One A.M. Is a Genius Comic Experiment

Note: This is the eighty-seventh in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1916 film, ONE A.M., directed by Charlie Chaplin.

ONE A.M. was Charlie Chaplin’s best and boldest film to date when it was released in 1916. The product of a slowed down production schedule and, ostensibly, greater creative freedom, the movie is a brilliant experiment in solo showmanship and a prototype of the “locked in a room” trope…but rendered comic rather than dramatic.

Released essentially in the middle of the first year of Chaplin’s two-year tenure with Mutual, ONE A.M. demonstrates the artistic liberties he was able to find at the studio, even if he had to fight for them. Clearly, Mutual knew what they had on their hands, since they paid him an unprecedented salary to sign him amid fierce competition. Chaplin was paid about $670,000 annually, about $15 million today, making him the highest paid film star in history. While Mutual would try to implement control like any other studio, Chaplin had freedom like he had never known. His output at the studio, especially those films released in the even slower paced 1917, was a tremendous evolution from his Keystone and Essanay years. But there was still a level of structure imposed on Chaplin, leading to his departure from Mutual in 1917. But we’ll get to that.

In the meantime, Chaplin was making significant strides with nearly every release. ONE A.M. was the standout from his first year at Mutual. And as said, it was the standout of his career at that point. And it essentially starred no one but himself. The premise is simple. A drunk comes home at, you guessed it, “One A.M.” via taxi and faces some difficulties in getting to bed. The driver, played by Albert Austin, is the only other character in the film, and only sticks around for the underwhelming opening. The 27-minute film is admittedly a bit too long, and its bookends could be shaved down a bit. In any event, Chaplin’s drunk’s inability to get out of the car demonstrates a key theme of the film: the character’s drunk logic kind of makes sense to hilarious and usually painful results.

But it’s once Chaplin gets into the house, via a difficult climb through a window just before the drunk realizes he had the key in his pocket, that the film really demonstrates its magic. The foyer of the drunk’s opulent and eclectic home is tremendously designed and full of particular detail. In fact, it’s a striking execution of mise-en-scène that feels at odds with the opening scene, in which our characters are out and about in an incredibly bright 1 AM. Weirdly, there are a ton of stuffed animals, skin rugs, and mounted heads. Chaplin’s drunk seems to be weirded out by them himself, cementing my head canon that somehow this isn’t Chaplin’s home after all, also considering his inability to find the Murphy bed with which he later struggles. Oh sure, he ends up using the key to get in through the door, but I’m building a preceding scene in my mind in which he somehow gets a key from another drunk man wherever the two were carousing. I’m probably thinking too much about this.

The brilliance of Chaplin’s performance is the drunk’s interchangeable frustration, aloofness, and determination. In between any of the many physical obstacles that get in his way, the drunk is nonplussed. He just proceeds as if nothing ever happened. But when he comes up against, say, a set of stairs, he attacks the issue over and over again, much to his growing frustration that simply evaporates back into aloofness with a taste of alcohol or a cigarette. And yeah, let’s talk about those stairs. The words “virtuoso performance” come to mind watching Chaplin tackle the stairs for the first time. The first run is simple, with an unsteady if not consistent stagger up the stairs…just before the last step, when Chaplin slides right back down to the bottom. Not many fell down stairs better than Chaplin, and he proves it time and again in ONE A.M. His next attempt, in which he balances with some back-breaking theatrics, is also a highlight of the whole middle sequence of the film, which mostly features the drunk trying to get up the stairs. Think about that: most of this 27-minute film is about a drunk trying to get up stairs. And it’s hilarious.

Chaplin also displays some great athleticism running on a spinning table as he tries to light his cigarette on a chandelier above. Again, the drunk logic kind of makes sense? When he does make it up the stairs, twice he is knocked down by a clock pendulum that inexplicably blocks the door to the bedroom. This accentuates the strangeness of the home and its design. ONE A.M. features a kind of art deco style warped into a comedy film set that, I cannot stress enough, I sincerely love. It’s part of the whole appeal of ONE A.M.; it embodies a whole, strange, and isolated comic world with one inhabitant. It’s also spectacular that the entire pace of the film, which only lags in the opening and the closing altercation with the aforementioned Murphy bed, is placed squarely on Chaplin’s shoulders. He alone carries it to near perfection. ONE A.M. is an exquisite thing, a masterly, tangible craft that I keep in the pocket of my mind as one of the great Chaplin films.

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