He Who Gets Slapped (1924) Director: Victor Sjöström
He Who Gets Slapped was originally based on a Russian story by Leonid Andreyev. The book was published in 1914 and was also made into a Russian film in 1916. This 1924 version, however, was actually the first film to be produced (though not necessarily released) by the newly formed MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). It was also the first film to feature MGM’s famous Leo the Lion at the outset! It was directed by Victor Sjöström, and is broadly considered his most notable directorial effort along with The Phantom Carriage (Swedish in 1921) and also The Wind (1928), until he appeared in Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant Wild Strawberries in 1957. Lon Chaney delivers an incredible performance, both haunting and tragic yet relatable and even pitiable, and the scenes of him dressed in clown makeup in the second half –after his downfall– are particularly harrowing.
He Who Gets Slapped tells the story of an academic, sponsored by a noted baron, who has made a remarkable discovery pertaining the origins of mankind. However, when he presents his findings to the academic establishment, he is betrayed. His patron, the baron, takes credit for his findings and his wife leaves him for the baron. He is mocked and slapped by the baron. Humiliated, he leaves and five years pass. He lives and works as a clown under the “He Who Gets Slapped” performance routine, making crowds of people laugh at him. He professes his love to a young woman in the clown-show routine, but she playfully slaps him. Meanwhile, the baron also falls in love with her. In a stand-off with the baron, the clown is wounded but he cleverly releases a lion from the show who attacks and kills the baron and a count. He laughs at the baron, reminding him that it is he who gets the last laugh. He steps on stage for one final, dramatic performance, before collapsing and dying in his lover’s arms.
This film unfolds like a Greek tragedy. Paul, the protagonist, misses his chance and is betrayed. He exacts vengeance, only to die in a fit of mania amidst an uproar of laughter and applause from the crowd. Perhaps it can be viewed as a dark comedy –laughter amidst heavy themes of utter humiliation, the depths to which one man can sink, and an absurd gratification found in vengeance.