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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #4: He Who Gets Slapped, 1924

From a classic western last week to a circus thriller/romance/tragedy, a bit of whiplash. But this film represents several film history milestones and I was thrilled to watch it for the first time.

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Director: Victor Sjöström (as Victor Seastrom)
Writer: Victor Sjöström & Carey Wilson (based on the play He, the One Who Gets Slapped by Leonid Andreyev)
Cinematographer: Milton Moore
Producer: Louis B. Mayer for MGM
Starring: Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Marc McDermott, Ruth King, Tully Marshall 

Why I chose it
Because of the name? I had heard of this film; it hadn't registered strongly for me as a 'must-see' film yet I remembered the name. When it appeared, during my research, on a list of acclaimed 1924 films, I added it to my shortlist; my Twitter followers voted it to the top.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Poor Parisian scientist Paul Beaumont (Chaney) lives on the generosity of his patron, Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott), unaware Regnard has designs on both Beaumont's scientific breakthrough and his wife Marie (Ruth King). He loses both to this embodiment of evil, and is further disgraced when both, separately, slap him across the face to put him in his place. When done in front of an audience of academics, they break into hysterical laughter. Fast forward a few years, and Paul has become the star clown of a circus act in which a posse of identically-dressed clowns slap him repeatedly until he tumbles around the circus ring to the delight of audiences. His circus moniker? You guessed it: 'He Who Gets Slapped', 'HE' for short. HE meets young circus horse-acrobat Consuelo (Norma Shearer) and becomes infatuated with her. She, however, has fallen in love with her handsome partner Bezano (John Gilbert). The Baron reappears when Consuelo's opportunist father bribes him into proposing marriage to Consuelo. These developments are discovered by HE, who is determined to have his revenge on his old enemy, and save Consuelo in the process.

Production Background and 1924 in Film History
This film emerged as the first production of newly formed MGM, with Louis B. Mayer at the helm. Mayer had concluded his deal with Samuel Goldwyn earlier in the year, and hired Swedish director Victor Sjöström to direct. Already an acclaimed director in Sweden, Sjöström used expressionistic visuals to illustrate his cinematic morality tales such as his wonderful The Phantom Carriage (1921), which I saw for the first time a few months ago. Norma Shearer and John Gilbert were not the 'stars above the title' yet in 1924. Lon Chaney was the star, and already had over 100 film credits to his name. Also appearing in the film was a live lion! The lion was not credited, but his appearance coincided with the first appearance of "Leo" the MGM Lion in the opening credits. I noticed that in those credits, this version of Leo did not open his mouth once.

Some other notable film-related events in 1924*:
  • Theaters started screening double features for the first time.
  • Prolific silent-era producer/director Thomas Ince died in what was rumored to be murder or accidental homicide aboard the pleasure boat of William Randolph Hearst, by Hearst, or Charlie Chaplin, or ??. It seems that the modern view is that despite some melodramatic antics on the boat, Ince likely succumbed to long-standing coronary disease.
  • Erich von Stroheim (featured in the first of my blog series, here) released his epic masterpiece Greed based on the novel McTeague.
  • C.B.C. Film Sales Company changed its name to Columbia Pictures Corporation.
*Thanks to

My Random Observations 
  • Ah, silent film - how I'd missed you before I started this blog project! 
  • Like last week, the visuals in this film are breathtaking, but for different reasons. Instead of panoramic vistas, we have expressionistic lighting, symbolic flourishes, and creative dissolves.
  • Lon Chaney. There aren't enough superlatives to describe his talent and performance here. While I loved him in Phantom of the Opera (1925), I didn't really appreciate the range of his pantomime abilities, including his mastery of his body as well as his face. I especially loved seeing him as rather normal-looking scientist Paul Beaumont before his transformation to "HE" the clown. He believably embodied the love and passion for discovery that the best scientists have. (He also looked a bit like Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur!)
  • Along those lines, I struggle to accept that Marie, Paul's wife, throws him over for the clearly slimy Baron. I mean, money is great and all, but for me having a nerdy scientist husband on the cusp of fame is the far better choice.
  • I find the fact that Paul/HE falls for Consuelo to be a sign of how much he's damaged psychologically. While she is lovely and kind, obviously NOT right for him even if she weren't in love with Benzano. The pity and sorrow we feel for him are more intense than if he saw himself as a big-brother or father-figure to Consuelo.
Poor Paul Beaumont (Chaney, center) doesn't know
that he's about to be betrayed by these two.

That look! Beaumont listens to the Baron 
taking credit for his invention - the start of his

Academics laughing at the first 'slap'

Symbolic scene of a clown spinning a globe

More clowns enter the earths' orbit

And then the earth dissolves into a circus ring

Romance at the circus: Bezano (Gilbert)
and Consuelo (Shearer)

Kind Consuelo pins a fabric heart on HE's 
Clown costume, much to his delight.

Fabulous shot of clowns laughing at HE's antics

Two slimy opportunists (Marshall & McDermott)
plan their next scheme.

Some small questions the film asks us.

This lion is ready for his close-up.

Lighting on a hand (the Baron's) reaching to unlock an 
off-limits cabinet enhances the treachery of the moment.

Where to Watch
Check it out on YouTube here.


  1. I've only seen Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera and you've inspired me to want to see more of his stuff! One of these days...

    1. I find myself saying "one of these days" a lot. :-) To choose a new Chaney film, I liked this one because for at least part of the film Chaney looks rather like an ordinary guy (!).

      Thanks for reading. (By the way, your pirate event looked like so much fun!!)