Here is a sample from my book CHARLIE CHAPLIN: THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE, available on Amazon and ebay...
ONE A.M. (1916)
The difficulties in writing about a popular figure, especially when one is a big admirer of the subject, is trying to keep ones opinions as unbiased as possible. When assessing the work of Charlie Chaplin, someone whose work I adore, it is equally challenging not to over enforce my own opinions of each film on the reader. Given that I have my favourites and am not an academic writer, the book, against my efforts, will naturally become clouded by preferences. That said, I need to come out and declare unashamedly that One A.M. is one of my very favourite Chaplin films, either full length or short.
This 27 minute gem has no plot at all, and features, apart from a driver in the first minute or so, only Charlie Chaplin himself for the whole film. The basic premise, as plain and uninteresting as it seems on paper, features Chaplin as a wealthy drunk, arriving home and being unable to get to bed. He firstly struggles to get through his front door, eventually climbing in the window when the door knob becomes too much of a challenge for him. Once inside, there's the tricky matter of the dual staircases to deal with. Chaplin attempts to scale the steps on numerous occasions but repeatedly fails, and even ends up with the carpet wrapped around him. (This minor set back, however, does not prevent him from pouring himself another drink.) There are multiple, seemingly endless set ups for Chaplin here, each one as hilarious as the last. When he gets his cloak caught on the circular table, it becomes a rat race to reach the decanter. When he comes up with the genius idea of getting on the table to ascend the stairwell, he is trapped in a scurry resembling a hamster in its wheel, running wildly on the revolving surface like a drunken clown.
Other stand outs involve Chaplin wrestling with stuffed animals, climbing up the hat stand and falling about the place in increasingly adventurous ways. When Charlie finally makes it upstairs, he has the erratic Murphy bed to deal with, which springs independently up and down, back and forth, making it impossible for the inebriated Chaplin to get down for a proper night's sleep. Eventually, he settles for the bath, using the matt as a cover.
First and foremost, this film is a showcase for Chaplin the physical comedian and is a perfect chance for him to illustrate his genius not only with the props around him, but with his own body. Though heavily padded, it's a miracle he didn't hurt himself repeatedly plummeting down the stairs, but it's a credit to his nimble, balletic movements that he keeps getting back up unscathed for the next pratfall.
We all know how Chaplin suffered in his childhood, but we are also aware that he absorbed a lot of the behaviour of the London characters he saw every day in the streets, particularly the drunkards. Here, clear from the first frame, Chaplin has not only soaked up all those inebriates, but also every drunk scene he had played on stage and screen himself up to that point, first with the Karno act, then with Keystone and Essanay, before joining Mutual, the studio where he would hone his craft. It's an amalgamation of all his finest drunken work, every fall and stumble a mini work of art in itself. Only Chaplin could make being drunk a thing of genius.
As director, with the help of Roland Totheroh, Chaplin was one of the few filmmakers redefining the rules of cinema, thinking up and executing new ways to make the best of a scene. Whether it was a long shot or a half close up, Chaplin seemed to know the right place for each. Though the British technical innovators of late 19th century and early 20th century cinema had toyed with close ups and perspectives, these men were all but forgotten in a matter of years. Chaplin then, along with the likes of D.W. Griffith, was one of the rare breed who was attempting something outside the box. Granted, One A.M. stays near enough at a straight-on perspective, as if we the viewer are seated in a theatre watching a stage performer do his thing; but there are close ups too, such as when Charlie is wrapped in a carpet, and the camera does move and follow him about the stage. We, naturally, are drawn to him, watching his every move in the strange, almost surreal surroundings he is struggling with.
What makes it even funnier is that Chaplin the drunk never gives up. He could, and perhaps should, just flake out and go to sleep there on the ground floor. But he is stubborn, denying there is a problem and seems intent on getting to bed. It's almost out of spite, refusing to lie down and give in. Chaplin himself said as much in a 1918 article for American Magazine: "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 is right, and anyone who has ever been drunk knows all too well the feeling of attempting to keep one's dignity when so inebriated it's a challenge to merely stand straight. That Charlie's "drunk" (as he is credited) still manages to retain his dignity and air of self respect, even when being sprung about on a malfunctioning bed, or wrestling with a stuffed cat, is a credit to his performance, not merely the hilarity of being a drunk in denial.
Funnily enough, for such a well received short, Chaplin thought it was a misfire. In David Robinson's book on Chaplin, Robinson himself comments that the film was a daring display of virtuosity, but also added that Chaplin himself commented, "One more like that and it's goodbye Charlie." What he meant by this is unclear, but it's notable that Chaplin stayed away from sole comedies again, re-employing his supporting players from the next film onwards.
David Thomson wrote an interesting observation on Chaplin, singling out One A.M. for his insistence that Chaplin's wildly out of control ego could have led him to self destruction and isolation. “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., 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."
I wonder if Chaplin knew that a one man show brought too much attention to his self absorption; or maybe secretly he hated bearing the sole responsibility and being the focal point to the millions of viewers all over the world. Reviewers did applaud his efforts, but Photoplay were quick to say, "Come on back Edna", a demand which perhaps caught Charlie's attention. Ego stroking or not, filmed theatre or no-frills cinema, it's early Chaplin at his most inspired, entertaining, and perhaps most importantly of all, funny.