100 Years of… He Who Gets Slapped

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It’s 100 years old, at least, He Who Gets Slapped. Which helps explain a title that would be laughed out of the first production meeting these days. “He Who…? He Who?” Sounds like an old car changing gear. As for the rest of it, it wouldn’t pass muster either. Way, way too unsettling, grim and dour for our times. Though it might make a nicely dark horror movie.

Here’s a film that was praised to the skies when it came out. The New York Times thought it was “perfect”… and a “faultless adaptation” of the original hit play (which had transferred from Russia to Broadway and become a hit all over again), and that its star, Lon Chaney, gave a “marvellous performance”. A century later it’s hard to disagree.

It’s the story of a man driven to madness by a moment of terrible humiliation and then driven beyond that to murder, all the while wearing a clown’s costume. Coulrophobes, as they’re known, gird your loins.

But first the backstory and the original injury. Paul Beaumont (Chaney) is an honourable scientist in the employ of Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). At a prestigious meeting of scientists the baron concludes an address to the academy on the work he has sponsored, but Beaumont has done, by claiming all Beaumont’s work exclusively as his own. Beaumont, who is also there, objects.

An argument breaks out. The baron slaps Beaumont, casually but enough to denote the power dynamic. The academy roars, “laughed at me as if I were a clown” he later explains to his wife, who is secretly in deep with the baron and will also casually slap her husband when she leaves him. It’s this second slap that tips Beaumont over the edge.

Dissolve to the present, where Beaumont is now known as HE (both letters uppercase) and is a circus clown whose act consists of being slapped “a hundred times a night”. Into his life comes a performer called Consuelo (Norma Shearer), the daughter of a down-on-his-luck Count (Tully Marshall), another aristocrat with no moral compass. In a complicated fourway split, HE likes her, but she only has eyes for fellow performer Bezano (John Gilbert). Her father, meanwhile, perilously broke, is in the process of selling his daughter off to none other than the baron. It’s the “it’s happening again” plot beloved of horror movies, except this time Paul/HE has the resources of a circus at his disposal, including a lion… 

Consuelo and HE
Norma Shearer and Lon Chaney

The plot is pretty good, rounded and satisfying in its symmetry – the echo of the phrase “he who laughs last” justifies the title – but it’s the way Victor Sjöström shoots his film that pushes it to excellence. It grips even at this distance, thanks to Sjöström’s determination to catch his characters’ psychological processes, which he does by tuning the performances, subtle use of the camera and great ability in the edit suite. Look how dark the early scenes are shot – to the point where MGM wanted to fire DP Milton Moore, until Sjöström (billed as Seastrom) explained that this was deliberate. Later, Sjöström and editor Hugh Wynn deploy the sort of complex cutting that’s decades ahead of its time to indicate the emotional to and fro – HE to Consuelo, the count to the baron, the baron to the ex-wife, with John Gilbert getting more attention than his character strictly needs, since he was a star beginning to rival Chaney.

Psychology and inner process isn’t what silent movies are remembered for and yet that’s what stands out here, in Chaney’s performance in particular, his make-up suggesting tears as, in white face, he slowly assesses the situation, strategic and romantic, and comes up with a plan that might achieve the double whammy of taking revenge and getting the girl.

Sjöström regularly cuts away to the same shot, of the clown HE leering to camera and laughing manically as a globe in front of him spins furiously. His day will come, it suggests. HE knows what you did last summer.

HE is a proto-slasher, or an an early version of the Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, and Chaney plays him as dysfunctionality squared. The rest of the cast suit their roles – McDermott a sinisterly static baron, Marshall a sinisterly mobile count, Shearer (almost invariably shot in profile to hide her squint) the bright young thing unaware she’s going to trigger an outrage, Gilbert the handsome circus performer. No one overacts.

Watch it for the story, the acting and the edits, they’re all superb. You can see why Ingmar Bergman revered Sjöström, to the point of bringing him out of retirement to act in 1957’s Wild Strawberries, another sad tale of a guy not getting the girl, though Bergman doesn’t end with everyone exiting pursued by a lion.

Talking of which, this was the first movie fronted by MGM’s studio ident featuring the famous MGM lion. All that’s missing is the roar.

He Who Gets Slapped – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

He Who Gets Slapped (as part of Lon Chaney: The Warner Classic Archives Collection) – Buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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