Tillie Two

TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, continued.

Marie Dressler wrote in her memoirs that she chose then then-unknown Chaplin and Mabel Normand as her co-stars in her first feature film, a colossal porky pie! To many moviegoers, it was Dressler herself who was the unknown, though Mack Sennett was following a then-popular approach of casting “famous players in famous plays,” taking the preeminent comedienne of the New York stage and bundling her in a movie adapted from Tillie’s Nightmare, her most recent triumph. All this I glean from David Robinson’s magisterial Chaplin biography, acquired for a song on a recent trip to St Columba’s Bookshop, Stockbridge, pre-lockdown.

Robinson also notes that the feature-length comedy was three times longer than any comedy hitherto attempted on the screen, Mack Sennett was a gentleman of nerve.

As reel three begins, Tillie (Dressler) is delivered into the custody of her rich uncle (co-director Charles “Oh Mister Kane” Bennett) by a patient kop. The uncle has a palatial home with stone lions, liveried footmen, tiger skin rugs and suits of armour. Tillie, still tight, unsheathes a broadsword and playfully jabs the help, stoic in their periwigs, then dances a highland fling over the blade and its scabbard, the movie’s first bit of Scottish content, if you don’t count the drunk and disorderly rambunctiousness.

Tillie’s monocled uncle (her monuncle?) orders three footmen to subdue and eject his riotous niece: a chase and struggle ensue, but it’s not a full-on Keystone setpiece. Fairly muted rambunctiousness.

“Guilty creatures sitting at a play” — Charlie and Mabel go to a movie and their crime is brought home to them by the cinematograph. The film, according to the stand outside, is DOUBLE-CROSSED, but the title which appears superimposed, weaving about on the screen within, is A THIEF’S FATE: a Keystone release, seemingly fictional. The female star, interestingly, is Enid Markey, the original Jane in TARZAN OF THE APES, still four years in the future at this point. Which means that Chaplin “appeared with”, in the loosest sense, both the first Tarzan (little Gordon Griffith, who played the ape man as a lad and also appears as a newsboy in TPR) and the first Jane. Colour me Cheeta!

The other cast members in the film within a film include Morgan Wallace, who went on to work for Griffith and played James Fitchmueller in IT’S A GIFT (and WC Fields would appear in a remake of TPR; Minta Durfee (AKA Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle); and Charles Murray, who had recently played Charlie’s director in THE MASQUERADER.

Chaplin’s repulsed reactions to the movie — Mabel immediately sees it as the story of their lives — put me strongly in mind of the late, great Rik Mayall. The sickly grin of acute discomfort! Seated next to Mabel and overacting furiously is the young but makeup-aged Charley Chase, barely recognizable, who I guess would have been billed as Charles Parrott if he were billed at all.

When the bad guys in the movie are arrested, Chaplin’s reactions in the audience are amazing: he’s half-inwardly protesting, very feebly, at the screen, really living it. TPR doesn’t have any good gags or situations but it does have a lot of spirited and imaginative playing.

Tillie gets a job as a waitress. Stumbling, Dressler turns to the camera and mouths “DAMN!” very clearly. No particular lip-reading skill is required. I wonder if offence was caused. One minute later she does it again. Did Keystone have a swear-box?

The movie keeps cutting to Tillie’s uncle’s mountain holiday, which seems like scenic padding. It’s unlikely to have been in the play. I presume he’s going to break a leg or something.

Sennett originally wanted an original story but nobody at Keystone could come up with a feature script idea (they’re hard to do) and with Dressler on salary at vast expense ($2,500 a week still seems a lot to me NOW) he opted to film her stage success under a different title for whatever reason.

Tillie is having the same kind of swing-door trouble Charlie always has, and would still be having as a waiter in MODERN TIMES twenty-two years later. Then Mabel and Charlie come to dine in her restaurant…

Suspense while projectionist fumbles with reels.

I like the fact that the original show’s librettist, Edgar Smith, wrote a show called Whoop-Dee-Doo. Maybe it suffers from the fact that that phrase is now only ever used, if it’s used at all, in a scathingly ironic way. But it sounds fabulously fatuous. I’d like to see it revived. I wouldn’t go and see it, but you could go and tell me what you think…

PART 4

Chaos ensues. Tillie faints, theatrically, upon seeing Charlie, and he tramples her prone form in his haste to flee the scene with Mabel. Tillie recovers and gives chase. Kops are called. Charlie & Mabel’s earlier cinematograph nightmare is being visited upon them in reality. They take shelter in — where else? — a park.

Charles Bennett, the film’s co-director, Tillie’s rich uncle, and the bloke who sings the song in CITIZEN KANE, falls off a mountain. I’ll bet you five he’s not alive…

“Oh no, I’ve accidentally fallen off a mountain!”

Two strenuous hams report/receive the news, then phone butler Edgar Kennedy who underplays his reaction about as much as you’d expect. A vigorous mime of the millionaire’s tumbling demise is performed. Kennedy isn’t bald yet so he doesn’t slap his pate in dismay, but he does just about everything else.

Tillie is going to inherit everything, which is just as well because waitressing really isn’t working out for her.

In the park, Charlie is accosted by a little newsboy — Milton Berle always claimed this was him, but it’s not, it’s young Tarzan, Gordon Griffith. I can’t imagine that Milty was this cherubic as a child. Nor could he swing through the trees on convenient lianas, I bet. Mind you, from the way Charlie smacks the little bastard, I almost wish it had been Berle. I wonder if this moment inspired noted Chaplin fan Roman Polanski’s child-slapping park scene in THE TENANT, which is otherwise a very odd moment if it’s not a homage to something. But then, that’s an odd film.

(Sidebar: Chaplin in THE GOLD RUSH is cited in REPULSION by Helen Fraser to cheer up Catherine Denueve; Walter Matthau and Cris Campion are compelled to eat a rat in PIRATES, a skit derived closely from the shoe-eating incident also in THE GOLD RUSH. I think there are more tributes than that, and Polanski’s wordless shorts certainly owe something to Chaplin too.)

Learning of Tillie’s inheritance before she does, Charlie ditches Mabel and skids up to Tillie’s place of employment — the Tramp one-footed skid has been carried over to this unrelated character because it’s a good bit of business. He barges in, out of breath — a good excuse for pantomime. Tillie isn’t in sight, so he describes her, waving his arms in a broad square shape. Basically, “I’m looking for a woman the size of a house.” Tillie is mopping up in the kitchen so Charlie gets to slip, fall, get up, slip, recover, slip again, fall again… He’s pretty amazing here. He didn’t think much of this film but if the whole Tramp thing hadn’t taken off (it already had) he’d be using this stuff on his showreel…

Charlie and Tillie are married by “the Rev. D, Simpson” who looks something like a reanimated cadaver. The pancake disguise is necessary since Frank Opperman also plays three other roles. I’m impressed by this plot turn — since it seems inconceivable they’ll still be married at the film’s end, I’m genuinely curious to see what solution Mr. Whoop-Dee-Doo is going to come up with for his plot.

Tillie learns of unc’s death-fall — good fainting action. Then she immediately gets suspicious of Charlie’s rush to wed her — the first sign of brains Tillie has shown. Not unwelcome. But Charlie persuades her he really loves her with a display of ACTING. There was loose talk about Chaplin playing Hamlet but Richard III would have been a better fit.

Mabel, however, is now on his trail…

END OF PART 4

5 Responses to “Tillie Two”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Dressler’s luck ran as hot and cold as Tillie’s. She was an old has-been in desperate straits when she became an improbable talkies superstar. She died in 1934 at the height of her popularity, which could be argued as good luck or bad.

    Walter Kerr cited Dressler’s post-silent success to back his claim, made “without malice”, that “silence was no woman’s metier”.

  2. There were hugely successful dramatic stars in silent cinema, and a few great comedy ones. I know Kerr prefers comedies, and I get that, but Marion Davies, Bebe Daniels and Gloria Swanson all did fine comedies, and even in the slapstick field there were some terrific players.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    My own theory is that in flat-out comedy, you could get yocks out of putting men through wringers that wouldn’t play with women, no matter how funny they were. Male comics could be down and out, starting and/ or ending as homeless tramps, and making a joke of survival. They could milk laughs from attempted or merely suspected infidelity, and from real consequences. They could be beaten up. They could be SOBs without losing the audience.

    But women? One could argue it’s merely a manifestation of the double standard, but even now it’s dicy to violate that standard with a comedienne. Unless you’re making a movie that either removes any menace (a Cinderella story, or low-stakes froth about mistakenly inferred sex) or is working on some other level than pure comedy (sentiment, satire, or melodrama with a sardonic edge).

    Note how Stan and Ollie could be anything from rich and married to vagrants, while Thelma and Zasu/Patsy were always at a precise social and economic level: Working class singles with ambitions, getting fired now and then but never shown as destitute.

  4. Simon Kane Says:

    I’m personally finding the women in this hilarious.

  5. Some have questioned whether Dressler really fit into the Keystone style, but I think both she and it adapt somewhat and the mix is delightful.

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