He Who Gets Slapped (1924) is part of the 2011 Warner Archive Lon Chaney collection, and in this film Chaney gives one of his most natural, assured performances—in no small part due to director Victor Sjostrom, who also directed Chaney, with Norma Shearer, in the following year’s Tower Of Lies (unfortunately, yet another lost film). Victor Sjostrom is something of an icon. He was a favorite director of stars Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish, and his masterpiece,The Phantom Carriage (1921), was a considerable influence on Ingmar Bergman. After the coming of sound Sjostrom retired from directing to return to his first love of acting, but he still served as mentor to the young Bergman; Bergman repaid the favor by casting Sjostrom in the extraordinarily beautiful role of Dr. Isak Borg for Wild Strawberries (1957, possibly Bergman’s greatest film).
After seeing the films Sjostrom had made in Sweden, Producer Irving Thalberg recruited Sjostrom to Hollywood. He Who Gets Slapped was the first film the director made at MGM, and it proved to be a lucrative endeavor for all concerned. Sjostrom was one of the few directors respected by both Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg. He Who Gets Slapped is based off the 1914 play by Leonid Andreyev. The resulting film looks, thinks and acts far more European than anything Hollywood studios had produced at that time.
It is a tale of degradation, humiliation, pathos, and sacrifice. Thankfully, it is a film in which we do not find ourselves rooting for the Donald Trumps or Paris Hiltons of the world. Chaney is the destitute but prolific scientist Paul Beaumont, so dedicated in his work that he, inevitably, is rendered the oblivious fool. Beaumont’s filthy rich patron is the Baron de Regnard (Marc McDermott). Regnard has been helping himself to Beaumont’s selfish wife Maria (Ruth King) and additionally plans to steal the fruit of Beaumont’s scientific labors.
The world of Paul Beaumont comes crashing down when Regnard presents Beaumont’s work, as his own, to the Academy. Beaumont tries, in vain, to convince the Academy of the theft, but they take the side of the affluent Regnard as opposed to the unknown, poverty stricken Beaumont. Beaumont is belittled by his patron’s betrayal, by the mocking laughter of the academy, by the discovery of his wife’s infidelity, and, finally, by Regnard’s humiliating slap to his face. It is a slap which Beaumont now obsessively echoes in repetition every night. On the road to the discovery of his Magnificat, Paul becomes ‘HE.’
The clown He Who Gets Slapped (HE) is soon the rage of the Paris circus. Underneath HE’s face paint is the former Paul Beaumont, who repeats that cruel moment of humiliation again and again and again, every night, in performance. Audiences make a star of the clown who gets slapped one hundred times a night. HE is in love with Consuelo (Norma Shearer- who soon became Mrs. Irving Thalberg), the beautiful bareback rider, but she is in love with Bezano (John Gilbert, the original inspiration for the doomed star of A Star is Born ) which, of course, means unrequited love for HE.
HE expresses his love for Consuelo, who, in believing HE is joking, laughs at him. HE takes the laugh, but HE cannot take the return of the Regnard, who has conspired with Consuelo’s father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall) to take Consuelo’s hand in marriage. To lift the lowly and scatter the elite calls for nothing less than Biblical justice, in the form of the animal kingdom.
Chaney’s HE is one of his most masterful portrayals. Chaney resembles a character straight out of a Flannery O’ Connor narrative. His pathetic desperation, dementia, humility, and redemptive dignity are fully intact. Oddly, Chaney is best known for his roles in two Universal features, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera(1925). While Chaney’s acting was indisputably superb in both of those epic films, the movies themselves are flawed by unimaginative directing, leaving one to wonder how much better they might have been if Chaney had been under the helm of a director like Sjostrom or Tod Browning.
He Who Gets Slapped is not without its flaws. The intrusive vignettes focusing on the romance between Gilbert and Shearer (no doubt the result of producer Thalberg, who wanted to highlight the sex appeal of his soon to be wife and matinee idol Gilbert) are of considerably less interest than the main story. Despite being saddled with THE Hollywood studio, Sjostrom’s work here is innovative and often surreal, making him a superb collaborator for Chaney. This makes the loss of their second collaboration, Tower of Lies (1925), all the more tragic. Still, the official release of the long-buried He Who Gets Slapped is one of the most welcome of the year.