Sunday, 17 November 2013

Charlie, Mabel and Marie… Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

…a century later, two children walk into the sitting room, glance at the TV and cry “Charlie!” Now they may live in an unusually “silent” household, but everybody still knows Chaplin and more people should know his co-stars: Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance is a film you have to watch at least three times in order to fully appreciate the extraordinary invention of the three leads. At times the three are riffing so quickly it’s genuinely difficult to know where to look… Charlie a non-stop falling-down machine, Mabel rolling those eyes and Marie bumping into everything whilst gazing out of screen to make sure you’re in on the joke.

This was the World’s first feature-length comedy, director Mack Sennett figuring that if his pal DW Griffith could make long-form drama he could do the same for laughs translating his winning short-form formulas to six reels. Structurally it doesn’t quite come off – there’s not enough “story” – but, it’s wonderful all the same: held aloft by Sennett’s surrealism and the dynamism of the players.

Marie Dressler is the nominal star, having featured in the stage play on which the film is based Tillie's Nightmare by A. Baldwin Sloane (music) and Edgar Smith (words), but this is really a triple-hander with the youngsters.

Marie Dressler
Dressler is a superb actress and I especially remember her droll performance in Dinner at Eight but I was surprised at her physicality: she has an almost Arbuckle-esque lightness which is all the more impressive for a 46 year old. She falls over taking rows of people with her, dances up a storm with Charlie and generally bops the tiny cockney all over the show.

She is also exceptionally expressive and uses this to great effect by constantly staring to camera, establishing eye-contact with the audience and signalling every intent with a wink, a grimace of malevolent gurn. It’s only at her opening and closing curtain calls that you realise how much she’s been acting; her self-effacing natural smile not being used a single time in the story.

Then there’s Mabs Normand… I really have some catching up to do with this woman who did so much to define the art of comic acting. With no theatrical background, she was one of the first actors to only know film and she appears completely at home within the frame pulling wild faces that are both realistic and controlled. As with Dressler she looks to the audience yet uses a “higher line”; caught more in her own thoughts, somehow vulnerable amidst the chaos she thrives on. She kept on reminding me of Stan Laurel but really it’s the other way round…

Normand’s comic naturalism is combined with her robustness and she falls down almost as readily as Chaplin – the two having an affinity nurtured during their Keystone shorts (they made a dozen): a great mix of improvisational styles… like Charlie Parker blowing with Ronnie Scott or Hendrix with McLaughlin… yet funnier.

The Stranger...
As for Charlie, he’s playing the baddie here having reverted from his tramp back to a more rakish persona but, whilst the moustache is different his moves are the same – he’s perpetual motion, falling, dusting himself down, hitting, kicking and never coming to rest.

Unlike the girls, Chaplin hardly glances at the camera, content to go about his business secure in the knowledge that he’s only a pratfall away from catching our eyes. He’s also surprisingly violent, engaging in a brawl with a fellow party guest which involves him repeatedly kicking the other man: I wonder if he ever used those moves down the Walworth Road?

The story, such as it is, revolves around Charlie’s attempts to separate Tillie from her fortune. Tillie is first seen in a small country shack with her father (Mack Swain), a stranger (Chaplin) arrives and attempts to woo her in order to steal what little money the family has.

Tillie runs away with the rogue and to the big city where-upon they encounter difficulty crossing the road… The pair are spotted by Charlie’s ex, Mabel, whose reactions on seeing the size of the competition are precious. The three proceed to a café where Tillie, quickly drunk on seemingly very little, loses her bearings and her cash. As the young couple head off to enjoy their windfall, Tillie is hauled off to a Keystone cell.

As luck – and plot demands – would have it, Tillie has a very rich uncle (Charles Bennett) who gets her released even though he wants nothing more to do with her and who can blame him in that dress and wearing that hat.

Tillie finds work in the café and I love the way this involves her picking up the gum-chewing attitudes of the waitresses…

Meanwhile Charlie and Mabel go the movies watching a Keystone comedy that mirrors their own crimes. The two wriggle with shame sat next to a stern looking sheriff (Charley Chase) in one of the film’s best sequences (not the first or last time Sennett used a film within a film).

Art mirrors life
Then the stakes are raised considerably as Uncle Banks takes a dive off Mount Baldy and things go into overdrive…You may not be surprised that in the end, there’s a chase and there are some cops.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance is effectively a series of short comedies strung together as the six separate “acts” confirm yet this doesn’t invalidate Sennett’s ambition nor the performance quality on show.

I watched the BFI’s stunning 2003 restoration which just highlights the impact such work can have on your appreciation of film form this era: it’s great to see the clear image and to watch those marvellous faces at work. Previously I’ve only seen Tillie through a glass darkly but here she’s almost brand new and spiced up with a spanking new score.

There's Tillie and much more Mabel on the four DVD set, Chaplin at Keystone which is available direct from the BFI or from decent online retailers like MoveMail.

Spot the Mabel competition!

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