Released in 1914, "Tillie's Punctured Romance" was the first feature-length film comedy. It marked the film debut of the larger-than-life Broadway star Marie Dressler and featured the popular movie comedian Mabel Normand -- along with a young up-and-comer named Charlie Chaplin.
The master of silent comedy Mack Sennett directed the frenetic slapstick farce, which became a huge box office hit that turned young Chaplin into a superstar. But over the ensuing decades, poor "Tillie" had not only been punctured but edited and slashed to shreds. The film lost its logic, and the prints available were in such shabby shape they looked as though they had been chewed up.
Thanks to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, "Tillie" has received a badly needed face-lift. The restoration project took two years to complete using over 13 sources to bring it as close to the original release as possible.
The result screens Thursday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of UCLA's 12th annual festival of preservation. Live musical accompaniment is being provided by Tillie's Nightmare, a new five-piece ragtime ensemble featuring Ken Winokur of the Alloy Orchestra, the popular group that composes and plays new scores for silent films,
Winokur had only "peripherally" watched "Tillie" before he began work on the score about four months ago. "I don't even remember when I saw it, but I watched it with the understanding that it was not supposed to be a good movie," he says. "But when I got the print from UCLA on video, I watched it in its completeness and was pretty astounded at how sophisticated this film is. There is a level of sophistication in the editing, especially the complex story, and the characters have some depth you don't expect from the very first feature comedy."
Based on the long-forgotten 1910 musical play "Tillie's Nightmare" -- Winokur took his new ensemble's name from the title -- the comedy revolves around a country girl (Dressler, reprising her stage role) who is taken advantage of by a lascivious suitor.
At the time the film went into production in early 1914, Chaplin was already working for Sennett's film company.
"When they shot the film, his films were just starting to get played around the country," says Ross Lipman, UCLA film preservationist. "For various legal reasons and controversies, the film didn't get released until December 1914.
"During those ensuing months, Chaplin's star grew and grew, so by the time the film came out, he was quite famous in his own right. With 'Tillie,' he shot into the stratosphere."
Chaplin does not play his trademark Little Tramp but a little scamp. "He's a city slicker who is trying to woo the poor naive film girl into the big city," Lipman says. "Tillie is supposed to be this young, dainty farm daughter and she is played by this huge, overweight 45-year-old woman."
How did such a popular film fall into disarray?
"The film changed ownership about a zillion times," Lipman says. "Each time somebody released it, that would change it in some way."
Reconstructing films for rerelease was a common practice during the silent era. "They would try to update them," Lipman says. "Literally they would cut out a scene here and there and restructure a scene. The next thing you know, it was making no sense. The film was cropped, and the speed was changed. It became a huge hodgepodge."
To restore "Tillie" to its former glory, Lipman put out a call internationally to film archives and private collectors for prints and materials from the movie. "I ended up comparing 30 different copies of the film," he says.
The British Film Institute, which collaborated on the project, had many nitrate (the highly combustible but visually superior film stock used before 1950) fragments Lipman used. And the preservationist also was lucky enough to acquire from a private collector in England an original six-reel nitrate print.
The visual quality of this print was very good, "but there were sections missing. It had an average of 40 splices per reel." In some instances, minutes might be missing from a scene; in other cases it would just be a few frames. So Lipman meticulously put the film back together, frame by frame, using the best sources.
Because the new print is culled from sources of varying visual quality, Lipman admits "you can't miss it when you have gone from a beautiful nitrate print to a sixth-generation 16-millimeter dupe. If the detail is not there anymore, you can't do anything about it."
To make the changes less jarring for audiences, "you need to match the contrast so you can have a tonal similarity. Triage Motion Picture Services did a tremendous job with that."
Before "Tillie" had its big premiere last October in London, Lipman was worried that the quality changes might distract audiences. "I didn't know if it was going to work," he says. "It took a few minutes to get to used to it, but the story took over. Everybody was watching the movie. It was not a stumbling block."
'Tillie's Punctured Romance'
Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Contact: (310) 247-3600 or go to www.oscars.org