He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Article #1455 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-9-2005
Posting Date: 8-6-2005
Directed by Victor Sjostrom
Featuring Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert

A scientist loses both his discoveries and his wife to a man who then publicly humiliates him. The pain having become unbearable for him, he becomes a clown who makes others laugh by being slapped repeatedly.

Technically, this movie probably doesn’t qualify as fantastic cinema. The elements are very marginal; there is the presence of Lon Chaney, the possibility that he has become mad in his thirst for vengeance, a certain horrific quality to his method of vengeance (it involves a lion), and some surreal metaphorical moments involving a circle of clowns and a globe. That’s about it, and I don’t think it’s near enough to make the movie qualify.

Still, I’m glad this one came up on my list; it’s one of Chaney’s finest movies, and he gives a dazzling performance of a man who can only net laughter from a world that he wants to take him seriously. It’s heartbreaking to see the amount of pain that lies under the things that bring us laughter, and we who know his full story find it impossible to laugh as he publicly replays his humiliation for all to see. This was the first production of the newly formed MGM studios, though it was not the first one released. Chaney would play a clown once again a few years later in LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH, and seeing that that movie is also one of his best, this underscores Chaney’s ability to see the human tragedy inherent in comedy. Victor Sjostrom may have been the best director Chaney ever worked with.


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