Tillie's Punctured Romance (Mack Sennett / U.S., 1914):

Dreiser can easily be imagined going home after a screening of this and writing An American Tragedy. Tillie (Marie Dressler) is "the pride of Yokeltown," the brick meant to be fetched by her pooch instead knocks down the urban sharpie (Charlie Chaplin), she’s in love. The gigolo asks her out after noticing her wallet, the heroine’s first whiff of the "fetid atmosphere of the big city" would be reworked more than a decade later by Murnau, down to the streetcar. Chaplin filches Dressler’s money and leaves her spinning drunk at the restaurant, his sidewalk getaway with his partner (Mabel Normand) supplies beautiful, documentary-gray glimpses of Los Angeles -- park benches, a barber shop, a movie house (Double Crossed is playing, the screen-within-screen effect from Griffith’s Those Awful Hats is expanded). Mack Sennett doesn’t so much direct his comic cyclones as referee them: The frame is always static but the agitation within keeps getting cranked up into combustion. The acceleration is primeval and free-flowing, and, if it leads him to a brick wall, Sennett simply decides that the rhinoceros-maiden is a millionaire’s niece, brings back Chaplin and Normand, and starts over. Paleolithic gags (the waiter pulling the chair from under the customer, the soapy floor claiming victim after victim) captured in unedited chunks exert the fascination of extinct specimens caught in amber. Dressler’s dismantling of the mansion upon learning of her beau’s perfidy is the scorned fury Congreve wrote about, Chaplin’s city slicker reveals the nastiness Monsieur Verdoux would wrap in velvet -- his sly backwards punt is here a mule-kick to the chest, the little boy who tugs at his sleeve receives a slap. The Keystone cops push the chase into the Pacific, Dressler is fished out, sadder but wetter. Dreiser again: "Sennett is a real creative force in the cinema world, a master at interpreting the crude primary impulses of the dub, the numbskull, the weakling, failure, clown, boor, coward, bully." With Mack Swain, Charles Bennett, and Chester Conklin. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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