He Who Gets Slapped
US (1924) Dir. Victor Sjöström
Laughter is the best medicine, it helps us get through the day, and we should all laugh or lose our minds. Yet, laughter can be cruel, demeaning, and destructive, ruining our confidence or happiness by those who laugh at us and not with us. Perhaps this is why they say “he who laughs last laughs longest”…
Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) is a French scientist working on a radical thesis regarding the origins of mankind, sponsored by wealthy patron Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). When the thesis is complete, Regnard arranges for a reading before a panel of scientists but instead claims he work as his own, slapping Paul when he complains. Paul is also devastated to learn his wife Marie (Ruth King) been having an affair with Regnard.
Years later, Paul has reinvented himself as a clown known as HE – Who Gets Slapped, his circus act consisting of him being slapped by other clowns. A quick success, Paul forgets his past until daredevil bareback rider Consuelo (Norma Shearer) joins the circus to star alongside Bezano (John Gilbert). Both men fall in love with Consuelo, though it is Bezano who wins her heart, but when he learns the Baron plans to marry Consuelo, it is Paul who takes action.
Not a horror film in any true sense, in the hands of Victor Sjöström and Lon Chaney, He Who Gets Slapped is a dark, often grim parable on mocking of others coming back to haunt you. Based on a Russian play Тот, кто получает пощёчины by Leonid Andreyev, this was the very first production by the newly founded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios, though not the first film released under that banner.
There was a Russian film adaptation made in 1916 but this is the most well known film version, produced by the legendary (and customarily uncredited) Irving Thalberg, future husband of Norma Shearer. This film also marked the first appearance of MGM mascot Leo The Lion but not the same lion that let out the famous roar (obviously, as this was a silent film) that we all recognise.
Since he has become synonymous with horror, seeing Lon Chaney’s name attached to a moral drama might seem like an anomaly but lest we forget, he was an accomplished actor, albeit one with a knack for creating his own incredible make-up. As Paul, he is almost unrecognisable at first with his goatee beard and full head of hair, and doesn’t possess any of the intensity his characters usually do. Seeing Paul crumble weakly to Regnard after being royally shafted seems unbecoming for Chaney but this is soon to change.
Even with his white make-up, silly hair cut skull cap, and clown face paint, Paul as HE cuts a sad figure with a very slight sinister edge in the eyes that isn’t affected, just a by-product of his thick set features. However, the pathos behind his being slapped and taking prat falls for big laughs is upsetting for the audience who know the backstory of Paul being humiliated in front of his science peers by Regnard; Paul envisions the crowds at the circus as the laughing scientist, somehow inspiring him to be funnier.
Meanwhile, there is the blossoming romance between Bezano and Consuelo that appears evident to everyone except Paul and Consuelo’s father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall). The story is that the Mancini name has been tarnished over the years leaving the Count penniless hence Consuelo working the entertainment circuit. One night when Regnard decides to see the show, Mancini ingratiates himself to the Baron and plants the seeds of a possible marriage between him and Consuelo, purely to line his own pockets.
It is interesting that the same year this film came out, F.W Murnau released his German language classic The Last Laugh, which may be more of a tale about social divides but does share the basic theme on the rich looking down on the poor. Both films end with the protagonist getting a form of revenge against their snobbish antagonists, though in the case of Sjöström’s tale, it is less symbolic and far more grisly, but not graphic since this was 1924.
As much as Chaney was a visual actor, Sjöström was a visual director, scattering little motifs and powerful imagery throughout the film to enhance the mood of the scene – such as HE’s white made up face being the sole, vague light in a darkened big top – or as part of a enigmatic segueway, like the spinning globe surrounded by clowns that represent the cycle of life as it continual spins, marking the stages of HE’s fate.
Coming off his turn as Quasimodo in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame Lon Chaney suffuses elements of this role in Paul, whilst one could see how his seminal take on The Phantom Of The Opera, is predicated by the darker turn as HE. As if the white make-up literally alters his personality, there is an argument to be made for every evil clown to have its roots in HE, despite him not being inherently evil. I refer more to the table turning final act where HE confronts Regnard and Mancini not as a jolly slapstick performer but a man on a moral mission with nothing to lose.
Whilst his co-stars were both a year or so from breaking out and becoming major names of the silent era, John Gilbert and Norma Shearer had to put their successful runs at Fox behind them when starting with MGM. Sans moustache, Gilbert isn’t quite the matinee idol he would become, but as Bezano is a dashing enough foil for Shearer’ Consuelo. Known for playing the plucky liberated female, this role taps into that yet leaves enough room for amiability that her warmth towards HE isn’t patronising.
Just like the haunting The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström delivers another powerful life lesson in He Who Gets Slapped, a piercing, provocative treatise about the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them.