HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) B/W "silent" 72m dir: Victor Sjostrom
w/Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Tully Marshall, Ford Sterling, Marc MacDermott
The great Lon Chaney here plays a scientist who is cheated of credit for his discovery and deserted by his wife. In despair, he decides to give up everything and disguise himself as a clown. This dark, unrelenting, rather bitter story was beautifully made in the US at MGM Studios by the revered Swedish director Sjostrom (who also co-wrote --- with Carey Wilson --- this adaptation of Leonid Andreyev's play.) The New York Times said of HE WHO GETS SLAPPED: "For dramatic value and a faultless adaptation of a play, this is the finest production we have seen." Sjostrom also directed the magnificent THE WIND, with Lillian Gish, at MGM.
In Richard Roud's indispensable Cinema: A Critical History, Tom Milne writes about the film: "He Who Gets Slapped is particularly fascinating in that it is one of Sjostrom's most daringly inventive films, a visually stunning adaptation of Leonid Andreyev's play about a scientist who laughs in hysterical disbelief when he realizes that his benefactor has stolen not only his research but also his wife, and who is frozen by that moment of shock into the fixation that only as a circus clown, an object of mockery and abuse, can he go on living. The moment, brilliantly enacted by Lon Chaney, is also brilliantly realized by Sjostrom: as the scientist sinks down in despair at his cluttered desk, he accidentally knocks over a globe of the world that rolls away to become a ball spinning on the fingertip of a grinning, white-faced clown, which in turn becomes a huge globe with a horde of tiny clowns clambering down invisible ropes to perch on its horizontal band, which, in a final metamorphosis, becomes a circus ring with a troupe of clowns watching a rehearsal.
"In its acute masochism, expressionism blending neatly into the horror film ethos (the clown dies in the ring, to ecstatic applause from the audience, after exacting ghastly revenge on his tormentors by setting a lion on them), He Who Gets Slapped is sui generis in Sjostrom's work. A blood brother here to the Tod Browning of The Unknown, Sjostrom visualizes the clown's searing pain as a series of stark black and white contrasts radiating from the astonishing moment when, as he broods alone in the ring, the spotlight is switched out on him, leaving his chalk-white face as a tiny balloon suspended in a sea of darkness where it gradually vanishes, leaving emptiness. And Sjostrom also turns the film into an echo of the clown's silent accusation with a superb final shot, when the troupe of clowns mourning for their comrade again become the tiny clowns perched on the spinning globe, this time facing the audience in unspoken reproach as they toss a miniature corpse out of the screen into our laps."