Movie review: Silent classic 'He Who Gets Slapped' closes Three Rivers Film Festival

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For some reason, people find nothing more amusing than seeing other people get slapped. And in the long unhappy history of clowns, none is unhappier than "HE" -- the one who gets slapped -- in MGM's first great feature-film production.

It was 1924. The smallish Samuel Goldwyn and Louis Mayer studios had just merged with Metro into the fledgling MGM. Freshly imported Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (renamed Seastrom) was engaged to turn Leonid Andreyev's celebrated stage play into a movie.

'He Who Gets Slapped'

Starring: Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert.

Rating: PG-13 in nature.

"He Who Gets Slapped" -- the closing event, tonight, of this year's Three Rivers Film Festival -- features a live musical accompaniment by the terrific Alloy Orchestra. It also features a stunning title-role performance by Lon Chaney. Forget (for the moment) his legendary incarnations of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925). This role is arguably better -- or his best.

Chaney plays scientist Paul Beaumont, laboring in obscurity to prove his revolutionary theories on the Origin of Mankind. His patron is the filthy-rich Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott) -- but if your benefactor seems too good to be true, he probably is. The baron cheats him out of his wife as well as his life's work, presenting Beaumont's discoveries as his own at the Academy of Sciences. When Beaumont protests, the baron slaps and humiliates him to the mocking laughter of the academics.

That single slap -- a bullet to the head and heart -- deranges him. He joins a circus and thenceforth masochistically repeats his cruel humiliation as a clown-star known only as "HE," who gets slapped by 60 other clowns nightly, to audiences' wild delight.

As if HE hasn't enough psychological issues, HE falls in love with a beautiful bareback rider Consuelo (Norma Shearer), but she is falling in love with debonair daredevil Bezano (John Gilbert). Even so, HE continues to get happily slapped around until one night when he spies that evil baron in the audience and learns of his plan to buy Consuelo in marriage from her crooked father. He then plots what we might call the lion's share of revenge -- MGM's iconic mascot in the service of vigilante justice.

Chaney's more famous performances in "Hunchback" and "Phantom" featured similarly doomed, unrequited love -- Quasimodo's for Esmeralda, the Phantom's for Christine -- but those epics were not especially well directed (by Wallace Worsely and Rupert Julian -- remember them? No, and for good reason.) "HE" is perhaps Chaney's most masterful portrayal and most visually dazzling film, thanks to Sjostrom. Tragic lyricism was his forte. He was a favorite of both Greta Garbo ("Divine Woman") and Lillian Gish ("Scarlet Letter" and "The Wind"). Here, he tones down Chaney's histrionic acting to augment the character's desperate dignity more than his dementia. Indeed, more intriguing than the demented whiteface grins are Sjostrom's closeups of Chaney -- in the film's early scenes -- sans clown makeup, as the great actor looked in real life.

"He Who Gets Slapped" was a big critical and financial success. It made a hefty $350,000 profit (about $4.5 million in today's dollars) and was so popular that two parodies were -- well -- slapped together to capitalize on it ("He Who Gets Kicked" and "He Who Gets Belted"!).

Hard as it may be for contemporary filmgoers to apprehend the dynamic, state-of-the-art direction of 1924, we should try: On all levels, this is "photoplay" storytelling at its best, with particularly brilliant choreography of a pantomime/ballet in which the circus comedians are dressed in white sheets with hoods -- KU KLUX KLOWNS! Deliberate or accidental? I don't know ... you be the judge.

In any case, the eerie recurring motif of a clown spinning a ball like a globe and scenes of dancing clowns encircling the world are powerful examples of Sjostrom's innovative, surreal special F/X. Cedric Gibbons' fine production design contributed a great deal, as did the (lost-art) title writers: "I hate clowns!" snarls the baron, in the climax. "I hate barons!" snarls HE, in return.

Friendly reminder: The Regent Square screening of this tight (70-minute), rarely screened silent melodrama will not be silent. If you go -- which I highly recommend -- you'll find that the live original score by the Alloy Orchestra enhances the experience big-time.

And you'll never use the phrase "a slap in the face" loosely again.

Screens at 8 tonight at Regent Square Theater.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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