He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
MGM. 80mins. BW. Silent. US.
Credits: Dir: Victor Seastrom (Sjostrom); Sc: Victor Sjostrom &
From a play by Leonid Andreyev.
Cast: Lon Chaney, Norma
Shearer, John Gilbert, Tully Marshall, Ford
Sterling, Marc McDermott, Brandon Hurst.
"In the grim comedy of life,
it has been wisely said
that the last laugh is the best..."
This film, MGM's first feature made entirely
under their trade mark, is considered to be one of Lon Chaney's greatest performances.
After his star turn in Universal's The Hunchback of
Notre Dame in 1923, Chaney joined Metro Goldwyn Mayer at the request of Irving
Thalberg who was also an exile from Universal Studios.
The film begins by introducing
scientist Paul Beaumont, (Lon Chaney), and
his wife Marie who are staying at the Parisian home of Paul's benefactor Baron Regnard,
(Marc McDermott), while Paul completes his work on his theories regarding the evolution of
mankind. However, the unscrupulous Baron steals Paul's papers and later presents them as
his own work at a meeting of fellow scientists. When Paul dares to protest, he is slapped
in the face to the humiliating laughter of everyone in the room.
His wife also takes the opportunity to slap him and call him a clown.
In his humiliation, Paul takes his wife's suggestion literally and joins the circus as a
clown where he becomes a great success in a routine of being slapped repeatedly to the
delight of the paying audiences.
Later Paul falls in love with fellow performer Consuelo, (Norma Shearer), the
daughter of the wealthy and devilish Count Mancini, (Tully Marshall), but unfortunately she is in love with her circus
partner Bezano, (John Gilbert), the daredevil bareback horse rider.
One night the Baron attends the circus and not recognising the famous clown as Paul, he
laughs with the rest of the audience as the clown's patchwork heart is torn out and buried
while a troupe of sixty clowns act out a mock funeral. Later Paul learns that the devious
Count has persuaded the Baron to take Consuelo as his wife, so he contrives their deaths
by releasing one of the circus lions.
Fatally wounded by Count Mancini's stick sword, Paul takes the centre ring for his final
performance and dies in Consuelo's arms, while the audience, believing it all to be part of the act, laugh heartily
as they applaud.
This poetic tradegy was a great hit with the
cinema going public, opening to record business throughout the country.
Swedish director Victor Sjostrom made his American debut, (as Seastrom), after finding
success in Sweden with the atmospheric Korkarlen
(Aka: The Phantom Carriage) in 1921. Sjostrom continued working in Hollywood until
returning to Sweden in 1930 where he was regarded as a father figure to Ingmar Bergman and
other aspiring directors.
HE WHO GETS SLAPPED also furthered the
career of John Gilbert who excelled as a romantic leading man until the advent of sound
and an altercation with Louis B. Mayer who forced him out of the industry. Norma Shearer
also gained recognition for her role and in 1927 she became Irving Thalberg's wife until
his death in 1936.
Also in the cast is Ford Sterling, a former Keystone Cop for Mack Sennet, and Tully Marshall who portrayed Lawyer Crosby in The Cat and the Canary (1927).
Chaney would later repeat his clown-with-a-broken-heart characterisation for Herbert
Brenon in LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH (1928), but it is his portrayal in HE WHO GETS
SLAPPED that has remained the most notorious of the two, more so as Chaney himself
professed that it was one of his favourite roles.
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