February 23, 2011
Before Natalie Portman pirouetted her way into a Best Actress nomination for her performance in Black Swan, there once was a pair of lowly dinner rolls. On their own, they were completely unremarkable; however they had the phenomenally good fortune to be laid on Charlie Chaplin’s table in the 1925 film The Gold Rush. When the silent clown speared them with forks, the rolls launched into a table ballet and created one of cinema’s indelible comedic moments.
Food is an integral part of Chaplin’s films, especially the ones where he donned the guise of the impish, yet gentlemanly “Little Tramp.” In his early films, Chaplin employed “pie in the face”-type food gags, but as his career progressed, food took on more nuanced roles. It was a means to illuminating elements of the Little Tramp’s character, namely his compassion for his fellow underdogs.
Food could also have satiric bite. For The Gold Rush, Chaplin was inspired by vintage photographs of prospectors ascending Chilkoot Pass during the Alaskan gold rush and stories of the Donner Party tragedy. True to the source material, hunger is a recurring theme, except here, it’s played for laughs. Snowbound and stranded in a cabin the middle of nowhere and with no food in the larder, the Tramp prepares a Thanksgiving dinner with what he has on hand—or foot as the case may be. Donning the airs of a gourmet chef, he boils one of his boots and serves it as the main course. Making the best out of dire circumstances, he twirls bootlaces as if they were spaghetti as he dines on a filet of sole of the non-aquatic variety. “In this, Chaplin was right on the mark,” writes Kathryn Taylor Morse in The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush. “Miners were forever hungry, and they wrote constantly about food, craving it, buying it, cooking it and eating it. As Charlie Chaplin must have surmised in portraying Thanksgiving and New Year’s meals in his film, food became a particularly intense topic at holidays. For these special meals, miners made extra efforts to re-create traditional, festive menus with whatever they had on hand.”
Another prime example of Chaplin’s use of food as social commentary is his 1936 film Modern Times, which critiques capitalism, with specific regard to the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. In one scene, the Little Tramp, temporarily employed as a factory worker, is used as a human test subject for a an automatic feeding machine, a modern marvel designed to feed employees at their work stations and eliminate the need for a lunch break. While the demonstration gets off to a smooth start, the machine soon malfunctions. The Tramp, strapped in place and unable to escape, is tormented with food. Goes to show that there are some things that automation can’t quite solve.
The list could go on for pages, but I’ll spare you by simply recommending you rent a few of his films to enjoy over a bowl of popcorn. (In addition to the two movies mentioned above, put City Lights on your list and keep a box of Kleenex handy.) And with Oscar night on the horizon, you should also check out Chaplin’s 1972 acceptance speech. Suspected of un-American activities during the McCarthy-era communist witch hunts, Chaplin was exiled from the United States in 1952 and made his return to the country that made him an international icon to receive this honorary award. He kept things short—unlike many overwhelmed Oscar winners—with a heartfelt thank you and a bit of schtick with a bamboo cane and bowler hat.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.