One A.M.

Chaplin’s feature films remain his most endurable entertainment, partly because they are his most decipherable. City Lights and The Gold Rush are cut from the creative form we recognize, the instrument for which Chaplin was one of the first conductors and which remains part of our symphony. This early studio work for Mutual Films, of which One A.M. stands apart if not in medium then in conviction, is less decipherable now, as though it comes from an era when music was rhythm without tone. Mutual is Chaplin’s most uninhibited work however, the work with the least distance to travel from his brain to the screen. What makes the work great, and One A.M. particularly, is the answer to another related question: what would inhibit Chaplin later?

Chaplin was elemental in collating all the silent running around into storytelling, the sentimental journeys we still recognize in the bedrock of our movies. But did he become indentured to this form? Observe in his later work – Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight – a forcible “movie-ness,” almost as though Chaplin is a cameo in his own work. Sometimes (I felt this particularly in Verdoux) the great comic seems remorseful, like he had lived too long in real life as the rich socialite he used to lampoon through parody. Perhaps he had become so bound to the Tramp that breaking up with him was like a painful step back into the world that cane-twirling faux gent was meant to replace, a world of wars and ex-wives and J. Edgar Hoover (did Chaplin slight him at a party? Hoover chased the Tramp hard enough to prove Chaplin, and his films, right).

One A.M. was made before his tryst with the Tramp who broke his heart. It comes from Chaplin’s most egoistical headspace, where his idea of a great comedy is filming himself alone in a room full of props, with the least possible human influence diluting his genius. He even omits Edna Purviance, who was not omitted from any other Chaplin work between 1915 and 1923. One A.M. contains only one human, a cab driver (who should have been impersonated by Purviance, indelicately stoic in driving cap and scowls, but I suppose that would be expecting too much). Even though the film is a graveyard, it’s full of life – it has no humans but retains a whole cast of characters.

Chaplin strikes inanimate objects to uneasy life. His drunken gentleman character tries to get out of his cab and the driver is more a prop than the door, since life is bestowed only through Chaplin’s interaction (this was also true in early Hollywood, to the extent to which Charlie’s comedic empire wielded the industry’s perception of funniness). While ignoring the human in the room, he is so attentive to being obstructed over, under, and into the car door that the door counts as a minor villain of the piece. A stuffed lynx becomes as real an obstacle to Chaplin’s forward motion as though it was a living predator: he characterizes it through falling down. A spinning table caught on his coattails keeps a decanter at the length of a horizon from his swooning reach. A bed that pulls out of a wall pulls out at will, attacking and imprisoning him.

Perhaps the most copied bit is the eternity of punishment dealt out by a revolving door, a gag I’ve seen counted among the comedy in sources as distant as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The quietest is a reverse setup when Chaplin puts his top-hat beside a similarly-shaped spittoon (can’t you just imagine the Stooges looking cross-eyed at the camera after dousing themselves in all that stupid?). After an exhausting interval where the audience feels ahead of Chaplin (forgetting perhaps that he isn’t really drunk), he picks up his real hat without thinking about it and continues trying to smoke his matchstick. Chaplin plays the audience like a harpsichord.

But by far the funniest is Chaplin failing repeatedly to conquer an insurmountable flight of stairs, resorting finally from his drunk’s-eye-view of the monolith of man-made nature to try with a pike, pick-axe, climbing rope and hat (and inimitable epic stagger). The joke frequently appears in modern cartoons as a low, upward view of the stairs, a beating sun, an eagle’s desolate crow, and the character’s timid gulp as they look up and take their first step. What makes Chaplin funny even in the future where everyone copies him is the lack of irony. He puts on the climbing equipment after trying the stairs many times without it – he doesn’t see a mountain, else he would be afraid in the first place, but just something that has become a mountain to him. The climbing aids are a reasonable response to the situation, which makes them unironic, which makes them funny.

The photography is blatantly appropriate: almost all of One A.M. occurs at that stoic mid-shot typical of 1916, that takes in most of the set at once, never shows the ceiling, and hardly moves (though there is a rare, subtle panning shot near the beginning when Chaplin looks over to the table after tousling with the lynx). A closeup reaction shot of Chaplin’s face, fast enough to be accidental (it’s less than half a second), feels shockingly modern, as Chaplin sometimes will feel for a risky second. The sum of many such seconds comprises quite a lot of our cinema.

Chaplin really is an aristocrat in One A.M., as he had become in real life – the Mutual Films shorts made him the highest paid entertainer in the world. He had decanters, stuffed lynxes, snuff boxes, cufflinks and top hats and an inexhaustible supply of matches to smoke. I imagine him insouciant on the piano (perhaps at the party he just left at one in the morning, like the ones he gave in real life), his eyes flickering deep cobalt blue at all the ladies in the room. Did he know the depth of his influence over people of lower stature than himself (which was everyone)? I knew a woman once who had three children, lost her husband, grew pitiably old, and at the end of her life all she could talk about was the one time long ago she danced with Charlie Chaplin – the handsomest man she had ever seen. She perhaps never considered how not singular was the honor of his attention.

Perhaps something inside of Chaplin tired of this person and his sold romances, rising to such prestige so effortlessly and in such a short time. Did he fear his fortune would make him forget what was really important, in life and in comedy? What was his reasonable, unironic response to that fear? Perhaps he hoped to forsake in spirit the highlife that was a necessary evil of all his great work, though he was forced to live it outside of the screen. Perhaps he got so drunk one night that he forgot who he was, left the mansion unlocked at one in the morning, and became the Tramp.

Cast & Crew

Charles Chaplin

Edward Brewer (technical director)

Charles Chaplin (scenario)

Vincent Bryan (scenario)

Maverick Terrell (scenario)

Drunk Charles Chaplin
Taxi driver Albert Austin

 

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