The Making of Tillie's
During its unusually long commercial life Tillies Punctured Romance has been reissued countless times in various re-edited, cut-down versions, and a large number of spurious gag titles were often added. The original intertitles were few and succinct.
In his autobiography, Sennett says: "Late in the summer [of 1914], with the Chaplin-Normand films selling briskly, I battled with Kessel and Bauman [the co-owners of the Keystone company] for permission to make the first full-length, or six-reel, motion-picture comedy." This is of course wrong and his memory is at fault; the shooting of Tillie had started in mid-April 1914. In some books the outbreak of World War I in Europe and the production of Tillie are juxtaposed, but wrongly so. By late summer both the completed negative and Sennett himself were in New York; he was on his annual New York trip to renew the contract with Mutual, the distributor of the Keystone films, and this time also to discuss with Kessel and Bauman how best to market and distribute Tillie, as Mutual did not handle features. So how and when did Mack Sennett get the idea of making a six-reel farce in the first place, and was it long in the planning? The surprising answer is that when Sennett began shooting Tillie it was probably not meant to become a six-reeler, and there was a much shorter time between the first idea and the actual shooting than is generally presumed.
His inspiration is often said to have been Griffiths plan to make The Birth of a Nation; Sennett wanted to make a comic equivalent to Griffiths lengthy drama, as it were. Griffith, after quitting Biograph and joining Realiance-Majestic, returned from New York to Los Angeles on Saturday, February 14, 1914, and from then on Mack could get the latest news straight from the horses mouth. No doubt Sennett was driven by a spirit of rivalry but not primarily with Griffith. Something had happened, something that would have a decisive influence, and something that has not been sufficiently emphasised in most books.
When Griffith returned on that Saturday, Sennett had experienced a very bad week. Ford Sterling and Henry "Pathé" Lehrman were on the verge of leaving him, and the following week they actually did and signed a contract with Fred Balshofer and Universal, and the Sterling Film Company was incorporated. This was a hard blow to Mack as he lost not only Ford and Henry but also many of his other players, and, what was even worse, they kept defecting, both actors and directors, for many months to come, first to the Sterling Company and then, from late summer, to Lehrmans newly-formed L-KO company, thereby draining Sennetts organisation. Merely to keep up production, not getting behind in the stipulated release schedule, was a feat per se, but to start a feature film as well under these circumstances is even more surprising,
This sudden dearth of people forced Sennett to husband his resources and use the rest of his employees the best way he could which meant that he had to use at least some of them in new capacities. Mack Sennett would undoubtedly have allowed Chaplin, the greenhorn, to direct his own films sooner or later, but dire necessity made it happen sooner. So, spirits were not high on the Keystone lot, or, as Balshofer in his memoirs so ironically understates it: "After my wholesale grab of Keystone players as well as Sennetts star Ford Sterling and his best comedy director Pathé Lehrman, Kessel, Bauman and Sennett were a pretty unhappy trio."
But Mack, who at this juncture is likely to have experienced the whole gamut of human emotions, with the possible exception of love, regained his composure after this jolt, and, realizing that some countermeasures were needed, he was soon ready to take action. So when Sennett signed Marie Dressler, the famous vaudeville and musical comedy star, he was on the rebound, so to speak, but he could never have done it, if the circumstances, chance and sheer luck, had not played into his hands. You do not sign a busy, contract-bound Broadway star on the spur of the moment and then make her work for you immediately, irrespective of her other engagements. How did he manage it?
Late in 1913, Dressler har signed a forty-week contract with Gilbert M. Anderson, who was the owner of the Gaiety Theatre on OFarrel Street in San Francisco. The contract specified a Monday, January 26, 1914 opening date for The Merry Gambol, a musical revue, starring Marie Dressler. The name of Gilbert M. Anderson may sound familiar. Yes, it is the famous Western star, better known as "Broncho Billy" Anderson, co-owner of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, for whom Chaplin was to work in 1915. That Anderson was also a theatre-owner is mostly forgotten today. But there were various troubles from the very start and they continued, on and off, during the whole of the San Francisco run until Sunday, March 9, when hell broke loose and Dressler refused to go on, so Marta Golden of Ye Liberty Theater came over and took the part. To cut a long story short: it has been said that the warfare between Anderson and Jake Rosenthal, the Gaiety manager, on one side of the battlefield, and Marie Dressler and James Dalton, her "husband", on the other, was one of the ugliest ever waged by members of the American theatrical community. And this was news, not only in the local newspapers but the scandalous tidings of how they kept suing and countersuing each other spread nationwide and even reached London. The Los Angeles Times had some unusually harsh words to say about the popular Marie Dressler: "She must be the biggest crab and the most swelled-up star in theaterdom." On top of everything, charges of White Slavery and of violating the Mann Act were brought against James Dalton, who was also accused of not being legally married to Marie Dressler, and if he could prove that he really was, he would immediately be indicted for bigamy as he had never been divorced from his lawfully wedded wife in Boston. That Dressler almost had a nervous breakdown because of all this is easily understandable. In her memoirs, she says that her doctor ordered her to go to Los Angeles to rest and recuperate. Now, if she really wanted to get away from it all and just rest and relax, Los Angeles was a very bad choice. Why? Because The Merry Gambol was slated to open at the Morosco Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, March 16 and it did, but without Dressler on the stage.
So why did she go to Los Angeles of all places, pursuing and running after the Gambol company, unless she still had some hope, however faint, that all problems would somehow be solved and that she would be able to appear on stage again? Nothing happened, however, and her place was taken once more by Marta Golden during the whole of the Los Angeles run, from Monday, March 16 to Sunday, March 29. This was the very Marta Golden who played with Chaplin in his two comedies Work and A Woman in 1915; later in the same year she joined Keystone and appeared in A Janitors Wifes Temptation. Incidentally, in the same Gambol company were also Alf Goulding, the future film director, and Frank Hayes who some months later was to play with Chaplin in the Keystone comedy His Musical Career.
The Los Angeles Times of March 25 carried the following paragraph:
Sidney Harris, manager of The Merry Gambol company at the Morosco Theater, is a very much perturbed young man these days. Pourquoi? Marie Dressler and her husband Jack [sic] Dalton are spending a week or so at neighboring Ocean Park. It certainly would be dreadful if Miss Dressler should plant herself in a stage box and make faces at Marta Golden who is playing Miss Dresslers role in "The Gambol" show.
This is the background against which the making of Tillies Punctured Romance must be seen: here is a vilified Dressler in Los Angeles at the end of March 1914, with no job, no income, no immediate prospects, verging on a nervous breakdown, her spirits having sunk to their nadir, and in steps Sennett, who badly needed a gambit to come out on top again, and offers her a film contract at exactly the right, psychological moment. Normally stage veterans despised the movies, but now Marie had nothing to lose. Dressler tells us, in both her autobiographies, how it happened:
I was convalescing in Los Angeles and went with my nurse to a movie show [ ] As we passed through the lobby I noticed one of a pair of men staring at me oddly [ ] When we came out after the performance, we found the two men outside the theatre door. The one I had first noticed approached me with a sort of desperate diffidence. "Miss Dressler", he said, jerking his head in the direction of his wild-eyed companion, "wed like to talk to you a minute." I told them Id see them at my hotel, for I was still weak and trembly and not equal to the ordeal of standing long at a time. When they presented themselves in my sitting-room ten minutes later, I discovered that the wild-eyed one was Mack Sennett, and the spokesman for the pair was Bauman, of Keystone pictures [ ] They wanted to make good pictures that would take them into first-rate houses. They thought they could break into first-string theatres if they had my name in the cast.
A photo exists (see p. 32 in Jeffrey Vances Chaplin, 2003) showing Marie Dressler visiting Chaplin and Mabel Normand during the production of Caught in a Cabaret. This was probably taken on her first visit to the Keystone studio and even if we do not know the exact date, it must have been taken some time between March 27 and April 2, the production dates for this film.
Marie Dressler was signed to a twelve-week contract which guaranteed her a weekly salary of $ 2.500 for a minimum of twelve weeks. In all the trade papers the following announcement was made in late April:
Marie Dressler is to be seen in a series of Keystone comedies, three or four reels in length, to be released on the Mutual programme. Work of production has been going on for some time under the direction of Mack Sennett, and the first of the films featuring Marie Dressler will be released in July.
Please note that there is talk of a string of three- and four-reel films.
Since everything had happened so fast, they had no story for Dressler until, as Sennett says, Craig Hutchinson, the scenario writer, hit on the bright idea of using the storyline of Dresslers greatest success Tillies Nightmare. How this could be such a bright idea is hard to understand; this play would have been the very first thing they thought of in connection with Dressler no need for any brainstorming. She had been playing it on the stage for almost five years and in this play she had created a character called "Tillie Blobbs, the boarding house drudge" and to the general public she had become synonymous with that role as well as with the hit song of Tillies Nightmare, "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl". The only thing the play and the film have in common is, as a matter of fact, the Tillie character in her outrageous costume, getting drunk and doing some funny dancing. Otherwise the film is the banal story of the city slicker luring the country girl to the wicked city the oldest story there is, and also touched upon in the above-mentioned song. According to Dressler, she herself suggested playing the Tillie character. Anyhow the shooting of Tillies Punctured Romance started on Tuesday, April 14, 1914, under the working title of Dressler no. 1, and was finished on Tuesday, June 9, exactly eight weeks later. The completed negative was sent from Los Angeles on July 25 and was received in New York on July 31.
Marie Dressler always said that the production lasted fourteen weeks, but principal photography was only eight weeks. However, if we include post-production (editing, titling, etc.) and count all the way to July 25 when the film was sent to New York, it will be fourteen weeks. Sennett says the shooting took forty days, and he may be right because from April 14 to June 9 there are forty-nine working days Sundays not included and some whole days must be subtracted when Mabel Normand and Chaplin were away making other films. The whole operation was something of a jigsaw puzzle; as Sennett says: "I had to continue the steady flow of two short comedies each week. This meant that I never had my Tillie cast all working together on any given day. One or two of them were constantly out of the picture acting in a two-reeler." During those eight weeks, Tillie excluded, Sennett produced 17 films: 3 two-reelers, 11 one-reelers and 3 split-reels, 19 1/2 reels in all; 25 1/2, Tillie included. Hard work, indeed! In 5 of those 17 films Chaplin appeared: The Fatal Mallet, The Knockout, Her Friend the Bandit, Mabels Busy Day and Mabels Married Life. Sometimes they had to work on Sundays too. Sennett, Chaplin, Mabel and Mack Swain made The Fatal Mallet in three days, Sunday, May 10 Tuesday, May 12, using the same shed as can be seen in the background in the first reel of Tillie. They also had to work on Sunday, May 17, to get pictures of the car races, held at Ascot Park that day, to incorporate into Mabels Busy Day.
Nearly all Keystone actors can be seen in Tillie, with one glaring exception: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Marie, not wanting to be upstaged, barred Roscoe from the set as he always stood out from the rest of the group because of his bulk; Dressler wanted only one big, voluminous person in this film. However, a couple of times Fatty can actually be seen running through the crowded big ballroom set used in Tillie but these shots were used in another film: in the final chase in The Knockout.
To gain time, they sometimes worked in different units; for example, Sennett sent Charles Bennett, who played Tillies uncle in the film, to the snowcapped Mount Baldy. All the trade papers carried the story: "Charles Bennett of Keystone Co. recently took a company of actors, under his direction, up to Mount Baldy amongst the snows. They threw a dummy into a chasm and badly scared three tourists who thought a real man had been killed. They scrambled for the remains and found the dummy with this tag on it. When found return to the Keystone Co. Thanks."
Films are usually shot out of sequence, but it was lucky that the final scenes of Tillie were photographed on one of the very last days of shooting because there was an accident. On Saturday, June 6, they were in Venice, working on the Venice pier. The Venice Daily Vanguard had a report headlined: Injury compels comedienne to cancel contract.
Saturday afternoon the Keystone Film company had secured a section of the Venice pier for the taking of a moving picture. Miss Dressler, who was to take part in the picture, was standing close to the edge, from which the railing had been removed. In an effort to avoid an approaching automobile which was to be used in the picture the actress stepped backward and fell thirty feet into the sea. In falling her left hand and arm struck some of the wooden piling and her body fell across a rope attached to a nearby boat. She sustained herself for a few moments by swimming, but by the time that boat reached her she was completely exhausted. Miss Dressler was immediately removed to her home at 1861 Cherokee avenue, Hollywood, and Dr. Dudley Fulton was called in. J.H. Dalton, manager for the actress, said last evening: "We are thinking more of Miss Dresslers safe return to health just at present time than the question of contracts. However, it will be quite impossible for Miss Dressler to fill any engagements for some time, how long I cannot say, but at least several months. The ligaments of her arm are torn in such a manner as to make it possible that she may never be able to use it freely again."
This meant that Dressler could not fulfil her twelve-week contract. Of course, Sennett may have decided to expand Tillie from a four-reeler into a six-reeler some time while it was still in production, but this decision could also have been a result of the accident. When Mack realized that there would be no more Dressler films no Dressler no. 2 he decided to make the most of the footage he had already shot and it sufficed for a six-reeler without too much noticeable padding, that is.
The distribution of Tillies Punctured Romance is rather a convoluted story. Many books have a November première for Tillie. Why? There was a trade show in New York very late in October 1914, and therefore all the trade papers could publish reviews of the film in November, before its release. At first Keystone intended to offer the film to state-right buyers, but instead they leased the use of the negative to the newly-formed Alco Film Corporation for a flat sum of $ 100.000, and the official première was on the Alco programme on Monday, December 21, 1914. On this date the film opened in Los Angeles at the Republic theatre, and Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin were present, sitting in a box as the guests of Bert Levey who had acquired the rights to the film for Southern California and the Hawaiian islands. Some months later Alco went into bankruptcy too many hands in the till but Tillie had already been sold on the state-right market, so its circulation was not hampered. Then Marie Dressler, always litigious, sued the Keystone Co. several times for not receiving her share of the profits, and that is another long story, the upshot of which was that Dressler finally settled for $ 50.000 plus the return of the negative after five years. So, in the early 20s, she re-released the film, and once again she felt she had been cheated out of her share of the profits – a never-ending story. (July 2004 - To be published in Griffithiana 75. The issue will also include a piece by Ross Lipman on the restoration of the film)
The Sounds of Tillie's