctured Romance became the first ever feature-length comedy, and by all accounts it was a big success. Star Marie Dressler – who later won an Academy Award for her performance in Min and Bill – was already a well-known stage actress, and Tillie was a character she’d portrayed regularly in the Broadway hit Tillie’s Nightmare, on which this story is based. Director Mack Sennett met Dressler and persuaded her to give silent comedy a go, and it seems like the transition went smoothly: she certainly exhibits fine comic timing here, and her grasp of slapstick is just as strong as that of her illustrious co-star, Charlie Chaplin. The Tillie character is presented as a simple, naive country girl, and she’s taken for a ride by Chaplin’s city slicker, a womanising toerag who is after Tillie’s father’s savings and, later, a substantial inheritance. It builds slowly as Tillie moves to the city, gets dumped, gets drunk, gets arrested and then subsequently forges her own career as a waitress – this is the slapstick Mildred Pierce, up to a point – while it ends with a chaotic shoot-out and lots of people falling over and bumping into one another on a pier (and so on and so forth); this finale features The Keystone Cops quite heavily, and it’s one of only two films they appeared in with Chaplin, the other being Making A Living. I’ve loved watching them ever since I was a kid, even though it’s the same schtick every single time. Silent comedy fans will also spot the inclusion of Chester Conklin, too, here playing a character named Mr. Whoozis.
It will test the patience of anyone whose tolerance for watching people slip and land on their backsides is minimal. If you’d have asked me an hour ago whether I could watch Charlie Chaplin falling over all day long, I’d probably have said ‘yes’; having watched the final act of Tillie’s Punctured Romance, however, I think there is definitely a finite appeal to such comic tomfoolery, especially when it’s not just Chaplin landing on his arse but every member of the Keystone Cops and every second extra in the background too. Still, even though he’s not playing his famous tramp character, Chaplin’s movement and range of facial expressions remain a joy to watch for the most part, and Dressler is a hoot, clumsily knocking others over, stepping on people’s feet and walking into doors and the like. It was actually the last film Chaplin made before deciding he was only going to appear in films where he was also the writer and director, and studio Keystone made the most of his involvement, listing him at the top of the credits and giving him top billing on the poster. However it’s really Dressler’s film, and she’s someone I’m keen to see more of; unfortunately I couldn’t find a banner-sized picture featuring her that was big enough for this site, which is why Charlie’s up there instead.
Directed by: Mack Sennett.
Written by: Hampton Del Ruth, Craig Hutchinson, Mack Sennett.
Starring: Marie Dressler, Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Chester Conklin.
Cinematography: Hans F. Koenekamp, Frank D. Williams.
Music: Edward Kilenyi (score added in 1938).
Running Time: 82 minutes.