In 1914 Mack Sennett made a brash decision: he would make a feature-length comedy film based on the stage hit, Tillie’s Nightmare. Up to this point in time, comedies were short and sweet, usually 1- or 2-reelers that emphasized action and slapstick over plot. At this time, Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand were the most popular comics. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were on the horizon.
Sennett had been a minor actor in the films of D.W. Griffith, but after he left Griffith to work as a director at Keystone Studio, he was itching to do something big. In 1914 Griffith released what is arguable the first feature-length American film, Judith of Bethulia, to mixed critical and box-office results. Sennett surmised that a big comedy with big stars would make big money and add to his prestige as a filmmaker.
Two of the stars were easy since Chaplin and Normand were under contract to Keystone. But amazingly, Sennett didn’t think either star could carry a feature-length film (which would cost around $200,000 a huge sum in 1914). And once he decided on making a film out of Tillie’s Nightmare, the choice of star was obvious. But landing the 46-year-old Marie Dressler, the star of the stage show and a big star on Broadway wasn’t easy. Dressler had never made a film before, and wasn’t too keen on starting a film career. Like most stage stars of the day, she held “flickers” in disdain.
Sennett supposedly told his producers that the film project was “not a gamble with Marie Dressler.” The famous retort was “yeah, but we ain’t got Marie Dressler!” Sennett pursued Dressler and finally got her attention with an offer of $2,500 per week (almost double what Normand was getting). In their respective autobiographies both Dressler and Sennett took full credit for choosing Tillie’s Nightmare and for casting Chaplin and Normand (and nixing Arbuckle). With the three stars on board, the final script departed from the source material and was renamed Tillie’s Punctured Romance.
The plot of Tillie’s Punctured Romance finds Tillie as a farmer’s daughter. She meets a city slicker (Chaplin) who persuades her to run away with him to the big city. In the city, Chaplin meets up with his partner in crime and sweetheart (Normand) and they plot to get Tillie drunk at a restaurant (Dressler has a hilarious scene as she drunkenly breaks up the place in an attempt to “frolic”) so they can steal her money and run. But soon thereafter the crooks read that Tillie’s uncle has died and left her a fortune. Chaplin hurries back to Tillie, marries her, and sets up residence in a mansion where the newlyweds give a ball. After much mayhem (Tillie never misses an opportunity to dance), who should show up but the uncle! There is the usual Sennett chase (with the Keystone Cops) and a happy ending via an unusual alliance.
Many critics have dismissed Tillie’s Punctured Romance as being a typical-if-extended Sennett slapstick film made up of several skits and ending in the comic chase (Dressler ends up in the ocean after a truck nudges her off a pier). Some see Chaplin’s character (not connected to his famous “Little Tramp”) as being overly mean spirited and not very likable (a bad thing in a comedy). And still others complain that Normand has little to do. The film did not draw on the strengths of audience expectations concerning Normand and Chaplin.
But the major problem was the length of the film (the most complete version now runs 82 minutes, a 2-reeler ran 15-18 minutes). Theaters wouldn’t book it. Tillie finished filming in June 1914 and it wasn’t until September that the film got its first theater booking. In the meantime Keystone was being hounded by creditors and was in danger of bankruptcy. Dressler returned to the stage and waited for the film to open; she also waited for those financial reports. Although Tillie finally opened nationally in November to big business, the star had not received any money. When she heard that Keystone was about to sell the film to an outfit called Alco Film Corporation, she took them to court.
In a case heard by the New York State Supreme Court, Dressler was horrified when the Court decided she was co-owner of the negative but not the finished film. Keystone further argued it only intended to lease the film. The bottom line was that Dressler had no say in how the film was marketed, leased, or sold. She appealed the decision and lost again. By spring of 1915, Dressler learned that Tillie had already earned nearly $125,000 in rentals for Keystone, but she had received nothing. They went back to court.
Dressler made headlines with her dramatic performances from the witness box, but this time she won. Keystone was ordered to provide her with the stipulated financial statements for the film’s 6-month run in theaters. Rather than provide the statements however, Keystone settled out of court for $50,000 and Dressler’s 5-year ownership of the negative. Dressler felt she had won. In the early 1920s, Dressler re-released the film for a $25,000 fee and a weekly “royalty” based on box-office receipts. But Dressler always claimed she got cheated again and made nothing. Her final comment was “the business side of the moving picture business has always been too complicated for me … there are too many middlemen.”
Dressler signed with Lubin Pictures out of Philadelphia and was quickly put into the two Tillie sequels (which really weren’t sequels at all). The films were titled especially to rankle Keystone, as was her comment to the press: “you will not find in it, a policeman.” This was an obvious swipe at Keystone’s comic cops.
Ultimately, Tillie was a sensation and rivaled Griffith’s The Squaw Man and the Pearl White serial The Perils of Pauline as the year’s most popular film although it’s likely Dressler saw only a fraction of the profits.
Despite the star presence of Chaplin and Normand, Dressler is very much the center of this story. Dressler always claimed that her contract called for her to receive 50% of the profits and that she was to receive weekly accounting sheets. She also claimed that the film only be leased (not sold) to the distributors. But Dressler was famous for making grandiose statements about her business acumen (which wasn’t very good) and salary. And although Chaplin and Dressler got along during the filming, Chaplin never thought much of the film, and they never worked together again.
Dressler made two Tillie sequels: Tillie’s Tomato Surprise and Tillie Wakes Up (which survives). All the Tillie films were big moneymakers but oddly Dressler failed to follow up on her lucrative film career. After four more films by 1918, Dressler was finished in films and didn’t make another one until 1927. Supposedly Marion Davies insisted Dressler player her mother in 1928’s The Patsy, which was a hit. Dressler followed that film with The Divine Lady with Corinne Griffith and her hilarious short film, Dangerous Females, with Polly Moran. Dressler of course went on to be one of MGM’s (and Hollywood’s) biggest box-office stars and win an Oscar for Min and Bill.
Tillie’s Punctured Romance retains a special place in film history for breaking the feature barrier and establishing that comedy could be sustained for 6 reels. In the existing prints of this treasure are rough in spots despite restoration, but Dressler’s outsized antics are still funny, and it’s an amazing time capsule for those interested in what made Dressler a major stage star of her day.
The film’s ultimate bit of trivia (still hotly disputed) is that the boy selling newspapers is six-year-old Milton Berle, whom Dressler knew from Broadway. Berle always said he played the role (he appeared in other films of the time like The Perils of Pauline), but some say it was Gordon Griffith. The crucial piece of evidence in deciding this may be that while Berle did appear in The Perils of Pauline, which was shot in Ft. Lee, NJ, Tillie’s Punctured Romance was shot in and around Hollywood.