#314) HE Who Gets Slapped (1924)

he-who-gets-slapped-movie-poster-md

#314) HE Who Gets Slapped (1924)

OR “Clown-trodden”

Directed by Victor Sjöström

Written by Sjöström and Carey Wilson. Based on the play by Leonid Andreyev.

Class of 2017

No trailer, but here is a clip of HE getting slapped. That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?

The Plot: Scientist Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) is betrayed when his donor Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott) claims Paul’s proven theories as his own. A confrontation at the Academy of the Sciences ends with the Baron slapping Paul in front of the distinguished academics, and then running off with Paul’s wife Marie (Ruth King). Paul takes her cries of “clown” literally, and five years later has become the successful circus clown “HE” with his “HE Who Gets Slapped” routine. HE develops feelings for the show’s new horse rider Consuelo (Norma Shearer), who is in love with fellow performer Bezano (John Gilbert). When the Baron happens upon the circus with his eye on marrying Consuelo, HE/Paul must confront his past and why he has chosen to mask his pain with pratfalls and makeup.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up lists the film’s historical significance, and praises Chaney, Sjöström, and the film’s “nightmarish vignettes”. They also call the film “[o]ne of the earliest ‘creepy clown’ movies”. I suspect the 2017 NFR board had just come back from a showing of “It” before inducting this film.

But Does It Really?: I don’t know. I enjoyed “HE Who Gets Slapped” quite a bit. It’s a wonderfully weird movie unlike anything else the silent era produced. That being said, its historical significance is more trivial than pivotal (see “Other notes” below), and the film has no real lasting cultural impact. But on the plus side, “Slapped” has aged very well for a 95-year-old movie, and hopefully will get rediscovered by film lovers and clown-fearing citizens alike. The slightest of passes for NFR inclusion.

Wow, That’s Dated: Traveling circuses, as well as a time when clowns were commonly accepted as an embodiment of joy and not, you know, nightmare-inducing.

Take a Shot: The title is actually mentioned once in the intertitles as the name of Paul’s act. And yes, both letters in “HE” are capitalized. Take that, God!

Other notes

  • What is the historical significance of “HE Who Gets Slapped”? It was the very first film produced entirely by MGM following the merger of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures. It’s also the first MGM movie to open with Leo the Lion, played by Slats, the only Leo that doesn’t roar.
  • Yes, the movie is a bit on the bizarre side, but once you learn it’s an adaptation of a Russian play, suddenly it all makes more sense. What I wouldn’t give to see that production.
  • This is one of several American films where Swedish-born director Victor Sjöström is credited as the Anglicized “Victor Seastrom”. I guess early film typeface didn’t have umlauts.
  • The first shot is a clown spinning a globe while laughing into the camera. Fasten your seatbelts, kids.
  • It quickly occurred to me that I’m only familiar with Lon Chaney as “The Phantom of the Opera”. I had no idea what he actually looked like. Why would you want to hide that face under so much makeup?
  • Is this what the Academy of the Sciences did before the Oscars?
  • Oh I didn’t realize the clowns are here for scene transitions. This is trippy. Visually impressive, but still trippy.
  • Canadian-American actor Norma Shearer is many things, Italian is not one of them.
  • Consuelo takes the time to re-sew the heart on HE’s costume. She’s mending his heart. Get it?
  • How does one get the title “The World’s Quaintest Clown”? Additionally, why would one want said title?
  • “I’m wrong again – the earth is HARD” Rare is the intertitle that actually makes me snort.
  • The nice thing about silent movies is that any modern-day musical type can rescore them. Can you imagine this subject matter set to more experimental music?
  • John Gilbert looks a little like Douglas Fairbanks at times. Is that natural or was it a requirement of every man in the mid ‘20s?
  • Lon Chaney’s performance is an interesting balance of subtle and deranged. HE is so close to being the Joker.
  • Speaking of MGM, this movie features what may be Leo the Lion’s only dramatic role. Slats earned his paycheck that week.
  • The good news about a clown getting hurt: everyone can fit inside the ambulance.
  • The intertitles get real philosophical near the end: “What is Death –? What is Life –? What is Love –?” I can only answer the third question with an obvious “Night at the Roxbury” joke.
  • I don’t mean to nitpick a particularly downer film, but I feel like any other scientist would have just gone back to square one and tried a new thesis. But that’s a far less interesting movie.

Legacy

  • “HE Who Gets Slapped” was a big hit in its day, and helped boost MGM’s standing as a major studio player.
  • I’ll disagree with the NFR: while HE may be a “creepy clown”, I would label this film as the first in the “sad clown” subgenre (aka the “Pagliacci” films). Sometimes they’re about actual clowns, but most of the time they’re biopics about the depressing lives your favorite comedians lived.
  • All of the major creatives behind “Slapped” benefited from this film’s popularity. Victor Sjöström would go on to direct several other successful silent films, including future NFR entry “The Wind”, Norma Shearer became a leading lady almost overnight, and John Gilbert was a little over a year away from his first of many pairings with Greta Garbo.
  • Even Leo the Lion is still going strong almost 100 years later.
  • As for Lon Chaney, he continued his run of a thousand faces, with his most iconic role just around the corner…

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