Mack Sennett

Mack Sennett and Tillie’s Punctured Romance

The year was 1914.

isennem001p1Mack 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.

foto1It 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.

Marie Dressler - Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) CopsIt’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.

headerTillie’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.

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy.

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Buster Keaton makes his movie debut

First, some brief background. Buster Keaton began working in vaudeville before he was four years old in an act with his parents called The Three Keatons. It was notoriously rough and tumble. (The act was investigated numerous times by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, also known as the Gerry Society, which eventually got The Three Keatons banned for two years in New York City, according to Keaton’s autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick.)

So Keaton had well-honed slapstick skills long before he made the jump to movies.

In 1917, Keaton ended the family act and went to find work in New York City, where he met Roscoe Arbuckle, the already well-known Mack Sennett star. Arbuckle invited Keaton to work on his next film, which was Arbuckle’s first movie after parting ways with Sennett and joining up with the producer Joseph Schenck. Keaton took Arbuckle up on the offer and made 14 short films with him, not all of which survive.

I’ve watched the first three films, all two-reelers made in in New York City in 1917. Keaton’s debut is in The Butcher Boy, starring Arbuckle as a butcher in love with store owner’s daughter. Al St. John, Arbuckle’s real life nephew and regular co-star, is a rival.

buster_bboy_01bbbKeaton makes his entrance about seven minutes into the movie, back to the camera so the first glimpse an audience gets is not of his face but his famous pork-pie hat. (I still haven’t read when Keaton started wearing the hat or why and why it became his trademark.) Keaton plays a customer who decides to buy molasses. Arbuckle ends up pouring it into Buster’s hat, which then gets stuck to Keaton’s head. A flour fight ensues, including a bag thrown by Arbuckle at Keaton, who gets his feet knocked out from under him. Meanwhile, Arbuckle’s love interest gets sent to boarding school where Arbuckle, dressed in drag, goes to see her as does St. John, who plots to kidnap her. Buster gets involved, so does the store’s dog, Luke, and the headmistress shoots a gun at everyone. In the end, Arbuckle and Amanda sneak a peek at the camera and skip off to get married by the local justice of the peace.

Plots in Arbuckle movies seem to get recycled, but the next film is different and features an even more nonsensical story than The Butcher Boy. In The Rough House, it’s Keaton and St. John fighting over the girl, the cook in Arbuckle’s house. Keaton arrives as the bicycle-riding deliver boy, getting clotheslined by the, uh, clothes line. Once inside, he flirts with the cook, which incenses St. John and the pair fight throughout the house with Arbuckle becoming collateral damage. Two dukes arrive, the intertitle tells us, and sit down to a meal with the wife and mother-in-law of Arbuckle, who is now the cook. (Buster’s love object is banished when Arbuckle’s wife catches Arbuckle kissing the cook’s injured ankle.)  One duke sneaks into a bedroom and steals a necklace. A detective, who just happens to be hanging around the house, sees him and calls the police station.

Meanwhile, Buster and St. John have been taken into custody and inexplicably enlisted as cops. They and a third fellow get sent to the house, run into the dukes and save the day. But not before Keaton gets hung up on a fence like a scarecrow and Arbuckle runs around the house shooting off a gun.

His Wedding Night, their third film, mixes elements from the first two films. Arbuckle plays a soda jerk who wields his ice cream scoop in much the same way Arbuckle’s butcher handles his knives, and Keaton again is a delivery boy, who goes head over handlebars when he drives into the soda fountain’s bike rack. Arbuckle is in love with the daughter of the shop’s owner, the pharmacist, with a malevolent St. John longing for her, too. Keaton delivers her wedding dress and models it for her, resulting in St. John and his gang mistakenly kidnapping Keaton. He and St. John nearly marry at the justice of the peace until Arbuckle arrives, steals St. John’s gun, shoots up the place and grabs Keaton for his own. When Arbuckle unveils the bride and sees she’s Keaton, he pitches Buster into the next room.

More goes on in all the films and describing the best moments doesn’t do them justice. Arbuckle’s dexterity and grace as well as his dirty looks and smug mug have to be seen to be appreciated as does Keaton’s physical stunts, which at this point are his main purpose in the Arbuckle shorts. Keaton kicks high, throwing himself in the air, falling flat on his back. He also lands on his head and twirls on it in a momentary headstand.

hisweddingnight1And there are also clever, witty, unexpected moments, such as when Keaton comes into the soda fountain with something in his eye making him wink. Arbuckle misinterprets and serves him a beer on the sly. Keaton drinks it and his foot starts to twitch. Arbuckle notices, pulls out a bar rail from behind the soda fountain and puts it under Keaton’s foot. Next, he puts out a spittoon, which Buster spits into, and then scatters some sawdust around the floor. Brilliant.

The funniest, though, comes later in His Wedding Night. Keaton is upstairs trying on the wedding dress and Arbuckle is downstairs chloroforming women (just go watch it) and St. John is off stealing a buggy to come kidnap the pharmacist’s daughter. When the buggy pulls up outside the store, the second-story window can be seen in the upper, right-hand corner of the frame. The action is focused on the buggy and gang of kidnappers so it may take a viewer a couple viewings to notice Keaton, in the wedding dress, dancing with abandon in the upstairs window.

Next: Oh Doctor!, Coney Island and Out West.