The year was 1914.
Mack Sennett had been making movies for six years, first for the Biograph Co. where he worked with D.W. Griffith and then for a movie production company he helped create which would make him famous, the Keystone Film Co.
Sennett hailed from Canada, born Michael Sinnott on Jan. 17, 1880 in Richmond, Quebec. As a teenager, he and his family moved to Berlin, Conn., then to North Hampton, Mass., where their lawyer, Calvin Coolidge, introduced Mack to actress and fellow Canadian Marie Dressler, who in turn introduced him to famed theater producer David Belasco. (Or so the legend goes.) Sennett started in burlesque, moved on to Broadway, even did some work as a model. In 1908, he joined Biograph, where he acted under the direction of Griffith in such films as The Curtain Pole, a 13-minute slapstick-like comedy, and directed films, many starring Mabel Normand, with whom he had a long, tumultuous off-screen affair.
Then in 1912, Sennett left Biograph and formed Keystone as a unit of New York Motion Pictures Co., a production company established by former racetrack bookies Adam Kessel and Charles O. Baumann. The pair were already producing westerns, dramas and Civil War films distributed through Mutual Film Corp., but wanted comedy shorts to please the theater operators. Sennett signed a deal to produce a single one-reel, 10-12 minute film per week but was soon cranking out many more to meet demand.
The early Keystone films, which famously combined farce with gags, stunts and chases, were all shorts, as were all comedies of the day. Feature-length dramas were being made all over the world and Sennett wanted to be the first to do the same for comedies.
So in 1914, Sennett spent much of the year making Tillie’s Punctured Romance, a six-reeler that runs about 82 minutes, considered the first feature-length comedy film ever made.
It stars Dressler, making her film debut at age 46 as Tillie Banks, and is loosely based on Tillie’s Nightmare, the actress’ hugely successful stage play. Playing primary roles, too, are Charlie Chaplin, whom Sennett had seen during a U.S. tour of Fred Karno’s English music hall troupe and then signed for Keystone, and Keystone regular Normand. The movie also features Mack Swain, Chester Conklin, Charles Bennett, Minta Durfee (a.k.a. Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle), and the legendary Keystone Cops, including Nick Cogley, Billy Gilbert, William Hauber, Grover Ligon, Hank Mann and Al St. John.
The story involves Chaplin’s nameless character trying to scam awkward, clumsy Tillie into marrying him because her father, played by Mack Swain, has money. Tillie and Chaplin run off together after stealing the father’s loot and run into Normand, Chaplin’s accomplice. Chaplin takes Tillie out for her first drink, which she spits in his face, and while Tillie gets drunk and dances, Chaplin and Normand abscond with her money.
Tillie ends up in jail when she can’t pay the restaurant bill and we find out she has a millionaire uncle who lives in lavishly-decorated mansion attended to by ridiculously-attired servants. The police – a few Keystone Cops, of course – deliver her to the mansion but the uncle throws her out. She wanders the streets and eventually finds a job as a waitress while her uncle leaves to hike the mountains.
Meanwhile, in a fun few minutes, Chaplin and Normand go to the movies — a Keystone movie, according to the poster outside and the screen credits inside. The film tells the tale of a thief who gets caught, which unnerves Normand, who annoys everyone around her by narrating the story to Chaplin.
The hiking uncle falls off the mountain, is left for dead and we discover Tillie is his sole heir. Chaplin finds out, ditches Normand on a park bench and races to the restaurant to beg for the heiress’ hand in marriage. They wed, take over the mansion and throw a huge bash. By then, Normand has learned the score and talks her way into a job at the party. When Tillie finds Chaplin and Normand kissing in an alcove, all hell breaks loose.
It’s only then, in the final 10 to 15 minutes of the film, when Tillie’s Punctured Romance becomes a typical slapstick, Keystone comedy replete with food throwing, gun shooting, mass prat falls and a police chase that ends with Tillie and the cop car in the ocean, Chaplin rejected and Tillie and Normand in an inexplicable embrace.
Before that there’s plenty of butt kicking, bumping and wiggling, but the gags are surprisingly few, giving some air for a real narrative. I found only a few moments laugh-out-loud funny – when Dressler spits her drink in Chaplin’s face, when Normand gets increasingly rattled watching the Keystone movie, when Chaplin tussles with one of many tiger rugs at the mansion. Dressler wears ghoulish eye makeup and her humor is basic — she has a flirty face and worried face, the difference indicated only by the direction of her mouth. To be honest, she reminded me of Roscoe Arbuckle, which is not entirely an insult. The running gag that sustains much of the movie’s humor is her size: she’s taller and broader than Chaplin and when Tillie is drunk or unruly, four or five waiters or cops or mansion servants are needed to subdue her. But audiences obviously loved her. She had a thriving stage career and made two Tillie film sequels.
Chaplin looks sort of tramp-like. He wears baggy pants, a cane, and walks with extreme turnout, but his character is nothing like the tender-hearted tramp. He has such sublime physicality, though, that I find him the most naturally funny. He and Normand’s expressive face. Like Buster Keaton said, a comedian does funny things, a good comedian does things funny.
In the end, Tillie’s Punctured Romance became a headache for Sennett. Theaters were reluctant initially to book the film due to its length and Dressler later sued Keystone over her share in the profits. The movie did make money, though, encouraging Sennett to make more feature length films. But Keystone’s shorts remained the company’s bread and butter.
Tillie’s Punctured Romance wasn’t the peak of Sennett’s career, which continued well into the 1930s. He made many more movies, 1,000 overall by some estimates. He worked for other companies, including Paramount, Pathé and Educational, where in 1935, towards the end of his career, he finally worked with Keaton. He discovered, mentored or worked with a roster of legends including Griffith, Normand, Chaplin, Keaton, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Frank Capra, Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields. And he had his highs and lows: in 1933, he filed for bankruptcy and in 1938 he received an honorary Oscar. Eventually he became a U.S. citizen.
But Tillie’s Punctured Romance was a first in film comedy history and a highlight in the career of Canadian Mack Sennett, one of Hollywood’s most influential artists.