Directed by Victor Seastrom
Screenplay By Victor Seastrom and Carey Wilson, from the play by Leonid Andreyev
Starring Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Marc McDermott, Ruth King, and Tully Marshall
First, a disclaimer: silent films are a big ask, and putting one into this series and expecting you to watch it is not something done lightly. The problem with silent films is they are very much like puppies and babies, in that they need constant attention. Unlike puppies and babies, though, they lack the essential cute and cuddliness that make the constant attention worthwhile. Sure, a silent movie might be good, and that’s something. But the only way you’ll know it’s good is through that constant attention. Even then, that may not be enough.
But even being good is something of a double-edged sword for silent films. After all, what made a movie good in the silent era is not necessarily palatable today. Specifically, without sound and dialog to help tell the story, silent movies tend to lack subtlety: both in the story, or in the telling. As such, the gestures of silent movies must be broad, the looks must be evil, there must be glares. Every emotion must be telegraphed and there is little room allowed for nuance.
And because these films must be simple and obvious, and in need of constant attention, they can be a bit of a chore once they cross into running times we would think nothing of today. Beyond 75 minutes a silent movie can be exhausting.
So, when considering this particular entry, on He Who Gets Slapped, take everything above as a warning of sorts, but also take solace in knowing the film is just 72 minutes long, and will be over before you know it.
What’s It About?
A scientist (Chaney) lives with his wife (Ruth King) in the home of a Baron (Marc McDermott), who is his benefactor. The scientist has been toiling away on some theory on the origin of mankind, and his attention is so decidedly fixed on that he cannot see the wife and the Baron are having an affair. But more than having an affair, the wife and baron are plotting to steal the scientist’s theory when the time comes, which the baron will present it as his own. After the theft, the scientist attempts to set the record straight, only for the Baron to publicly slap and humiliate him as a clown. Stung by the betrayal of both his wife, and his benefactor, the scientist becomes a literal clown, with a very specific skill/act: he’s perfected the art of being slapped publicly. He toils at this for years, until finally when he sees the Baron again, the clown has a mental break and determines to get his revenge. Which involves a lion eating the Baron.
In the real world, people suffer various traumas and get over them. Some might take more time that others, but they all tend to get over it. At least, in the real world that happens. In the world of the movies? Everything is different.
In movies, a man can be slapped and mocked as a clown, which is humiliating, but rather than get over that humiliation, is incepted by his own humiliation into becoming a literal clown whose sole skill is being repeatedly slapped in the face on a nightly basis in a rough recreation of his own most humiliating moment. The specific act has him standing before a passel of white-faced clowns, who all seem identical to one another, who then slap him. Repeatedly and roughly. The faceless horde of the world striking him down again and again, until finally one of them rips his figurative heart out, and buries it in the dirt. Moreover, only in the movies can this bring a man a measure of fame.
And of course, the more the scientist/clown performs this perverse humiliation, the more he is driven mad by it. It should be rejuvenating – he hides his true self behind his makeup and so therefore should transmute his humiliation to that of the clown and therefore make it better – but it only makes it worse. It literally drives him mad.
And all of which is premised on the notion that when we see somebody slapped we instinctively laugh and are entertained by it. We do not cringe at the violence involved. And so intent is the movie on this point that it literally tries to gaslight the nonbelievers with title cards insisting on it, even as we reject it. Or I reject it.
In service of the story, the performances here are broad, but this is expected in a silent movie. Chaney mugs for the camera. McDermott, as the baron, might as well twirl his moustache, that’s the sort of vibe he plays with. By today’s standards it’s all a little amateurish, but by today’s standards most silent films look amateurish. Even so, Chaney is stellar in the movie and, even if he’s broad, he does recognize the thin line separating good humor and malevolence, which he works like a master.
If nothing else, the film excels as a visual story.
Yes, the film is shot largely in a studio – this was the time in movies where cameras and filmstock were not nearly as forgiving, so every movie has to be made in a studio, where the variables can be controlled. Even so, the studio setting doesn’t visually stunt the movie, because it remains inventive. It abounds with superimpositions of clowns on globes, then fading through that to clowns around the ring in a circus. There are shots of the clown alone, at a distance, a single white face in the darkness, to emphasize the dissociation he has with reality. There are matching cuts galore – a globe becomes a ball, a globe becomes the circus ring, a string of pearls becomes flowers. And it contains a strange, abstract between-scenes bumper of a laughing clown spinning a ball. It’s honestly worth seeing just for it’s craft alone.
Late in his career, the director of this film Victor Seastrom (originally Swedish spelling is Sjostrom) would appear as an actor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries
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