Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide: Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)

by Brent Reid
  • Charting the convoluted release history of the first feature length film for Chaplin, Keystone and comedy itself
  • One of the most famous of all silver screen comedies, it was a huge success and made Marie Dressler an overnight movie star
  • But it was Chaplin’s presence that ensured it was screened constantly for over 80 years and worked almost to death
  • After almost a century of only being seen in cut-up, trimmed-down versions, Tillie‘s finally regained her former proportions

This is part of a series covering Chaplin’s life and career. If you’ve landed directly on this page, I strongly recommend you start from the Part 1 introduction.

Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler in Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)

As discussed previously, once he left the studio, Chaplin’s Keystone films were reissued and rescreened constantly, in ever more edited and mangled shadows of their former selves. They were ultimately so compromised as to be almost unwatchable, but despite that the most famous of them endured and continued being a big screen commodity until David Shepard’s restorations finally came to the rescue. Numerous confusingly similar but very different versions are in current circulation; the provenance of all of them is clarified here for the first time.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance is notable for a number of reasons, but chiefly remembered for co-starring Chaplin in his first feature length film. Directed by head of Keystone Mack Sennett, it was also the first feature length comedy and, despite its success, Keystone’s only feature. This was due to the logistical difficulties involved in shooting such a huge production concurrently with dozens of quick and cheap shorts, all featuring the same actors. Stage star Marie Dressler, secured by Keystone at great cost, was reprising her signature role in the big screen adaptation of the musical stage play, Tillie’s Nightmare. Dressler, who originated the role, also owned the rights to the 1910 play by A. Baldwin Sloane and Edgar Smith, and had toured it for three years to packed houses and rapturous critical notices. She was also ably supported onscreen by almost all of Keystone’s biggest stars, including Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and of course, Chaplin. In fact, the only noteworthy omission from this virtual roll call of Keystone’s stable was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. It was perfectly understandable, given his frenetic work rate, which exceeded even Chaplin’s unimaginably hectic schedule. At least 50 films featuring Arbuckle were released in 1914 alone, including seven with Chaplin.

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) US magazine advert

1914 US magazine advert

The resulting film was wildly succesful – even more so than the play – and increased the bankability of all its cast. Of course Chaplin, even though appearing in a rare non-Tramp role, benefitted the most. Tillie played constantly for years and subsequent to the initial run, all publicity moved Chaplin’s name squarely up to top billing, with Dressler and Normand eventually not even mentioned at all. Capitalising on the by-then universal ‘Chaplinitis’ sweeping the planet, he was also always misleadingly pictured in his Tramp garb.

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) US 1918 reissue trade advert

US 1918 reissue trade advert

There were any number of domestic and internationally released re-edits of Tillie all over the world during the silent era. Effectively documenting all of them would be impossible. However, prior to the 1990s there were various sound reissues, most of which are still in circulation. Instead of being truly silent and relying on a live musician for accompaniment, they all had custom recorded musical scores contained on the film’s optical soundtrack.

Details on the first such reissue are frustratingly scant, but I’ll continue updating this section with all I can dig up on it. Retitled Marie’s Millions, it was a 4-reeler first released in 1928 or 1929 with music and effects. This listing claims US distribution via the Christie Film Company and a length of 5733 feet (1:03:42 at 24fps). The Bioscope (7 Oct, 1931) reviews a recent trade show and the Phoenix Cinema, Oxford, screened it in Feb 1932. Meanwhile, according to this thesis it was released in India in 1933. The waters are muddied a little by the likes of David Quinlan’s Film Stars (1981–2001) confusing it for W.C. Fields’ lost 1928 film, also titled Tillie’s Punctured Romance but no relation whatsoever to our Tillie. Here are all known archive holdings on Chaplin’s Tillie, though aside from two of the BFI’s prints, none specifically mention Marie’s Millions. One of the BFI prints, from 1931, is only a 300ft fragment, but the other, from 1929, is 4,700ft (52:13 at 24fps). Sounds very promising…

Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Charlie, Marie and Mabel are all getting along famously in this early publicity still

There are such no problems identifying the second documented sound reissue, produced by Walter Futter in 1939 (40min). Guy V. Thayer, Jr. was credited with “re-editing” and new intertitles were by the multi-talented Mort Greene, Oscar-nominated lyricist, cartoonist, gag writer, etc. It features a spirited orchestral score by Edward Kilenyi, Sr. with judiciously placed sound effects, somewhat similar in style to the Van Beuren Mutuals. With a change of the main titles, Monogram Pictures re-released this same version in 1941, and after replacing the main titles again, Burwood Pictures released it in 1950.

1939 sound reissue in sepia; here’s the B&W version.

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914, Charlie Chaplin) US 1950 sound reissue poster

Eagle-Lion Films US 1950 sound reissue poster. I’m as fond of Tillie as anyone, but as to it being Chaplin’s “greatest full-length comedy hit”, well…

We’re not done with Walter’s baby just yet: a fourth go-around for his version followed hot on the previous three’s heels. This US re-redistribution was still in 1950 – presumably after yet another change of the main titles. It was executed by a British-based studio, who also got it across the Pond this time. Like the others it was “3,645ft… 40 minutes” in length, according to its UK pressbook. A similar pressbook, with even more hyperbolic copy, appeared as a US trade magazine pullout. A trailer was also produced for at least the UK issue, though it’s currently MIA too. The film appears to have been particularly well publicised, judging by the abundance of US and UK ephemera online and perennially for sale from dealers and auction sites. Indeed, this release is the source of most of the Tillie memorabilia floating around these days. All of these materials cite “Re-released by Eagle Lion Films” and “Copyright 1950 Pathe Industries Inc.” [sic] in the fine print. Following so soon after Burwood’s US distribution, it’s possible it was an illicit copy of Walter’s version: the film itself may have been PD but Kilenyi’s recent soundtrack and Greene’s titles were definitely not. Eagle-Lion were a British-based company who for a short time had production and distribution interests in the States but never thrived and were subject to merger in 1950. Presumably, Tillie was one of the last titles distributed under their own banner.

“I suspect that Eagle-Lion released the Burwood print on the heels of Eagle-Lion’s Mack Sennett-Steve Allen feature compilation Down Memory Lane (1949). Wouldn’t surprise me if some house booked the pair of them.” – Film historian Scott MacGillivray, via email

Nonetheless, Eagle-Lion’s very distinctive artwork was still being used for releases of Tillie into the 1960s, probably also using their earlier prints. In the US it was shown theatrically at least as late as 1962, playing a supporting role for the English-dubbed French-language epic, Michel Strogoff (1956). By then, in addition to being Chaplin’s “greatest full-length comedy hit”, it was also touted as “40 minutes of fun for mom and dad and all!” Given the huge amount of mostly unidentified BFI holdings on Tillie, I’m pretty certain this version and its trailer, and quite possibly other versions too, are lurking in their vaults, just waiting to be properly catalogued.

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914, Charlie Chaplin) US 1950 sound reissue title lobby card

Eagle-Lion Films US 1950 sound reissue title lobby card

The third known sound reissue came courtesy of RAS Films International in 1967 (75min), who retitled it Charlie’s Big Romance. Sidney Tager performed production duties and though it has much more footage, some of the credits have been carried over from Walter’s version. It’s accompanied by a lively but tasteful orchestral score by William Perry and features added sound effects and tongue-in-cheek narration, as was common practice in silents reissues from the 1950s–1970s. As usual, there was an array of foreign renamings, for instance for its 1969 Danish run it became Chaplin som lykkejæger (Chaplin as a Lucky Hunter). It ran until at least as late as 1972, as evidenced by its Australian release in December of that year.

1967 sound reissue.

This version first appeared on US DVD via Laserlight’s 1999 release, with its RAS Films title card replaced by a generic one reverting to its original name. It was simultaneously issued on DVD in the UK by Delta, who also reissued it in the US in 2002. Thereafter, they’ve been copied countless times by other PD DVD companies. As with Chaplin’s other low budget discs of this nature, all of them will play anywhere in the world.

Tillie's Punctured Romance aka Charlie's Big Romance (1914, Charlie Chaplin), 1967 sound reissue title card

1967 sound reissue title card. It was replaced in the copy linked above for a generic video-generated title by a PD DVD distributor.

From 1972, Blackhawk Films sold various permutations of Tillie, like this silent 8mm copy, derived from a 16mm print in the Paul Killiam Collection. Their version was stretch-printed (every second frame shown twice) for projection at 24fps and accompanied with a new piano score, also by Perry. Following their acquisition of Blackhawk in 1983, National Telefilm Associates (later renamed Republic Pictures) issued this iteration of Tillie on VHS and LaserDisc. This and the preceding versions of Tillie were heavily bootlegged and are now available from many sources, but they often run completely silently or have their scores replaced with ersatz needle-drops.

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914, Charlie Chaplin) US Blackhawk Film Digest catalogue, March 1979

Blackhawk Film Digest catalogue, March 1979

David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates later acquired the Blackhawk Library and in 1997 he augmented the Killiam print with material from other sources and a new John Muri organ score. This 72min variable speed version was issued via Kino VHS and Image LD. He went on to improve its picture quality much further by replacing most of the 16mm interpolated material with a 35mm source and issued his ‘final’ version on DVD (Image, 1999). A few years after that, he provided all of his original materials on the film to UCLA for their then-upcoming project…

Tillie has now been returned to virtually her original length by the superlative 2004 restoration (85min, 18fps) from the UCLA and BFI. Supervised by preservationist Ross Lipman, this version combines every known viable frame of the film in existence. Well-received screenings took place at various film festivals, usually with solo piano accompaniment. Later, as part of the Chaplin Keystone Project, she was given a digital clean-up by Lobster Films in Paris. DS: “As much as possible has been done to balance contrast and the geometry of the shots as the film switches from source to source, as well as to clean the image. No one would take it for a new film but compared to anything seen in the last 80 years or so, it looks amazing.” The Alloy Orchestra’s Ken Winokur led Tillie’s Nightmare, a specially convened ensemble, in writing and recording a new ragtime score incorporating songs from the original stage play – which they also performed live at several screenings. This latest incarnation, the nearest to the film’s original release since the 1910s, was issued on DVD from 2010 as part of the complete restored Keystones box sets. It took her nearly 100 years, but Tillie finally came full circle, to entertain us as once before.

Tillie’s punctured legacy: Observations on the restoration of Chaplin’s first featureRoss Lipman

Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) US 1918 reissue lobby card

Let’s face the laughter and dance: Tillie and the city slicker cut a rug. US 1918 reissue lobby card.

A final word: I know it’s an uphill battle even getting the primary version of a film restored, but in my ideal world all these fascinating diversions along the path would be available in quality editions too. The Kilenyi and Perry-scored reissues ‘Mickey Mouse‘ the onscreen action relentlessly and some find it annoying after a while. Chaplin himself would have loathed seeing his old films presented in this way but there was nothing he could do about it. At least their constant reissue kept his name in the public eye during the ever-lengthening gaps between his own increasingly ambitious releases. Personally, I love these iterations of the shorts! But that’s from the perspective of much of my silents experience being via mostly good condition prints or superlative restorations, and all with live or recorded scores by the best musicians in the business. Although I did see old, sped-up, Mickey-Moused clips of silents on the telly as a kid, my memories of them are quite hazy. God forbid I’d be coming to these wonderful films via their public domain versions now, or worse still, that they remained my only frame of reference, as they sadly are for so many.

Of course, the latest restoration should be the default version, but one way of looking at the others is the way you would remixes of a favourite song. At the very least, they’re interesting alternatives that it’s nice to sample once in a while; a new spin on an old friend. For the very same reason I’m not wholly opposed to film colorization, audio remixing for surround formats, 3D conversion of 2D films, etc. If they’re your thing, knock yourself out and if not, just ignore them and stick with the versions you prefer. Mind you, the idea of any of the above versions of Tillie being newly colorized, 3D-converted and remixed in Dolby Atmos is a bit hard to take!

Tillie’s production and history is extensively covered in the various books focusing on Chaplin and Keystone, and these invaluable essays:

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) US 1918 reissue trade advert

US 1918 re-reissue trade advert

Grateful thanks to Scott MacGillivray for help with this article.

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