Charlie Chaplin: The Art of the Meal

I watched Charlie Chaplin‘s century-old short, The Immigrant (1917) days before I saw the announcement for the Food in Film Blogathon and took it as a sign. The movie, which according to several sources was Chaplin’s favorite of the Mutual shorts, features a memorable scene during which the Little Tramp has a meal, a simple enough endeavor for most people, but which becomes art in the hands of Charlie Chaplin. That scene in The Immigrant is reminiscent of others I enjoy immensely in later Chaplin movies and so the idea to dedicate this entry to Chaplin’s art of the meal was born.

Meals in Chaplin movies allow for the full range of his talent to emerge. Through his Tramp we enjoy his signature slapstick coupled with pathos illustrating his genius time and time again. During an interview I listened to some time ago Mary Pickford discussed the Little Tramp at length. She said she wished the actor/director would have continued to play the character for the entirety of his career. She felt that the Little Tramp “is as important a character as film has ever seen, representing those who don’t normally have a voice. Through the images of this wonderfully relatable character, Chaplin was able to make us laugh, break our hearts and make valuable social commentary.” Perhaps the most consistent manner through which Chaplin exemplified all of that was by way of meals, which play an important role in many of his films. The Tramp, as the down-on-his-luck fella he invariably is, is able to convey a wide range of emotions in artistic fashion by simply trying to ensure sustenance in order to make it through another day.

The Tramp in EASY STREET (1917)

Let me begin my discussion of Chaplin’s art of the meal with The Immigrant since that’s the movie that came to mind when considering food in film. This movie stars Chaplin as the title character and was written and directed by him as were all of the other movies mentioned here. The Tramp is the title character alongside frequent co-star, Edna Purviance, both of whom take a boat to the U.S. in search of freedom and a better life. Neither of those come easily for the Tramp in this as you might expect, but the journey is often touching and always entertaining. The Little Tramp meets and falls in love with the girl and gets into a bit of trouble along the way.

There are two meals in The Immigrant worthy of mention. The first is simple and just for laughs where we see the group of immigrants trying to eat on the rocky boat. One particular funny sequence shows the Tramp and another passenger eating from the same bowl of food that moves back and forth between them. The second and more important meal takes up the entire second part of the movie. The Tramp has arrived in New York penniless and hungry when he happens upon a nickel on the street, which allows him a meal out of a huge plate of beans, bread and a cup of coffee in a nearby restaurant. Much of the time the Tramp tries to be a class act as in this instance when we see him eating the bowl of beans with style, one at a time, savoring each morsel. Soon, however, hunger gets the best of him as he starts scooping up beans by the mouthful. It’s during this entertaining bit that the Tramp sees the girl sitting across the restaurant from him. He invites her to a meal at his table. The slapstick turns to sweet, coquettish fun before it makes a dramatic turn toward nervous tension when the Tramp realizes the nickel has fallen out of his pocket.

That scene in The Immigrant exemplifies many of the themes Chaplin was able to convey in his meal scenes as well as all of the Tramp’s attributes to include, “A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.” (Chaplin) We’d see and recognize these in many of his later, more popular movies, but are prevalent in his shorts as well.

Charlie Chaplin’s meticulously executed choreography is as important a part of his intimate, often introspective meal scenes as it is in all-out physical scenes. The entire package of Chaplin’s art is evident in his art of the meal, which in some ways represents the perfect setting for what makes the Tramp the important character Gish mentioned. In fact, some of Chaplin’s meal or food-related routines are not only among the most memorable in his movies, but in all of cinema. Every conceivable scenario involving food and the Little Tramp comes to fruition in Chaplin’s cinema, including the character becoming embroiled with an eating machine in the iconic sequence in Modern Times (1936), his last silent picture.

The victim of industrialization

“Don’t stop for lunch. Be ahead of the competitor!”

The Little Tramp becomes the poster boy for the dehumanization of the worker as we see him struggle to survive the modern, industrialized world. That is, according to Chaplin who takes the point to the extreme when the powers that be in a factory choose the Tramp as the guinea pig for a new feeding machine that will save them time and money. The contraption is robotic with the different courses of the meal laid out to be fed to the worker who is strapped in. At first everything works smoothly. The tray lifts, food is delivered into the Tramp’s mouth and an automatic mouth wiper follows. The action repeats and even includes the buttering of a corn cob, but before long sparks start flying and the poor Tramp is assaulted by hot soup, iron bolts and flying corn. Chaplin makes his point, albeit in an ever entertaining way, and in the process manages to disrupt the perfectly timed mechanism of an entire factory to parody the assembly line created by Ford in 1913, which also happened to be used regularly by movie studios. It is by way of a meal that Chaplin shows that there is little sense in total automation, that the individual worker has value that cannot be replaced.

Modern Times has many other meaningful meal scenes. At one point the Tramp is once again lost in a the big city without means. The only respite he can come up with is being arrested, which would offer him three squares a day. The goal becomes landing in jail at any cost, which is solved by his ordering an opulent meal at a restaurant for which he cannot pay. After this meal the Tramp meets “A Gamine” (Paulette Goddard) his female equivalent in society who ensures her own survival and that of her younger siblings by stealing food. The two end up going to jail together and share several meals during the rest of the story. Of course the romantic sharing of a meal happens, which is a necessity, but there is also the overnight break-in at a department store during which the two indulge in an embarrassment of riches – cakes and sandwiches and sodas. The sequence in the store delivers another not-so-subtle message: while the reality for so many during The Depression was grim and dark, there were some who could enter department stores and enjoy the riches offered on a regular basis. Having food are riches to poor people, not glamorous outfits or expensive cars.

The girl in the department store gorging herself on cake

Another artistic display involving food in Modern Times that I enjoy immensely is the scene where the Little Tramp is working as a waiter. He got the job thanks to the girl and tries his best to fulfill his duties. Unfortunately, the meal involved is never consumed because the Tramp’s attempt to deliver goes awry. The sequence begins as the Tramp leaves the restaurant kitchen with tray in hand and as soon as he steps out into the dining hall the floor is mobbed by dancers. With the tray held high above his head the Tramp tries to deliver a chicken meal to an increasingly angry customer. The poor chap gets an A for effort, but the attempts prove futile as the dancers pull him around the dance floor. When the Tramp finally reaches the customer’s table he is sans chicken because it got caught in the chandelier. This is a hilarious, beautifully choreographed sequence.

The Tramp finally delivers the tray, but hasn’t noticed the chicken is missing

If I had to choose a favorite Charlie Chaplin movie it would be City Lights (1931), the most romantic of his features, which is also good for many belly laughs. This movie offers several funny food-related scenes including one where the Tramp is at a party in a millionaire’s house and mistakenly tried to scoop dip from what turns out to be a guy’s bald head. Then there’s the scene when the Tramp is drunk at a nightclub eating spaghetti. As he twirls the pasta onto his fork he also catches pieces of streamers hanging from the ceiling. Instead of stopping when he realizes he’s eating a streamer, the Tramp stands up and continues to chew it up toward the ceiling. In yet another scene the Tramp mistakenly replaces the cheese in a co-worker’s sandwich with soap. This is an old gag, but it makes me laugh. Perhaps the most important food instance in City Lights, however, is when the Tramp brings the blind girl groceries, which is not only a sign of the times, but one of the film’s deeply romantic gestures. He doesn’t come by the food easily – a gentleman…always hopeful of romance and adventure.

I should mention that Chaplin’s art of the meal is often coupled with innovation. I can think of a few instances when the Tramp is extremely resourceful and imaginative on his quest to obtain sustenance for himself or someone he loves. His wonderful The Kid (1921) comes to mind as does A Dog’s Life (1918). Even his eating the baby’s hot dog in The Circus (1928) takes a fair amount of imagination.

As far as the art of the meal Chaplin style goes I’ve left the best for last. You simply can’t beat The Gold Rush (1925) for Chaplin’s signature one-two punch combination of pathos and laughter in food-related instances than in this movie. The Tramp reaches depths of desperation that are as artistically fulfilled as anything I can imagine. To start there’s the famous table ballet scene, which is the most overtly artistic food-related meal I mention here. This is perhaps an example of the importance Chaplin placed on a gathering at the table. The sequence takes place during a daydream, the realization of a desire to belong that doesn’t materialize and breaks your heart. During the gathering he enchants with the beautiful table ballet during which he uses little to do a lot. Another Chaplin trait. Such charm is illustrated in this sequence, such artistry using only two dinner rolls and two forks – and one incredible talent. The Tramp is, after all, a simple man, and the fact that he is in difficult situations in all of these movies only serves to draw us to him. When asked to make a speech in his daydream he can’t, choosing the simple ballet instead and as a result lasting movie images are created.  

The Table Ballet

The Gold Rush offers the best opportunity for elaborate food-related sequences due to the extent of the hunger present in the arctic cabin in which the Tramp resides for much of the movie. Chaplin makes the best of the Tramp’s suffering in this illustrated by the movie’s most memorable meal, thanksgiving dinner, which consists of his boiled shoe. It’s quite something to see this character so committed to ingesting the shoe, which he does with the same gusto as he does the beans in The Immigrant or the spaghetti in City Lights. The way he twirls shoe laces onto to a fork and sucks on nails as if they were bones with obvious circles under his eyes just breaks my heart. It’s done so truthfully that it hurts despite the absurdity of it. When I watched The Gold Rush with my mother she laughed heartily throughout, but when it came to the shoe scene she simply said, “poor thing, that’s how hunger is.” 

Eating a shoe with as much heart as one can muster

 

The meal has stood out as being a social experience of paramount importance since the beginning of time. As such cinema has allowed food its vital place by offering many instances where it fosters romance and illustrates how families bond around a table as Chaplin does in The Kid for instance. Or, movies show the opposite perhaps by highlighting how far apart people have become. Many of these examples are offered in the Food in Film Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings so be sure to visit. As far as Chaplin goes I hope I’ve been able to show how food made the Tramp an artist and how the Tramp made food an emotionally varied experience. Doing justice to Charlie Chaplin’s art of the meal is no easy task because there are so many great examples to choose from. I’m confident, however, that anyone who’s seen a Chaplin film will concur: the wide range of emotions he elicits from the most average of rituals have the power to leave us speechless – by laugher or tears. The art of the Chaplin meal satisfies as much in its watching as it does for the Little Tramp time and time again. 

16 thoughts

  1. This is brilliant, Aurora. I love how you wove together these scenes, from different films, as a testament to Chaplin’s talent and artistry. Beautifully done.

    Also, I was struck by what your mother said about hunger when she was watching Chaplin eating the shoe…

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with this superb essay.

    1. I’m so glad you liked this, Ruth. Appreciate your kind words. The most difficult part was not mentioning every single instance that fit the theme. Thank you and Kristina for hosting this event. It’s a fantastic idea.

  2. My Chaplin experience is rather limited, mainly because I never really got into silent movies. But I have seen The Gold Rush and The Great Dictator. I love the scene where Chaplin tries to eat a shoe. (Who hasn’t seen that scene even if they haven’t seen Chaplin in anything else? Its a classic.)

  3. Really nice analysis of food in Chaplin’s films. It makes sense that food would feature in a lot of the Little Tramp films (since Chaplin’s character is, after all, a little tramp and the idea of survival is prevalent in a tramp’s life). But, as usual, Chaplin elevates the simplest thing to art. He does it also in later films, like The Great Dictator (the banquet scene is classic) and even in Monsieur Verdoux (the wine), though in the latter, it’s not for comic effect.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog
    http://thedreambook.wordpress.com/

  4. That was a pretty excellent choice for the blogathon and your article makes us realize how food is important in Chaplin’s film! It is indeed part of his humour, his genius and his charm. What would be The Gold Rush withouth the Oceana Roll Danc?!

  5. Fabulous subject and post! True that those food scenes are iconic in all of cinema, demonstrate Chaplin’s genius and are just perfect obsessions for a hungry Tramp. Thanks for joining the feast, always love having you along!

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