He Who Gets Slapped



USA 1924 : Victor SJOSTROM (aka Seastrom) : 95 mins approx (silent)

Intermittently entertaining and inventive silent melodrama showcasing the very physical acting skills of Lon Chaney, a screen legend whose premature death in 1930 robbed cinema of a unique talent. Here he plays obsessed scientist Paul Beaumont, whose work ‘on the origins of mankind’ is stolen by his devious patron, the Baron de Regnard (Marc McDermott) – who also makes off with Beaumont’s wife for good measure.

Utterly devastated by life’s savage cruelties, Beaumont literally runs away to the circus where he starts a new life as a clown. Known as ‘HE who gets slapped’ – or simply ‘HE’ for short – his act consists of enduring nightly physical abuse at the hands of his impassive fellow clowns, to the explosive delight of the circus’s boorish audiences: a more economic definition of schadenfreude (taking joy at the misfortunes of others) would be harder to imagine.

But though HE (the character’s “name” is capitalised in all intertitles) becomes a roaring success, it turns out that fate hasn’t yet done with him – he secretly dotes on Consuelo (Norma Shearer), a bare-back rider in love with her fellow performer Bezano (John Gilbert). HE can just about stand this state of affairs – but when the dastardly Baron returns to the scene and starts moving in on Consuelo, HE is spurred into a drastic act of revenge.

A relatively simple, straightforward tale* of thwarted ambition and unrequited passion He Who Gets Slapped (which strictly speaking should be written as HE Who Gets Slapped) bogs down from time to time, especially during the romantic interludes between Consuelo and Bezano. The very full-tilt Chaney provides the film’s energy, and his absences from the screen during the second half are unfortunate – the broad, sentimental aspects of the story become more glaringly apparent.

We’re certainly a long way from the savage excesses of, say, Tod Browning’s glimpse behind the circus-folk curtain in Freaks (1930), though HE’s revenge – which involves the strategic unleashing of a circus lion – is appropriately stirring. And Sjostrom does achieve some startling compositions – the first entrance of the clown troupe is an eye-poppingly surreal spectacle, while the very final shot is a boldly imaginative use of trick-photography that anticipates the many sinister clowns (and, indeed, Killer Klownz) that would follow He Who Gets Slapped down the ensuing cinematic decades.

5th June, 2003
(seen 1st June: CineSide, Newcastle – with live guitar and accordion accompaniment by Milan and Rosa)

by Neil Young

*script by Sjostrom, adapted by Sjostrom and Carey Wilson, from the play He, the One who Gets Slapped by Leonid Andreyev. The play had been previously filmed in Russia in 1916 by Alexander I Gai as Tot, kto poluchayet poshchechini starring future Freaks villainess Olga Baclanova.