by Jay Seaver
SCREENED WITH LIVE MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT: Fame is fleeting. When this film was first released, it had what was considered an all-star cast, and the title cards were all labeled "Marie Dressler in Tillie's Punctured Romance". Now, even many avid movie lovers would be hard pressed to identify any of those cast members other than Charlie Chaplin. Of course, this film was released in 1914, so maybe fame isn't THAT fleeting. It's well worth a look, both for its place in history - it's both the last time Chaplin would be directed by someone other than himself and the first feature-length comedy - and as a solid slapstick comedy in its own right.And let me underline, italicize, and boldface that: This movie is a slapstick comedy. Roughly eighty percent of the movie involves people getting knocked around, falling down, and running into things, or so it seems. All this slapstick is performed by some of the silent era's greatest physical comedians - Dressler, Chaplin, and Keystone star Mabel Normand - but if that brand of comedy isn't your thing, this movie probably won't change your opinion. Truth be told, even fans might be somewhat daunted by the prospect of eighty minutes' worth, but this isn't the torture of watching a Three Stooges feature; the gags are at least mixed up a little.
"The first comedy feature. Not the best, but a strong effort regardless."
And there is, in fact, a story. A con man from the city (Chaplin) blunders into the Banks farm, and wants nothing more than to get away from the run-down place and plain, overweight daughter Tillie (Dressler) until he sees the huge wad of money Farmer Banks is hiding. Then it's, hey, why don't you run away with me to the city? Just grab your father's money. As soon as they reach the city, though, he and his old girlfriend (Normand) hook up, abscond with the cash, and leave her to get thrown in jail for being drunk & disorderly. Unbeknownst to them at the time, she's the niece of a local millionaire, who's about to have a nasty mountain-climbing accident.
Part of the reason why a movie so based upon slapstick can work is that it offers up characters where the audience really doesn't mind if they get dumped on. Chaplin, in contrast to his best-known role, the lovable Little Tramp, is all oily smarm; he couldn't be more disreputable with a neon sign saying "do not trust this man" floating overhead. Normand is pretty but self-centered, with little more than a rudimentary conscience, easily suppressed. And Dressler's Tillie, though almost uniformly the victim of the story's events (she's treated as badly by her uncle as she is by Chaplin's crook), is such an obnoxious lummox that, while the audience might not exactly feel she deserves what's coming, they likely won't be above laughing at her misfortune.
The three main actors deliver different types of silent performances. Mabel Normand was possibly Keystone's biggest draw at the time, and gives the movie star performance - lots of rolled eyes, significant looks, and broad facial expressions. Chaplin's specialty is the rapid change of mood and smooth physical work: His comedy doesn't have the impressive, carefully choreographed intricacy of Buster Keaton, but he sells each individual move well, and makes simple things like changing directions on the run funny. Dressler is making her film debut - she originated the role on Broadway - and she is still obviously a stage actress, still playing to the balconies despite the fact that her new medium has close-ups.
Director Mack Sennett was a Keystone workhorse, directing dozens of single-reel comedies a year during the 1910s, and here was faced with the daunting challenge of adapting a hit Broadway musical to film - a medium change which is difficult now, and was doubly so back in the teens, when producing a six-reel movie was a massive undertaking and "talkies" were still in the future, meaning he had to work without dialog or musical numbers. For the latter, he substitutes location shooting and large slapstick set-pieces; where the stage production ended on a hit song for Dressler, the film's final reel delivers a Keystone Kops sequence, including pie fight. The dialog is largely replaced with the characters using broad facial expressions to express the gist of what they're saying, though Dressler frequently seems to be giving her stage performance, especially early on - she'll just be talking up a storm, but the audience can't hear her and there are no intertitles to give context to what she's saying.
The presentation at the MFA was, for the most part, quite good. The print screened ran approximately eighty-two minutes, about ten minutes longer than the currently-available DVD. The print looked, for the most part, to be in good shape, although it appeared to be cobbled together from multiple sources. Some portions of the movie seemed rather dark and beat-up; I wouldn't be surprised if these originated from a recently discovered and poorly-preserved source. The disparity in quality is distracting, but fortunately, the poor-looking moments are seldom critical ones. Musical accompaniment was provided by "Tillie's Nightmare" (a name taken from the original play), a five piece group made up of Ken Winokur (The Alloy Orchestra, percussion), Billy Novick (New Black Eagle Jazz Band, clarinet and alto sax), Robin Verdier (Paramount Jazz Band, piano), John Kusiak (a composer, here playing banjo and guitar), and Scott Getchell (Lars Vegas, cornet). Their score is bouncy and upbeat, an enjoyable pastiche of the period.Despite the uneven quality of the film source, I hope this restoration and score appears on DVD. It's an important part of film and Hollywood history, and generates its share of honest laughs.
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originally posted: 05/22/05 13:31:52