by Allan Fish
(USA 1916 28m) DVD1/2
Early bath, or rather a late one
p Charles Chaplin d/w Charles Chaplin ph William C.Morris, Rollie Totheroh
Charles Chaplin (the drunk), Albert Austin (taxi driver),
“Is there a more typical or revealing piece of classic Chaplin than One a.m., in which he exists in virtuoso isolation for fifteen minutes, executing every variation on the drunk-coming-home theme? It’s a like a dancer at the bar confronting himself in the mirror…” David Thomson may not have been a Chaplin fan to much degree, but he rarely wrote a more telling observation. It has been documented that it was upon seeing him do a comedy drunk act in the Fred Karno theatre while on a trip to London that Mack Sennett sent a telegram to Chaplin offering him a contract with him in California. By the time he made this ultimate preservation of this act for posterity, he’d left Sennett for Mutual, but one can still imagine old Mack laughing his head off, just as millions of others did.
When it comes to technical comedy, of the balletic principles of that form of comedy, there are few better representations on film than this, Chaplin’s first unqualified short masterpiece. It begins with Charlie’s pie-eyed protagonist arriving home at the eponymous hour – actually it looks more like dawn, but that’s neither here nor there. He sits motionless in the taxi while the barely moving driver holds out a hand for his fare. There’s something almost infuriatingly funny about the time it takes for Chaplin to even get out of the cab and pay the driver, a palava that takes three full minutes, before he finally staggers up the steps to his door. Here he looks for his key, under the mat, under a plant pot, everywhere around before deciding to clamber through the window in a way that encounters him with a perfectly positioned goldfish bowl. Once inside he realises his key was in his hip pocket all the time. However, with the same insane logic with that Laurel and Hardy later used with that blasted piano sixteen years later, he climbs back out of the window so he can come in by the door. He soon regrets this course of action when he goes flying on not one rug, not two, but three. Tired out, he needs a nightcap but is unable to catch the decanter – don’t ask – and finally he makes his mind up to attempt to climb the stairs to his bedroom. And when I say attempts, I mean attempts, for he might as well be climbing the North Face of the Eiger. It takes him several goes, including dragging himself up the banister and even sporting the sort of mountaineering equipment used by George Mallory on his ill-fated conquest of Everest. When he does make it up, twice he’s knocked down by the sort of fiendish clock pendulum dreamt up by Edgar Allan Poe. Two more falls down the stairs, a couple of climbs up the hat stand, and multiple thwacks from the pendulum later, he finally gets through the door on the upstairs landing and wanders into his bedroom. If you thought getting upstairs was a task out of the Krypton Factor, he hasn’t attempted to open the bed out yet. One of those awful foldaway contraptions, he gets caught up, swallowed, turned round, sent dizzy, and flattened by the thing umpteen times before he eventually dives on it and bursts the springs. Defeated he retires to the bathroom and decides to sleep in the bath and it’s a toss up who is more exhausted, Charlie or the audience.
Though of course one can see the hazards coming, Chaplin knew that this wasn’t an issue, for everything becomes a hazard for a drunk. Of course he takes it too far, deliberately, everything with Chaplin was exaggerated, as that’s what physical comedy is. Not a trick in the book goes without being milked dry, but the timing remains truly impeccable throughout. Here’s the film that really proved the payback for Chaplin’s earlier promise in his films for Sennett and at Essanay, yet those films were merely rehearsals for his peerless Mutual work. His is a comedy borne out of the old style English music hall tradition, and One a.m. is true music hall farce. One thing the camera allows him that the stage could not, of course, is the close-ups of the face, and many of Charlie’s expressions of bewilderment are truly priceless. Watch and learn, for this is the blueprint for what would become the basis of a career for the likes of Arthur Housman.