Today is the anniversary of the world premiere of the seminal all-star Mack Sennett comedy feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance, starring Marie Dressler, Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, and Mack Swain. Scattered throughout the rest of the cast is nearly everyone else then employed on the Sennett lot.
Dressler, a fellow Canadian, had been instrumental in getting Mack Sennett onto the stage at the beginning of his career. Now that he was a Hollywood mogul, Sennett saw it as the ultimate coup to star her in one of his films. T.P.R. is an adaptation of Dressler’s own Broadway stage hit of 1910-12, Tillie’s Nightmare. The story plays upon her image as an ugly duckling. Dressler plays a blushing milkmaid of 50 who is swept off her feet by a conniving con man and gigolo (Chaplin) who has fallen in love with the large pile of cash her father (Mack Swain) has saved up. Normand plays Chaplin’s comely confederate. The narrative is quite sturdy, marred only perhaps by Sennett’s penchant for directing all of his actors to hit each other or fall on the ground every five seconds.
Tillie was the first comedy feature to be released in America, and was a smash hit. In fact, Dressler went on to make several sequels for other studios, Tillie’s Tomato Surprise (1915, for Lubin) Tillie Wakes Up (1917, shot at Coney Island), and The Scrub Lady (1917, Goldwyn). Shortly afterward, she left the movies to concentrate on the stage again, returning a decade later to become one of the hugest movie stars (indeed at one point, the biggest box office draw) of the early talkie era.
As for Chaplin, believe it or not, this was the last he would appear in a film he did not script and direct himself. It’s still so early — just a few months into a screen career that was last another half-century! It’s also interesting to watch him play a character quite different from his usual screen persona. It would have been interesting to have seen a lot more of this from him. And as for Normand, she would begin starring in features herself in a few years, starting with 1918’s Mickey.
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.