Friday, November 12, 2004

Last night I watched Tillie's Punctured Romance, the cinema's first full length comedy. It was made in 1914, directed by Mack Sennett, and starred Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler, and Mabel Normand. It wasn't very great.

It was the first Chaplin movie I'd seen that wasn't directed by Chaplin himself, and I think I've learned that Chaplin knew best how to film Chaplin. Where in other films he gives fluid, coherent narratives of brilliant physical routines, here he's reduced to only an occasional getting-hit-by-a-swinging-door. But those brief nemi-bits do come off pretty well for Chaplin's already uncannily keen ability to express cool awkwardness with his body. And I don't care that he liked girls twenty years younger than him.

Marie Dressler, on the other hand, came off thoroughly unappealing. I read that she did not attain any real success in film until talkies, and looking at this movie, that makes a lot of sense to me. Perhaps some people might dig her brand of physical comedy--and those people are probably also Chris Farley fans. In this film, Dressler seemed to rely on the same small repertoire of gestures to proclaim, "Look! I'm fat! Isn't it funny?" I guess I don't really look down on people for finding fat funny, but it's just completely lost on me. I find it tedious. Perhaps not for any good reason. Also, Dressler had an annoying habit of sticking her tongue out at odd moments, rendering her a somewhat horrific vision of a drowned corpse.

I've seen one other movie with Marie Dressler, 1930's Anna Christie, and it was a pretty small role. Her acting ability did impress me, though, so I look forward to seeing the films that made her hugely popular shortly before her death in 1934.

Mabel Normand, on the other hand, was adorable and a perfect silent film star. And boy, does she make for an interesting biography. She became a huge star before she started a rapid downfall in the 20s due to partying, scandal, and a cocaine addiction which often prompted her to write rambling, incoherent notes to people. She may have killed William Desmond Taylor in 1922. She was committed to an asylum before having a chance to appear in a talkie, and died in 1930 of tuberculosis at the age of 37.

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