By Phil Hall | October 2, 2009

BOOTLEG FILES 303: “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”(1914 film that holds the distinction of being the first feature-length comedy).

LAST SEEN: All over the Internet.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: From plenty of public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The copyright evaporated a long time ago.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope, it is in public domain hell forever.

In the beginning, there was “Tillie’s Puncture Romance.” This 1914 production has the distinction of being the very first feature-length comedy film. However, the film has never truly been celebrated as a motion picture classic “and when you see it, you will understand why.

In the early part of the 1910s, U.S. filmmakers became restless by the limitations of the one-reel and two-reel lengths that dominated film production. European imports including the French-made “Queen Elizabeth”starring Sarah Bernhardt and the Italian epic “Quo Vadis?”showed the potential for making longer films. But the early feature-length films were seen as prestige dramas “the notion of making a feature-length comedy seemed utterly absurd.

Enter Mack Sennett, whose Keystone Studios specialized in the utterly absurd. Sennett saw the gamble of a feature-length comedy film as a risk worth taking. Rather than create an original work, Sennett opted to adapt a well-known stage comedy for the screen. In this case, he purchased the rights to “Tillie’s Nightmare”and hired its star to recreate the leading role: the 55-year-old Canadian-born comedy actress Marie Dressler.

Despite being new to movies, Dressler made very strong demands of Sennett: an unprecedented $2,500-a-week contract and the right to choose her leading man. Dressler cancelled Sennett’s plan to cast his major male star, Roscoe “Fatty”Arbuckle, in the film because her character’s bulky weight was the focus of much of the humor “to Dressler, having two fat people in the same film wasn’t funny. Instead, Dressler approved Sennett’s second choice, an up-and-coming British comic named Charlie Chaplin.

However, the transfer from stage to screen resulted in a dramatic change in “Tillie’s Nightmare,”which was renamed “Tillie’s Punctured Romance.”Since the film medium was still silent, all of the show’s dialogue and songs were removed. Broad physical comedy “a staple of the Sennett films “was used in heavy, careless doses. And the Keystone Kops, the trademark of the Sennett chases, were written into the script for a wild, raucous finale.

The result, when viewed by contemporary standards, is a comedy film that is conspicuously absent of joy or fun. Indeed, “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”is one of the unfunniest comedies ever made.

“Tillie’s Punctured Romance”opens in Yokeltown, where the oversized, rambunctious Tillie (Dressler) lives with her father (Mack Swain) and their dog. A city slicker dude (Chaplin “eschewing his Tramp persona in favor of well-tailored clothing and a dapper pencil mustache) is wandering through Yokeltown. Tillie is playing fetch with her dog, throwing a brick and having the dog retrieve it. Obviously, real people don’t ask their dogs to fetch bricks “but in the Sennett universe, what better way can a country girl attract a city dude than by throwing a brick at his head?

The city slicker discovers that Tillie’s father has a thick wad of cash hidden in a kitchen pot. He professes a sudden desire to run off and elope with Tillie “and to manage her father’s cash. The two leave for the big city, where the man hooks up with a shady girlfriend (Mabel Normand). Together, they scheme to get Tillie drunk in a restaurant and arrested for disorderly conduct. The nasty duo make off with Tillie’s father’s cash, buying new clothing and taking in a film with their ill-gotten funds.

Alas, the film they pay to see is a morality tale that points out the evils of stealing. Remorseful, they seek out Tillie, who is forced to work as a cleaning lady in the restaurant where she was intoxicated. However, good fortune abruptly blows in when word comes that Tillie’s wealthy uncle died and left her his fortune.

Tillie is happily established in her uncle’s mansion and her once-unfaithful suitor is now her faithful lover. However, the dude’s girlfriend is on the mansion’s payroll as the maid “and when Tillie discovers this, there is hell to pay. Even worse: her uncle isn’t dead and he arrives to find that Tillie has made a shambles of his mansion. A 911 call is made and the Keystone Kops are in pursuit of a gun-toting Tillie, who is in pursuit of the man who did her wrong.

Much of the problem in viewing “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”is the primitive (almost feral) brand of slapstick comedy. Besides the aforementioned brick-throwing, the film is packed with kicks in the backside, smacks in the face, biting, and people falling all over each other. Tillie’s bulk is the focus of much of the intertitle jokes, with the woman being compared to a battleship and a circus elephant. And the big chase finale with the Keystone Kops driving motorcycles off a pier is so poorly edited that all of the commotion seems tired and feeble.

Dressler plays Tillie as a broad, arm-swinging, jumping maniac. Dressed and coiffed to be as hideous as possible, she literally elbows and hip-bumps her way to the center of the scene. Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton observes that “had she been able to, she would have climbed right through the lens and given each and every movie patron a hearty slap on the back.”

For his part, Chaplin seems lost. He retains some of his Tramp personality “the flatfooted walk in oversized shoes, the bamboo cane that is used a versatile prop “but most of his time is spent reacting to Dressler’s simian overacting. Their big scenes “a prolonged attempt to cross a busy avenue and a wild dance at Tillie’s temporary mansion “find Chaplin overwhelmed by Dressler’s overacting.

If there is a surprise here, it is Mabel Normand’s sophisticated and deeply subtle performance. Normand does more with a casual glance and a light smirk than Dressler does in her wacky emoting. She is the only genuinely funny presence here, achieving more by underplaying her role.

Since “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”was the first feature-length comedy, it scored a significant commercial success “after all, there was no competition! Oddly, Sennett never tried to duplicate this hit, and he focused on two-reeler comedies for the remainder of his career. “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”was re-released as Chaplin’s popularity grew in the 1920s, and it was still turning up in the 1930s when Dressler was able to score her own film stardom by toning down her antics and crafting a genuinely intelligent screen persona. Today, the film is a public domain title, and it can be found on numerous web sites and bargain basement DVD labels.

It is a shame that the first feature-length comedy is such a dud. But as with any experiment, at least the genre got better as time went on.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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