One day, after he had had time to get tired of the social maelstrom that followed the premiere of The Great Dictator, I sent Charlie a telegram at the Waldorf Astoria: "Come on up Sunday and bring a companion. I've got a new game."
When Frank, his Japanese parent-valet, called up to say that he would come, I invited Edmund Wilson, the literary critic, and his gifted wife, Mary McCarthy, to come over from Stamford, and got my friend Charles Reitell, a doctor of sick industries by profession, to bring some of his intelligence and personality tests along. In inviting these guests, I explained that Charlie Chaplin might or might not be there.
Charlie arrived at noon with a gentle and warm-eyed companion from Brooklyn, and we played with those tests, and discussed them, and discussed everything under the sun, until one-thirty that night. It was like old times in Hollywood. Somewhat to our surprise Bunny Wilson, who is a distinctly literary person, made a phenomenal score in the test for operators of delicate machinery. Dr. Reitell guaranteed him a sixty-dollar-a-week job on application. On the same test, I was marked way down for "labored accuracy." "Don't hire this man" was written across my sheet.
Charlie pleaded the absence of his reading glasses and did only one eighth of the test--perfectly. The rest of the time he spent denouncing the whole idea of classifying human beings.
"These tests tell nothing," he said. "People are individuals; they aren't bunches of attributes. You have to know them with your Intuitions before you know them"
The Wilsons left about midnight, and a few minutes after they went out, Bunny stuck his head back through the door:
"Max, I can't seem to start my car. I wonder if you know anything about engines!"
Charlie jumped right out of his chair with delight.
"There you are!" he exclaimed. "That shows you what these tests are worth! Wilson the great machine operative--sixty dollars a week as a mechanic--and he has to come back and ask a poet to start his car!"
Just the same, Dr. Reitell knew a lot more about us when he went home than he could have found out in months of ordinary conversation. In particular, I thought, he had the low-down on Charlie and me, and the reasons for our long mutual understanding. Our "personality inventory" showed a surprising number of traits in common. On "emotional instability" Charlie made a score of 84 per cent--50 percent being the average, and 98 per cent indicating a visit to the psychiatrist, at the very least.
"Your high score there," Dr. Reitell said in a kindly way, "assures you of the ability to dramatize your public. You overfeel for them their emotions...."
He did not offer any such consoling reflections on my still closer approach to the loony bin. My score was 87 percent.
The doctor's inventory attributed one trait to Charlie that indubitably belongs to him, and makes him stand out almost solitary among the weakly gregarious and garrulous brain wasters of the movie world. That is a high degree of "self-sufficiency."
"Your score of 77 per cent in this trait indicates," the doctor announced, "that you prefer to be alone, rarely ask for sympathy, and tend to ignore the advice of others."
The phrase is a picture of Charlie in Hollywood--or above it. It explains both the awe--if the word is not too strong--and the resentment with which many of its more convivial celebrities regarded him. It explains also the dreadful state of mercy-turned-into-rage that girls would get into when their almost universal impulse to become his mother--welcomed at a certain distance--found the inner citadel impregnable.
And not girls only. There is an impulse in all affection to try to "get hold of" its object--to make sure that he depends enough upon its warmth, to be there whenever a returning warmth is needed. Charlie doesn't depend upon any warmth that much--not even when he is in love. He is sufficient unto himself.
This trait frightens some people and gets them mad. It gives me the pleasure of admiration. I do think, however, that in the later years it grew on him and gave rise to flaws in his work. Like most brooding artists, Charlie is hyper-sensitive, and gets very sad if you tell him something he has just done is no good. Nevertheless, he always used to have some robust critic around the studio, like Eddie Sutherland, a good director himself, who would say: "Aw, Charlie, cut that gag short it's a bore!" Charlie would go into a gloom, and maybe quit work for a day or two. But when he emerged, he would emerge with a perfectly objective and correct appraisal of the criticism.
|Charlie with Max Eastman, c. 1919|
In Charlie's inventory the score on "introversion" was 88 percent--so high that the doctor exclaimed with surprise: "You are not so damn far from being a recluse! Seclusion from the world with solitude seems to be your idea of heaven!" This again increased my respect for the doctor's methods, for I had heard Charlie express that idea of heaven many times. Years ago, when we both thought--some of the time, at least--that a proletarian revolution was coming, he remarked:
"It's all right with me. I'm for the working class. But they needn't expect me on the barricades. I'm no hero--I've got too much imagination to be a hero. When the shooting starts, I'm going to take a loaf of bread and a can of sardines and beat it to the mountains."
He was climbing the mountains in a hurry while he said that--and then he climbed cautiously down again.
"I'll probably come back for a can opener, but that's all I'll ask of the revolution."
In those days, the general notion of living a hermit's life was never far from his thoughts. His home at that time was tucked away on a little walled-in hill with trees enclosing its private sky.
"If I had a moat and a drawbridge," he said when he showed it to me, "I could live here the year round all alone and be happy. I might let you in once in a while for a game of tennis, but only because I need exercise."
Another thing that vastly surprised our examiner was Charlie's low score of 18 percent on "dominance versus submission."
"You certainly fooled me on this one," he said, "I had always thought you would dominate others, but I find you a very submissive, peaceful, quiet type indeed."
On "self-confidence" Charlie's score was still lower--only 11 percent.
"You are very hamperingly self-conscious" the doctor decreed, "and harbor definite feelings of inferiority. Any bold indications of aggressiveness, or strong assertions of power, are but a defense, a thin veneer, the cloaking of a timid, worried, and perturbed soul!"
Here I thought the doctor's system showed a serious defect. It failed to distinguish dominance as an ultimate fact from dominance as an immediate social attitude. It failed to realize that shy and diffident people often have a sovereign confidence in their own judgment, even if they have to go home and lock themselves into a soundproof chamber to find out which judgment is their own.
You could safely bet that, in any group engaged in making moving pictures, Chaplin, even though unknown, would soon turn out to be the boss. He would either become the boss or get kicked out as unmanageable. And yet you would see no clash of wills. He would never bristle or try to domineer. He hated that kind of thing so much that he evaded meeting one of our excessively red-blooded writers who, on a visit to Hollywood, was entertained by all the other stars.
I like civilized people," he said.
It took this "submissive, quiet, peaceful type" only two months, after arriving in Mack Sennett's studio in Hollywood in 1914, a young kid and a total greenhorn, to be come the director of every picture he appeared in. It took him less than six months to change the whole character and conception of cinema comedy prevailing there, if not everywhere. But there is no record of any "indications of aggressiveness" or "strong assertions of power." On the contrary, he bewildered everybody by behaving deferentially, and even humbly, but just not doing what the director told him to. Indeed, until the great news began to arrive from the box offices, Charlie's independence on the set was generally regarded as a special kind of stupidity. Mack Sennett finally allowed him to direct a picture of his own in sheer desperation.
"Let the damn fool find out for himself that it's not so easy!"
But Charlie told me another story from those same days which illustrates his self-distrust:
"Mack Sennett was paying me $175 a week, and when the contract expired, Essenay offered me $3000 a week. I went to Mack Sennett and told him I had had this offer. I said that I would prefer to stay with him, if he would pay me $1000 a week. He came back with an offer of a three-year contract--$500 a week the first year, $1000 the second, and $3000 the third.
"I knew I was popular. I had seen the crowds in the street outside the theatres, But I also knew how transitory such popularity is. I had grown up in the shadow of the uncertainties of an entertainer's career. I wanted to cash in on my popularity before it ran dry. I said to Mack Sennett:
"'I'll accept your offer if you'll reverse it. Pay me $3000 a week the first year, $1000 a week the second, $500 a week the third, and I'll stay.'
"Sennett said it was an idiotic idea, and he wouldn't sign such a contract. But I meant it. I was ready to sign."
There is a shrewdness in such timidity, or near it, and Charlie is extremely shrewd. As a businessman he fell down only in matters demanding an adequate estimation of his own size. It did not seem funny to him to make out his income-tax reports on the theory that he and his half-brother, Syd, who also "acts in the pictures," were partners. Even after paying up a million dollars in back taxes and penalties, he could not quite follow the government's logic!
Here is another example of his shrewdness or inferiority complex, I don't know which:
I came into his room one morning at the Waldorf Astoria, and found him still in bed. His face wore, or assumed when he saw me, that expression of unutterable pathos that so often and so suddenly breaks your heart on the screen.
"What's the matter, Charlie?" I asked, "Why are you so sad?"
He reached over and picked up a slip of paper from the bed table.
"Look at this!" he said.
I took the paper and read in the handwriting of his valet-secretary:
"The X_____ Company offers you $877,000 for twenty-five fifteen-minute broadcasts."
I laughed. I thought his pathos was a joke. But it wasn't.
"I can't do it, you know," he said. And then, with increased mournfulness: "I need the money too! The government just relieved me of a million dollars."
"Why can't you do it?" I said, "You can make a speech!"
"It isn't that," he said. "You know how I love speech-making. I can't come that close to my public. I have to remain a little remote and mysterious. They have to romanticize me. I would lose more than that at the box office if I made myself real and familiar over the radio."
To me, I must say, Charlie remained a mystery no matter how real and familiar he grew--a baffling combination of cool and high judgment, with total submersion in blind emotional drives. He loved advice; he loved a long conversation in which the best minds in the world would devote themselves to his problems and feel that they were guiding an untutored and yet great creative genius. He loved it the way a duck loves a shower bath. The advice was always thoughtfully weighed and, in so far as it was really good, "accepted." Everybody went home with a feeling that important and rather intimate decisions had been made. But if they were made on the other side of the moon, they would have had as much effect on Charlie's course of action.