(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the first-ever feature-length comedy, was based on Tillie’s Nightmare, a Broadway play starring Marie Dressler that opened in 1910 and was Broadway’s biggest hit to date. For his history-making feature, Romance director Mack Sennett persuaded Dressler to climb on board. Of course, once the movie got made, it more resembled the Keystone style than Broadway, and whose name do you think was emphasized over Dressler’s in the publicity?
In any case, you have to view the movie with an open mind anyway. For, Keystone or not, Ms. Dressler is not one given to subtlety. Her character is simple (and I do mean simple) country girl Tillie Hayes, who is swept off her feet by a city slicker (Chaplin, out of his usual costume and character) who finds that her father stores his money in their country home.
Once he absconds with the money, Charlie meets up with his former flame and partner-in-crime (Mabel Normand), and they go on a wild spending spree. In a strange plot strand midway through the movie, Charlie and Mabel attend a movie that happens to have exactly the same plot of thievery – country girl, rogue, sidekick – as they have just pulled off, and Charlie and Mabel get a huge pang of conscience. (Not so huge that they even consider returning the money to Tillie, though; this was just plot filler to drag the movie to feature length.)
Meanwhile, Tillie’s mountain-climbing uncle, who is also rich (Who’d-a thunk it?), takes a huge fall and is left for dead. The newspapers report that everyone is on the lookout for the man’s sole heir (guess who). Charlie gets wind of the news, instantly abandons Mabel, and rushes off to propose to Tillie quicker than you can say “Nice day for a white wedding.”
The movie’s finest moment of pantomime comes when the lawyers reach Tillie and give her the news. Tillie puts two and two together and accuses Charlie of marrying her for her newfound fortune. Charlie’s entire being puts on a display of hurt and sorrow that’s one for the books.
Charlie and Tillie give a big housewarming party at their new house (nee the uncle’s home), and once Mabel gets wind of the fortune-news, she signs on at the home as a maid. Then the uncle shows up, alive and well (How about those meticulous lawyers of his, eh?). From there, it’s mostly an arse-kicking revenge-fest, complete with the Keystone Kops for the climax.
At the end, Charlie is spurned by both women, who realize “He ain’t good enough for neither of us!” And the movie fades out with an intriguing shot of Mabel and Tillie in each other’s arms that ought to have been studied more closely for subtext than it probably was in 1914.
You have to make some ultra-large allowances to enjoy any of the comedy in Tillie’s Punctured Romance. Much of the stuff that got laughs here and in most Keystone comedies – e.g., violence for violence’s sake – was the kind of notion that Chaplin eventually transcended with rich characterization. And as directed by Mack Sennett, nobody, not even Chaplin, comes off very subtly here. Dressler is the worst, telegraphing her every thought and move as though she was pitching to a Broadway balcony. We could have had a little more sympathy for her character if Tillie’s temper had come only in short outbursts of emotion; instead, Dressler plays it over-the-top all the way.
Some of the movie’s motifs – Charlie’s slickness, his and Mabel’s guilt at the movie theater – would be funny if anything was built upon them, with a later pay-off. But Sennett had his formula – move, move, move – to be maintained at the expense of any logic. Thus, you wind up being more indulgent of Tillie’s Punctured Romance than giving yourself over to it – kind of like nodding your head when your senile uncle tries to tell you his latest joke.