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Tillie's Punctured Romance

Tillie's Punctured Romance, directed by Mack Sennett and released in November 1914, holds the distinction of being the first feature-length comedy film ever made. At the time, feature films were only two years old and were generally the domain of "important" literary adaptations and historic epics, such as Cleopatra (1912), Shakespeare's Richard III (1912) and D.W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (1913). Comedy was considered best served in small doses, but Sennett, already a pioneer in the field of slapstick, was confident that the two-reel barrier could be broken.

Marie Dressler stars as Tillie Banks, a vivacious if ungainly farm girl who falls under the spell of Charlie, a big-city chiseler (Charlie Chaplin). Charlie romances Tillie, steals her money, and flees the scene with his girlfriend/confederate (Mabel Normand). When Tillie's wealthy uncle falls from a mountaintop, she stands to inherit a massive fortune, inspiring Charlie to resume their romance. Charlie marries Tillie and they move into a lavish estate, and the jealous Mabel takes a job as a housemaid to be close to her former partner in crime. A series of comic episodes, including a hilariously inept tango, Tillie's discovery of Charlie in a compromising position and the sudden return of Tillie's "deceased" uncle launches the film toward its madcap finale, in which the Keystone Kops are called in to restore order to the newlyweds' disrupted domicile.

Tillie's Punctured Romance originated as a vehicle for Dressler (1869-1934), who had achieved great fame as a star of the musical comedy stage but had never appeared in a motion picture. After securing the actress's services for the phenomenally expensive price of $2,500 per week (for a minimum of 12 weeks), Sennett and company began searching for a story suitable to this high-profile groundbreaking comedy. Keystone Studios screenplay editor Craig Hutchinson struck upon the idea of retooling one of Ms. Dressler's previous successes, Tillie's Nightmare, which had opened at New York's Herald Square Theater on May 5, 1910 (and which debuted the popular song "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl"). Screenwriter Hampton Del Ruth and Hutchinson supplied the revamped title of the film, which had at various stages of production been known as Dressler No. 1 and She Was More Sinned Against Than Necessary.

Curiously, the trade publication Moving Picture World stated that Tillie's Punctured Romance would be Dressler's first and last screen appearance but, probably due to the movie's overwhelming popularity, she quickly changed her mind and pursued a film career. Dressler was a screen comedienne throughout the silent era, and even appeared in two revisitations of her lovelorn creation, Tillie's Tomato Surprise (1915) and Tillie Wakes Up (1917), neither of which were produced by Sennett. She faded from the screen in the 1920s, but at the dawn of the sound era, in one of Hollywood's most remarkable comebacks, Dressler suddenly became a top star again. After her Academy Award-winning appearance in Min and Bill (1930), Dressler -- in various incarnations of the aging, overweight battle-ax -- became filmdom's most unlikely leading lady, named the number one box-office attraction in America.

While its unfettered slapstick (complete with pie fight) continues to provoke laughter today, Tillie's Punctured Romance has not aged gracefully, in cinematic terms. But its crude staging and the actors' shameless mugging offer a historic snapshot of cutting-edge comedy in the mid 1910s. Sennett's film would certainly occupy a more obscure spot in film history were it not for the presence of the young Charlie Chaplin, who had landed a contract with Keystone Studios earlier in the year. In his memoirs, Chaplin was rather dismissive of the film, remarking, "It was pleasant working with Marie, but I did not think the picture had much merit." The truth was, Chaplin had begun to direct his own films and enjoyed the creative spirit of on-the-spot experimentation that characterized his sets, and found it difficult to suddenly follow the demands of another filmmaker. Said Chaplin, "I was more happy to get back to directing myself again." With the exception of a few cameo appearances, Chaplin would never again appear in a film directed by anyone other than himself.

Among the directors Chaplin had worked for in the early months of his career was his co-star Mabel Normand. An often overlooked silent screen personality, Normand was among the first women filmmakers in Hollywood, as well as one of its most popular stars. Her skills at comedy were so deft that she could share the screen with slapstick legends such as Chaplin or Fatty Arbuckle without being outshined. For years Normand was involved in an on-again/off-again romantic relationship with Sennett but the pair never married, even though they remained friends and collaborators until Normand's death in 1930.

Before proving his genius at comedy, Sennett had been an actor at the Biograph Studios, often appearing in the films of D.W. Griffith, including The Lonely Villa (1909) and The Last Drop of Water (1911). Supposedly Sennett's entry into show business came about via Dressler. In 1902, he introduced himself to the actress with a letter of referral from the Sennett family's lawyer, Calvin Coolidge. Impressed by the 22-year-old's ambition, Dressler in turn wrote a letter of recommendation to New York producer David Belasco. Although the legendary impresario did not hire Sennett, the young actor's pursuit of stardom was thus set in motion.

While producing films first at Biograph, then at Keystone Studios, Sennett developed a roster of stars that would become a who's who of slapstick cinema: Chaplin, Arbuckle, Al St. John, Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy, Charley Chase and Mack Swain, among many others. Even though Dressler was instrumental in Sennett's climb to power, the two did not work well together. Sennett wrote in his autobiography, King of Comedy, "In the midst of a comic scene I had planned carefully beforehand, Miss Dressler would say, 'No, Mack, that's wrong. Now this is the way we're going to do it.' I was the head of the studio and I was supervising this particular picture, but neither of these things influenced Marie Dressler. My arguments didn't influence her either. 'Okay, Marie, you do it your way,' I'd say. And I would leave the set. Usually a sweating messenger would arrive within an hour [to summon me back]."

Disputes over the distribution of the film (which had been promised to Dressler's husband, James Dalton) caused the actress to file various lawsuits and appeals against Keystone, but without success, mainly because the promise was verbal rather than written. The actress later claimed that it was she who discovered Chaplin and selected him and Normand to appear in Tillie's Punctured Romance: "I think the public will agree that I am a good picker for it was the first real chance Charlie Chaplin ever had." This was, of course, a bit of an exaggeration. By the time Tillie's Punctured Romance was produced, Chaplin had already appeared in more than 30 films and was soon to leave Keystone for a lucrative contract at the Essanay Studios.

Dressler did, however, have a say in who was cast in the film -- or rather, who was not cast in the film. She refused to allow Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle to co-star with her. Both in terms of screen popularity and physical girth, Dressler insisted upon being the "biggest" star to appear in Tillie's Punctured Romance.

Producer/Director: Mack Sennett
Screenplay: Hampton Del Ruth
Based on the play Tillie's Nightmare by Edgar Smith and A. Baldwin Sloane
Cinematography: Frank D. Williams
Music: Organ score by John Muri (if David Shepard/Blackhawk version)
Principal Cast: Marie Dressler (Tillie Banks), Charles Chaplin (Charlie, the city slicker), Mabel Normand (Mabel, his partner), Mack Swain (Tillie's father), Charlie Murray (Detective), Chester Conklin (Guest), the Keystone Kops.

by Bret Wood



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