The closing night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last night featured a screening of He Who Gets Slapped, a disturbing yet ultimately touching and poignant film. It stars Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, and Lon Chaney as “He,” a clown performing in an act at a Paris circus. Before he was “He,” the clown was Paul Beaumont, a brilliant scientist who was working on a theory on the origins of mankind, under the guidance and sponsorship of a rich baron. The movie begins with Paul’s joy at perfecting the theory, and he prepares to address the Academy of Sciences in defense of his theory. The baron tells him to leave everything to his guidance, and Paul trusts him with the details of his theory. At the Academy of Sciences meeting, the baron, instead of introducing Paul and his theory, instead claims the theory as his own. When Paul protests, the baron slaps him in front of the Academy, and everyone starts laughing. Utterly humiliated, Paul sobs on the shoulder of his wife when he returns home, only to find out that his wife is having an affair with the baron. She leaves him, and when he protests, slaps him just like at the Academy. It is then that Paul joins the circus as a clown, taking the name “He” and participating in a show called “He Who Gets Slapped,” where the entire act is based around him getting slapped. With each slap he relives his humiliation at the Academy and with his wife.
At the circus, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful horseback rider, Consuelo (Norma Shearer). She is in love with her partner in the act, the handsome Benzano (John Gilbert), and they often run off together and spend time making daisy chains in the field. One day, “He” spots the baron in the audience. The baron comes backstage and starts flirting with Consuelo, and “He” gets very upset. When he finds out that Consuelo’s conniving and greedy father, Count Mancini, is planning to sell her off to the baron, “He” finally approaches Consuelo about his love for her. At first she listens intently, then a smile comes across her face and she slaps him. “You dear, funny He–” the title cards read, “For a moment I thought you were serious–” “He” is heartbroken, and when the baron walks in with Count Mancini to tell Consuelo that she is to be married to him, it seemed to be the tipping point in “He”‘s already fragile mental state. He begins to pick fights with Count Mancini. After a series of events, “He” is stabbed with a sword by the Count, but ends up letting an angry lion out of its cage to devour them. After they are dead, he staggers out onstage to do his act, but Consuelo sees there is something wrong. He collapses and dies in her arms, telling her that he will be happy now because she will be happy. The very last scene is a surreal shot of the clowns on a huge globe, tossing his body off the world.
The film was the very first production under the newly-formed MGM studios. Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM (and future husband of the film’s star Norma Shearer), wanted it to have a winter release, so he opted to release other films first, but this was the first film MGM ever made. Sitting next to me at the screening was YAM Magazine‘s Marya, who was there writing on the film, and we discussed how intense of a first production it was. Considering that MGM would come to be known for its glamorous, glitzy musical pictures in the coming decades, the idea of such a heavy-hitting picture coming from MGM so early on is a bit staggering. It is full of metaphor and symbolism, and it is certainly a masterpiece of the silent era. If you can find it, I would highly recommend it.
Here are some key scenes: