Tillie's Punctured Romance
I'm currently reading a novel called Moviola, by Garson Kanin, notable screenwriter and playwright and husband of Ruth Gordon. It's an alternate history of Hollywood through the eyes of a fictitious studio producer. I'll have more to say about it after I'm done (it's over 400 pages, so it's huge), but the point for now is, it's valuable as a shorthand primer of classic American film. Naturally, the silent era is an important early section, and it's from here I was inspired to watch today's subject.
Tillie's Punctured Romance is an early Charlie Chaplin movie produced and directed by Mack Sennett. Early in his career, Ben, the main character of Moviola, worked for th eprolific comedy producer and was friends with Chaplin. In the book, we see Chaplin on the set of the film. The plot is... not easy to summarize. Basically, it's about a farm girl who runs away with a city slicker, unaware he and his actual girlfriend are out to fleece her. There's some stuff with a rich uncle, and because this is a Mack Sennett movie, there are Keystone Kops.
Chaplin is not yet the familiar tramp character he would later become world famous for playing. In fact, his character here is quite a cad. He two-times the women he's involved with, starts fights with strangers, he even treats kids with disdain - but it's all in the name of laughs.
Mabel Normand is his accomplice. I've talked about her before, and now, as before, I found her appealing. In Moviola, she and Fatty Arbuckle are friends and business partners with Ben. She's also credited, by the man himself, with giving Chaplin confidence in front of the screen in his early years. They're quite good together in Tillie.
The real star of the film, though, is Marie Dressler as Tillie. This was the first silent film I've seen her in, and oh my god, what a revelation it was. Tillie was based on a Broadway play she had starred in, so one would expect her to know the character, but at age 46 and tipping the scales at what had to be at least 200 pounds from the look of her, she could hardly seem credible as a farm "girl" at first blush... until you watch her in action.
Dressler was not an attractive-looking woman by any stretch, yet the physicality and vitality she brings to the role of Tillie is that of a woman half her age and size. Tillie is a fully-realized, three-dimensional woman. She's coquettish, flirtatious, temperamental, bossy, hysterical, and above all active throughout the movie. She rarely stays still. Lacking the means to speak to the audience, Dressler uses her entire body and face to communicate, and she is eloquent.
And you should see her dance! Dressler was no Ginger Rogers, but in Tillie, she's surprisingly light on her feet and radiates a spirit of pure, unself-conscious joy that is delightful to watch. The net result is Tillie, and Dressler by extension, acquire a kind of beauty uniquely her own. Mae West's beauty came from the way she carried herself, how she talked and especially how she walked. No one in Hollywood was like her. With Dressler, in this film at least, it's a similar idea, substituting laughs for sex appeal.
The version of Tillie I saw didn't have as many title cards as I would've expected. As a result, it was difficult at times to figure out what was going on. Beyond a certain point, though, it hardly seems to matter. Things get more and more zany and the principal characters keep up as best they can. In the end, despite the plot holes and leaps in logic, it's an enjoyable film all-around, exactly the kind of film I needed right now, as you can imagine.