Anatomy of a Gag

Choking Chaplin

On Film / Visual Analysis — May 30, 2018


In one the most unsettling moments in Charlie Chaplin’s filmography, the Little Tramp is depicted being force-fed by a state-of-the-art machine that brings him to the brink of choking. By the time Chaplin staged this dystopian gag in 1936’s Modern Times, the absurd mechanics of eating had long been a fixture in his repertoire. Drawing on his memories of growing up poor, the great comedian transmuted the abjection of hunger into some of his nuttiest set pieces, including a scene in The Gold Rush (1925) in which the Tramp hungrily sucks on boot nails as if they were chicken bones, and one in City Lights (1931) where he accidentally swallows a whistle. The second installment in critic David Cairns’s three-part series on Chaplin digs deep into this fixation on unpleasant consumption, connecting the theme of choking to a formative, near-death experience the filmmaker had at the age of three and to his career-long commentary on poverty and class. Watch the video above, and then—if you missed it last week—check out Cairns’s look at the influence of dance on Chaplin’s films.