This is an extended version of the catalogue essay I wrote for Pirmoji Banga 2022, currently taking place in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The famous phrase attributed to Charlie Chaplin offers a devastating summary of He Who Gets Slapped (1924): “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” Victor Sjöström’s film examines what happens when one man’s bitterest humiliation is replayed for laughs, again and again, like a one-reel comedy playing in a nickelodeon.
The setting is French, but the source play is Russian, an enduringly popular stage hit by Leonid Andreyev, first performed in 1915. He Who Gets Slapped is an example of Andreyev’s “pansyche” theatre, in which the inner emotional state of the characters is more important that the plot. It’s an apt choice for director Victor Sjöström, credited in his American films such as this one, as Victor Seastrom. He had previously made dark psychological dramas such as Ingeborg Holm (1913) and The Phantom Carriage (1921) back home in Sweden. He Who Gets Slapped was one of his first films in his Hollywood career, which would include such similarly anguished fare as The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), both starring Lillian Gish and Swedish actor Lars Hanson.
Sjöström was also an actor, which is revealed in the dramatic strengths of his films. His final screen credit was as the dying professor in 1957’s Wild Strawberries, directed by Ingmar Bergman, who was a great admirer of Sjöström’s films, especially The Phantom Carriage. He Who Gets Slapped is a beautiful introduction to his work. It is an example of his psychological realism, but also his capacity to manipulate the sinister forces swirling around his characters – whether they are spectres from the afterlife, extreme weather, religious puritanism or simply gales of laughter. The artifice of the circus takes on an unearthly quality in a film that announces itself with a chilling intertitle about “the grim comedy of life” and a globe spun recklessly by a leering clown. In this film, laughter is dangerous; it can destabilise the whole world.
He Who Gets Slapped is notably the first film to be made by MGM studios, so we see the debut here of the Leo the lion logo before the opening credits. That said, it wasn’t the first film released by the studio – it was expected to be such a great success that it was held over for the festive season. This proved to be a wise decision, as the film took in thousands at the box office and was acclaimed by critics. Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times called it, “the finest production we have yet seen” and Variety’s critic described the film’s star Lon Chaney as “possibly the greatest character actor of the screen. In this role he displays an understanding of character beyond anything that he has done heretofore.”
Later, MGM would promote itself as the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven”, and even this early film boasts an impressive cast. Chaney, known for his elastic facial transformations, was a well-established star, having appeared in dozens of films, including playing Fagin in Oliver Twist (1922) and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Here he displays his adept handling of psychological complexity, a skill that rivalled his famous ease with physical transformations. His HE is a complex character, and we can almost sympathise with the way he become complicit in his own repeated humiliations.
Chaney plays a circus clown, HE, who performs a masochistic ritual each night in the ring – taking slaps in the face for the amusement of the crowd. The film begins before HE joins the circus though, when he is known as Paul Beaumont, a brilliant but poor scientist, slogging away on his great thesis. The conference at which he is to present his findings becomes the scene of his mortification – his work and his wife are stolen by another man, who compounds the insult with a haughty slap across the face.
“The Man of a Thousand Faces” is not in a very subtle disguise here – he appears both barefaced and made up as a clown. The transformation his character undergoes is more psychological than physical. Chaney had started his career in vaudeville – because both of his parents were deaf he was a very adept at pantomime. It was his skills with makeup that got him a contract at Universal playing character parts in the teens, but his breakthrough role came in 1919 with The Miracle Man, a showcase for both his makeup and his acting. You may know him best from silent horrors such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In 1925 he told a movie magazine that “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback… have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.”
Chaney’s co-stars include handsome John Gilbert as Bezano, a daredevil rider in the circus. Gilbert was a newly established leading man, beginning to play romantic leads and on the verge of his big breakthrough with this film, as well as The Big Parade (King Vidor) and The Merry Widow (Erich Von Stroheim) the following year. Destined to be remembered for his sizzling collaborations with Greta Garbo (including 1926’s Flesh and the Devil, and 1928’s A Woman of Affairs), Gilbert was one of silent Hollywood’s great lovers. The story that his career declined in the talkie era due to an embarrassingly squeaky voice is a myth that does a disservice to his charisma and popular appeal. In fact she appeared in such notable hits as Queen Christina in 1933.
In 1930, Chaney died of lung cancer, bringing an end to a remarkable, if short career. The following year, in a strange coincidence, Gilbert took on a role that had been written for Chaney before he died, in The Phantom of Paris. Sadly, Gilbert also died young, aged just 38, in 1936.
In the ingenue role, Norma Shearer plays Consuelo, the beautiful daughter of a corrupt count who applies to join the circus. This was the first big success for the spirited young star, who would later marry producer Irving Thalberg and cement her place in MGM’s heavenly host with a run of successful Pre-code dramas, in which she played sexually liberated, and very glamorous, young woman. She won an Oscar for her role in 1930’s The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard). When the Hays Code came into force Shearer segued into far more respectable period dramas, though she made something of an exception to lock horns with Joan Crawford in The Women (George Cukor, 1939).
Leo is not the only jungle beast in the film, which includes an extended sequence of threatened violence involving a caged lion. This particular kind of danger would become something of a trope for early big-top films, from the Max Linder vehicle Max, the Circus King, released in 1924, the same year as He Who Gets Slapped, to Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) and of course, the Mae West caper I’m No Angel from 1933. Despite the circus’s reputation for family-friendly fun, these films explore the peril of the big-top, with competitive performers and enraged animals in close proximity – but also the poignancy of the performer’s life.
In He Who Gets Slapped, the exaggerated slapstick and painted-on faces can barely disguise the sadness that motivates the clown to rehearse a version of his own mortification for a guffawing crowd. Here there are glimpses of kindness but hearts are destined to be trampled into the dust: romance is a fly-blown picnic and wives can be bought – and bought off.
In this film, as the ending of King Vidor’s silent masterpiece The Crowd (1928), the audience in the cheap seats laugh from a safe distance, numb to the horror in front of them. Sjöström’s camera privileges us to a close-up view, and the horror of life’s true tragedy.