Observations on the Restoration of Chaplin's First Feature


By Ross Lipman


This brief excerpt appears courtesy of The Journal of Early Popular Visual Culture.

Its complete text can be viewed and purchased here.


Tillie's Punctured Romance, produced in 1914 by Mack Sennett's Keystone, is something of an oddity--a film everyone has heard about, but relatively few have seen. Tillie is on the one hand celebrated as a landmark film that helped catapult Charlie Chaplin to his worldwide fame--arguably the first feature-length slapstick comedy; and simultaneously considered a mediocrity, a mere footnote in film history.

Is there a historical reason for these two diverging yet concurrent views? Can the film's restoration illuminate the way in which this state of affairs may have arisen? I would argue yes, and yes. Tillie's Punctured Romance's singular position in cinema's development, coupled with its own internal formal properties, suggested a preservation strategy uniquely suited to the film. What's more, the resulting work reveals a path by which the diverging interpretations of Tillie in fact converge, around a historical process of cinema reception.

Preservation Pre-History

Despite Tillie's legendary status--or perhaps because of it--we were unable to find any existing original printing elements. Even before the film's release in December 1914, it became entangled in a snare of legal disputes and distribution struggles that were largely to characterize the film's fate (1), and in turn, its restoration. The company that released Tillie, the Alco Film Corporation, was dissolved within several months of the film's launch. Since that time, the film passed through a successive string of releasers and owners, ultimately passing into the public domain; and in the process experienced a bewildering array of reissues and revisions.

The film was shortened, re-edited, duped, cropped, re-duped, its speed was changed, sound effects were added, etc.. Each new version was an attempt to update the film, repackaging the magic into something more palatable to modern audiences. And each version was further from the original. If Tillie's status has declined in recent years, it's at least in part due to these impositions, or the work of what one may call "secondary authors."

As just one example, many of the initial cuts and changes eliminated scenes and evidence of the musical theater tradition from which the film emerged. In point of fact Tillie was part of a much larger movement adapting theatrical conventions to the cinema at the advent of the feature film. (2) Such tropes were largely seen as irrelevant distractions in later versions, integral though they may have been to the original.

In a related effort, key scenes involving the stage star Dressler were frequently excised, and her name was removed from the main title. (3) Another common target for revision (and one by no means unique to Tillie) was the film's intertitles, which were regularly adapted to reflect the language of the day, as shall be discussed later.

It's alas beyond the scope of this essay to provide a comprehensive chronicle and analysis of the film's reissue history, but suffice to say that it graphically maps the industry's shifting notions of audience interests, aesthetic sensibilities, and attitudes towards early cinema.