One of my favorite Lon Chaney films, He Who Gets Slapped is a comical tragedy or a tragical comedy about a man destined to succeed only at failure... even as a clown. The film, which came out in 1924, was directed by legendary Swedish actor and director Victor Sjöström (credited as Victor Seastrom) and was based on a Russian play. As a film, He Who Gets Slapped is a superb silent melodrama examining an audience's need for violent spectacle and their sadistic enjoyment of watching other people experience misfortune, in this case a clown who is constantly slapped and ridiculed while trying to expound up his ideas and feelings. The clown of course is played by Lon Chaney (who would later play a similar role as tragic clown in Laugh, Clown, Laugh). The rest of the cast is filled out by screen starlet Norma Shearer and John Gilbert.
The story follows Paul Beaumont, a scientist who has been obsessed with his radical theories which he intends to present to his fellow scientists. After years of studious work and devotion, his idea is stolen from him by the nefarious Baron Regnard, his own patron and supporter. In outrage, he stands up before the scientific academy, but they only laugh at him and to compound things, the Baron slaps him condescendingly. Afterward, Beaumont is further disgraced when he discovers that his wife is and the Baron are having an affair. In despair and self-loathing and now ridiculed by the scientific community, Beaumont takes a job in the circus, where he indulges his masochism for the entertainment of the audience, as a clown known as He Who Gets Slapped. As part of his act, he begins a serious speech either announcing an idea or expressing his own feelings, but nobody listens and instead he is slapped repeatedly by other clowns. The act proves to be very popular and Beaumont, now simply referred to as He, becomes a comedic celebrity. All the while Beaumont's true nature and sadness is hidden behind his painted on clown's smile. Beaumont falls in love with Consuelo, the circus owner's daughter, but she is in love with the young and dashing Bezano, a horseback stunt rider. For years, Beaumont labors at the circus, hopelessly in love. One night, Beaumont sees Baron Regnard in the audience laughing uproariously with the rest of the crowd at He Who Gets Slapped. Then the Baron and the circus owner have a discussion, during which Beaumont listens in. To his horror he discovers that the circus owner plans to offer up his daughter's hand to the Baron in exchange for money. Horrified, Beaumont goes to Consuelo to tell her everything. When Beaumont tries tell Consuelo how he feels about her and the depth of his passion and commitment, Consuelo mistakes his sincerity for part of his act and playfully slaps him in jest. Beaumont is even more heartbroken and finds only one reason left to live... revenge. In one final confrontation, Beaumont manages to trap the circus owner and the Baron in a room backstage before letting a lion loose on them. In the process, however, Beaumont himself is mortally wounded by the circus owner. When he goes on stage for the last time, he tries to explain the lengths to which a clown will go to entertain the audience, but he is only slapped until he collapses and dies leaving the rest of the circus and the audience stunned and filled with guilt.
The film is without a doubt one of the most poignant films Chaney made and it certainly follows the pattern of his other films in which a character encounters tragedy, then attempts to overcome it only to fall hopelessly in love, to be rejected, and then to seek revenge upon the world. Many of Chaney's films featured this formula, but this one is even more appealing in that it has something rather unflattering to say about the whole human race: we live vicariously through the suffering and humiliation of others. It's certainly not a message which is delivered with a great deal of subtlety and some of the visual metaphors, such as the heart-shaped handkerchief that Beaumont keeps with him when he is a clown, might seem a bit silly and over-the-top today, but all in all the film is one of the most powerful that Chaney starred in. Another aspect of the film that makes it quite memorable is its visual style and atmosphere, which can be attributed to the director who had made numerous expressionistic films in Sweden before coming to the United States.Sjöström employs a number of visual tricks, such as double exposures, complex transitions, and some nifty editing, to make the story more engaging. He captures the chaos and celebratory mayhem of the circus, although there are few scenes of the rest of the circus show other than those in the main tent where the clowns, acrobats, horse riders, and dancers perform.
Oh, and just as a bit of trivia, Victor Sjöström was the mentor of fellow Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and Bergman gave Sjöström the lead role in the classic drama Wild Strawberries.
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Dec 16, 2008
Jun 7, 2012 07:25 PM UTC
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Directed by acclaimed Swedish film maker and actor Victor Sjöström, credited as Victor Seastrom for his American films, He Who Gets Slapped is a 1924 silent film released through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and stars Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, and Norma Shearer.