Release Date: 7 August 1916
Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin
Duration: 27 mins
With: Albert Austin
Story: A confused drunk attempts to make his way around his home…
Production: The ultimate showcase, One A.M. features a more or less solo performance from Charlie Chaplin for the entire 27 minute running time, excepting Albert Austin’s brief appearance as a taxi driver. It was a performance that Chaplin had been preparing for almost his entire life—and he’s not even playing his iconic Tramp character.
One A.M. features Chaplin as a drunken toff or swell, reprising a part he knew well from his days as a member of the Karno troupe. One of his signature vaudeville roles was that of the drunk, a character he’d often observed in real life, including his father and those he saw in the streets of London during his impoverished childhood. It was a role that existed before Chaplin joined Karno, but the young, very physical comedian proved to be the most adept at performing it in the Mumming Birds sketch.
According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography Charlie Chaplin, it has been calculated that Chaplin falls over a total of 46 times during this short. The general impression of watching the film suggested this is probably correct, or at least in the right ballpark! One A.M. features the kind of slapstick comedy that Chaplin’s audiences, who had followed him from Keystone to Essanay and now to Mutual had come to expect—what they perhaps were not prepared for was the level or pathos and depth of character that the silent superstar now wove around his character.
This film sees the apotheosis of Chaplin’s battles with inanimate objects. From the moment the drunk arrives home, he is confounded by attempts to get past his own front door. Once inside, things don’t get any better for him. Among the objects the drunk does battle with are a rug which messes with his already unsteady footing, a table that revolves putting a whisky refill forever outwith his reach, stuffed felines that trap his foot in their jaws, a folding bed that all but swallows him up, a staircase which he falls down and up, and—in a fitting finale—the pendulum of a grandfather clock.
This fallabout stuff was all very pleasing to a mass audience, but there was more than just slapstick going on in One A.M. Chaplin was studying the work of other filmmakers in 1916 and learning from them, particularly from his personal favourite, D.W. Griffith. There was more that could be done with movies and in particular by moving the camera than had ever been achieved in his two years at Keystone and Essanay, two studios where any kind of experimentation that might slow the volume of production was heavily frowned upon.
Working with his cameraman Rollie Totheroh, Chaplin set out with One A.M. to explore some of these possibilities. How the camera was used, whether to shoot long shots, medium shots or close ups, and how these elements were cut together would be key to a successful film. Chaplin could see this in the abstract, but achieving it while still entertaining his audience was a larger challenge. Without other actors to focus upon (thus requiring many more wide shots), Chaplin decided to feature only himself, allowing for greater flexibility in the presentation of his comedy ‘business’.
Freed from having to feature and interact with others, Chaplin saw his opportunity to have the camera follow him more closely, giving him ample opportunity to interact—to an extent he had never achieved before—with inanimate props, thereby bringing them to life. These obstacles to his simple intention (the drunk wants to get to bed) are all common (at least in 1916) items, but the way the drunk interacts with them gives them a kind of abstract malevolence: these household objects are out to thwart the drunk’s ambition, however simple it might be.
The comedy comes in the drunk’s refusal to be beaten, while all the time attempting to maintain a kind of dignity supposedly suitable to his position in life: it is evident from the items in the house that this man (although played by Chaplin, complete with signature moustache) is no Tramp, he is in fact a man of the world, someone who has achieved much, and going by the décor perhaps an explorer.
Although his aim was to make people laugh, Chaplin was serious about his comedy. In an interview from 1916 with the New York Telegraph, he had outlined his developing ‘psychology of comedy’. ‘Making fun is a serious business,’ Chaplin told the newspaper. ‘It calls for the deepest study, the most concentrated observation. […] Did you ever see what happens when a policeman in uniform slips on a greasy street and takes a tumble? The policeman’s uniform and his club are symbols of his authority. When he slips […] the crowd shrieks with laughter. Why? Well, even good people have a sneaking dislike for a cop. […] There is fun in striking contrasts. One minute there is a picture of pride and dignity […] if I hook that chap with the crook of my cane, drag him almost off his feet […] the audience shrieks with laughter.’
A couple of years later, in 1918, Chaplin expanded upon these ideas in a piece in the American Magazine that was attributed to him, but was probably ghostwritten or the result of a transcribed interview. Chaplin says: ‘Even funnier than the man who has been made ridiculous […] is the man who, having had something funny happen to him, refuses to admit that anything out of the way has happened, and attempts to maintain his dignity. Perhaps the best example is the intoxicated man who, though his tongue and his walk give him away, attempts in a dignified manner to convince you that he is quite sober […] this attempt at dignity is funny.’
Chaplin biographer John McCabe thought that One A.M. was ‘the cleverest and conceivably the funniest film Chaplin made for Mutual’. He points out that the film reverses philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of comedy, which is ‘the mechanical imposed on the living’ (which certainly applies to some aspects of Chaplin’s later feature Modern Times, 1936). Here, the comedy comes from ‘the living’ (Chaplin’s drunk) attempting to navigate his way around the inanimate obstructions of home (the ‘mechanical’ in Bergson’s conception).
It is a great testimony to Chaplin’s highly developed skills in mime that he is able to pull this off. At no time does it appear on film as if Chaplin (the performer) is manipulating the props (as is actually happening). Instead, it appears as if the rugs, carpets, tables, stairs, clocks and beds are all independently acting to thwart him: they move to ensnare him, he does not align himself to be snared by them (as he is actually doing). Surviving outtakes (which Chaplin had ordered destroyed) reveal the preparation, work and simple repetition that went into achieving the effect: a simple slide on a rug or mat would be repeated and repeated until the perfectionist Chaplin was happy with the effect or effortlessness. The suspension of disbelief is perfectly maintained: this poor man is having a terrible night, trying to achieve the most innocent of aims, but is thwarted at every turn by the very objects he had chosen to surround himself with. Is this all a punishment for his being drunk? Is it a form of revenge by the world upon a man who would indulge himself to excess? Could this film really be a comic commentary on the misuses of alcohol?
The result might seem like Andre Bazin’s concept of ‘filmed theatre’, but Chaplin and Totheroh keep the camera moving, especially up-and-down the stairs, rather than cutting to offering viewpoints of the action that would not have been possible if shooting was simply restricted to ‘through the proscenium arch’ style work that was all too prevalent at the time in comic cinema. In some ways, it could be argued that the drunk’s experience of the house is something of a psychological ordeal. Things start off ordinarily enough, but as time goes on the obstacles in his way become ever more outlandish, weirdly surreal and offbeat. The front door, tables and stairs are all recognisable, but with the animal rugs, the larger-than-life clock and—finally—the man-eating fold-up bed, things just get weird. Is that because we’re actually seeing things through the drunken haze of the sole on-screen character’s unique perception? No wonder he ends things in the bathtub where he can sleep this bender off…
One reason that Chaplin might have embarked upon a film so limited in setting and cast like One A.M. could be that it was in response to budget overages on one of his previous shorts, The Fireman (1916). While it often seemed like money was no object to Mutual (given the enormous cost in signing Chaplin in the first place, and the establishment of his own studio, Lone Star Studio), they were actually as budget conscious on individual films as any other studio of the time. Restricting the cast to one (and a brief cameo) and the setting to one easily-built and easily-controlled set kept the costs down, but it was also a trigger for Chaplin’s filmic imagination. The challenged to come up with almost 30-minutes of engaging comedy from one man in one location would have been too much of a challenge for Chaplin to resist. So, while cost may have been the initial motivation, it was Chaplin’s own filmmaking sensibilities that truly gave rise to One A.M., one of his best ever shorts. Photoplayers Weekly, in July 1916, said of Chaplin: ‘If any man could appear absolutely alone and hold attention for two whole reels, he believed he could do it’.
However, Chaplin would come to view One A.M. as something of a misstep, at least as far as pleasing his audience went. Chaplin biographer David Robinson wrote of the short: ‘One A.M. was a daring display of virtuosity, so daring that Chaplin afterward confided to his collaborators: “One more like that and it’s goodbye Charlie.”’ It is unclear exactly what Chaplin felt he’d done wrong with One A.M. Was he concerned about the toll that the solo performance had taken on him, or did he worry that his audience would not be satisfied seeing him on his own more than once? Did he feel that his use of a moving camera (more in One A.M. than in any previous short) would be disturbing to filmgoers who were simply more comfortably with the locked-off camera of so many much simpler comedies? Was he worried he was pushing boundaries too far, both in terms of content and technique? Maybe we’ll never really know. However, one thing is clear: apart from isolated sections in later shorts and features this was really the only solo outing for Chaplin.
Writing in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film critic David Thomson noted that “The worldwide appeal of Chaplin, and his persistent handicap, have lain in the extent to which he always lived in a realm of his own: that of delirious egotism. Is there a more typical or revealing piece of classic Chaplin than One A.M. (or ‘I AM’), in which he exists in virtuoso isolation […] executing every variation on the drunk-coming-home theme? It is like a dancer at the bar, confronting himself in a mirror.’
Perhaps that’s it, maybe Chaplin felt he was revealing too much of himself in One A.M., too much of his true inner being? After all, he was worried that he might inherit his father’s alcoholism and failure to make anything of himself, despite everything he had achieved in just over two years in filmmaking. That success itself was a threat to Chaplin, to his sense of himself. He was now rich, thanks to the Mutual deal, beyond his wildest imagination, yet he tried his best to not let the money (and so lifestyle) now available to him change him in anyway. In fact, he went out of his way not to spend; to not change anything fundamentally in his life, for fear that it might affect his comedy. His solution, his distraction, was to throw himself into the work, to focus on his comedy and on his filmmaking and ignore (at least for now) what he could make of his life thanks to his newfound riches. He told writer and early Hollywood historian Terry Ramsaye that he had no intention of buying anything beyond ‘a dozen neckties’, and he pretty much stuck to that promise. According to Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton, Chaplin’s entire expenditure during 1915 had been less than $500 and ‘during the first six months after signing with Mutual [in March 1916], he continued to live in the same modest style.’ It wasn’t a state of affairs that could—or should—last forever.—Brian J. Robb
Charlie Says: ‘My ambition, when I started picture work, was to make enough money, some time, so that I might retire with the knowledge that I had enough to ensure me a $25-a-week income for the rest of my life. I was sure, then, that I would be satisfied and happy with that. My first contract with the Keystone company was for $175-per-week. I showed it to everybody I knew, and inwardly quaked with the fear that I would never be able to fool them into paying me that much for more than a few weeks…’—Mabel Condon, Picture Play Magazine, December 1916.
‘One A.M. was unusual for me. It was a solo act which took place in a very restricted space: an exercise in mime and technical virtuosity, with no plot or secondary characters. I arrive home drunk early one morning to find everything in the house against me.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Life in Pictures (1974).
Trivia: Although he was not a big drinker himself (especially give the death of his alcoholic father at the age of 37), Chaplin excelled at playing drunks. The Karno farce Mumming Birds—in which he first learned his trade—was filmed as A Night in the Show (1915). The Tramp is seen to drink in many films, but those in which he’s full-on drunk include The Rounders (1914, with Fatty Arbuckle), A Night Out (1915, with Ben Turpin), and The Face on the Bar Room Floor (1915).
The Contemporary View: ‘As a matter of single-handed time-trifling and one-man farce-juggling, Chaplin’s performance in One A.M. is of course the current record. No other human could detain an audience as Chaplin does through two quite full reels of solo performance in an interior set. Charlie’s feat is like that of some great vaudevillian […] congratulations Mr. Chaplin on speaking your piece so nicely, but—come on back, Edna!’— Julian Johnson, Photoplay, 1916.
Verdict: What might be lost by not seeing Chaplin interacting with co-stars is more than made up for by his display of imaginative physical comic dexterity.
Next: The Count (4 September 1916)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.
Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.