One A.M. (1916)
With this deceptively simple two-reeler for Mutual, Charlie Chaplin returns to his roots playing a funny drunk for laughs, but demonstrates his advancement as an artist by milking the concept for all it’s worth. Chaplin’s unique style dominates the screen for the entire run time, and hardly a single opportunity for laughs is missed.
The movie opens with Charlie, in fancy dress, arriving home in a cab. Albert Austin, who plays the cab driver, sits stoically staring straight ahead while Charlie fumbles with the door handle and the meter, eventually staggering off to his own house. He can’t find his keys, so he enters via a window, stepping in the goldfish bowl along the way. Once inside, he finds the keys, so climbs back out the window (via the goldfish), goes up to the door and opens it. Then, he starts sliding on the rug, unable to maintain his balance. His house seems to be decorated with dead animals (a tiger-skin rug, a stuffed lynx, an ostrich), which become real to him, and engage him in chases around the floor. He tries to pour a drink from a table that consistently spins away from him every time he tries to reach the bottle or glass.
Eventually, he makes his way upstairs, only to encounter an over-sized cuckoo clock whose pendulum knocks him back down the stairs. After several attempts, he finds that it is easier to climb up the coat stand to get to the landing, but he still has to avoid the swinging pendulum that prevents access to the bedroom door. Inside the bedroom, the Murphy bed becomes another challenge. It crashes down when he is under it and leaps back up when he tries to sit or lie down. After destroying the bed, he goes into the bathroom and soaks himself in the shower with all his clothes on. Then, he lies down in the bathtub with a towel and goes to sleep.
This isn’t by any means the best thing I’ve seen from Chaplin, but it is a great demonstration of how much he could get out of how little. The movie is all him, except for the brief appearance of Albert Austin, and doesn’t let up for a second. It was probably one of the cheapest movies he made for Mutual (which may be why he made it after comparably high-budget pieces like “The Fireman”). Again, we see the more fluid camerawork of Roland Totheroh, which demonstrates that Charlie didn’t need to be locked into little boxes to be funny. The camera follows him up and down the stairs several times, which works better than editing between the stages would have. The first part of the film, downstairs, emphasizes the drunk’s inability to deal with ordinary things like doors and rugs, but with the spinning table and the dead animals, things become increasingly odd. Then, when he gets upstairs to the gigantic cuckoo clock and the Murphy bed, it seems as though his world has become a surreal mechanical obstacle course. These sections remind me particularly strongly of Jacques Tati and his character Hulot’s constant problems with technology.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Camera: Roland Totheroh
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Albert Austin, a variety of inanimate objects.
Run Time: 24 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (probably with music but I can’t get archive.org to work at the moment to confirm)