Wednesday, 9 July 2014

He who cries last, laughs longest… He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

This film hits hard and whether that’s down to the Russian source material, director Victor Sjöström or the genius of Lon Chaney is difficult to say, but it’s one of the most genuinely affecting of films. He Who Gets Slapped doesn’t just succeed in playing the clown and the “life’s a walking shadow, nah, na, na, nah, nahh!” pathos it wrestles it into the air, walks around on stilts with it and then pushes the viewer backwards into a pale of cold water.

This is my third Chaney circus film and he really does make a fantastic clown… his range of facial expression is supernatural and the various extremes of clown make-up enable him to reach new heights of happiness and deeper troughs of despair.

But the secret of this clown is all in the back story…
Life's a walking shadow...
Based on the 1914 Russian play Тот, кто получает пощёчины  by Leonid Andreyev, He Who Gets Slapped is about betrayal, cruelty, fear and love – in that order.

Chaney plays scientist Paul Beaumont who is innocently pursuing his research into the origins of man, funded by Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). Finally he achieves the breakthrough he has worked years to achieve and goes to tell his wife, Maria (Ruth King) and the Baron.  The papers will be presented at the academy and the Beaumonts take their leave of the Baron knowing that the next day will see Paul finally get the recognition he deserves.

Lon Chaney and Marc McDermott
But, as they leave, the Baron steals the papers from the safe.

The day arrives and, with hardly an inter-title, we see Paul’s face contort into anger and disbelief as he hears the Baron take full credit for the discoveries. He tries to reason with the Baron and gets a slap in the face – the first of thousands – which sends the academy into roars of laughter. He is utterly humiliated and, when he gets home there’s far worse to follow as his wife reveals she’s leaving him for the Baron.

Slumped at his desk, surrounded by all of his useless books, Paul laughs at his own ruin.

The man who laughs...
After every “act”, Sjöström inserts the image of a clown laughing hysterically at a spinning world. At the start the clown morphs into Paul spinning the globe in his office and after his bitter failure, the spinning globe is joined by clowns who sit around its circumference and watch as it turns into a circus ring. So many images in the film are used to match with others and move the focused visual narrative along in a very economical way. 

All the World's a stage...
The circus ring is in Paris and it is now six years later. A sensational clown has taken the city by storm: HE – who gets slapped – can you guess who he is?

HE’s act is elaborate, featuring massed ranks of clowns of all sizes, ushered into the arena by an enthusiastic orchestra, syncopating wildly. HE is at the back of the parade on stilts alongside the senior clown Tricaud (Mack Sennett veteran Ford Sterling) and enters to grand applause and a wave of hilarity.

As the spectacle unfolds it’s clear that it is entirely based on the humiliation of his previous existence, the clowns carry large books in mockery of the years he spent in fruitless study and as Paul/HE looks to the audience he sees the faces of the Academy’s mocking scientists laughing down at him.

Clowns and judges...
The procession ends and HE is knocked backwards off his stilts: down to earth and there’s more to come as he is flanked by Tricaud and another clown who take turns in slapping him as he tries to make statements about the World… it is flat – slap! – it is round - slap! – it is soft – slap!! IN mockery of his failed scientific career he is slapped for every statement and the entire troop takes turns in beating him to the ground.

Eventually he is beaten down to the ground and his heart, held against his chest by a cloth pocket, is ripped out by Tricaud, and he is trampled into the sand…

But, it’s all in fun.

Elsewhere in the circus is the handsome horse-rider Bezano (John Gilbert – didn’t really need the “handsome” there did I?) who notices the arrival of a pretty girl, Consuelo, (Norma Shearer so different from her world-weary, pre-code persona a decade down the line) who is to join his act. Consuelo’s career is being masterminded by her father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall, looking swell in his evil beard!) a hard-up nobleman who aims to use her exposure to marry her off to the highest bidder.

The two young equestrians bond immediately whilst HE is also smitten with the young woman; a reminder of the love he has lost.

All balance is soon lost as the Baron comes to watch the show. He doesn’t recognise the man whose life he stole but Paul certainly spots him.  But it’s not the clowning the Baron has come to see but the beauty on the horse. After the show he is introduced to Conseula and her father sets about negotiating a deal to sell her off.

Norma Shearer and John Gilbert
Sjöström cleverly mingles scenes of Conseula and Bezano falling in love on a bucolic picnic with the negotiations between the Count and the Baron…. One couple reach a spiritual balance and the other purely a fiscal one.

HE gets wind of this and resolves to save the young girl he loves and revenge himself on the man who threatens to take everything once again… but, no spoilers.

I’m not sure I like clowns in general but I like Chaney’s clowns and this is possibly his greatest mixing extreme pathos with a laugh that is so engulfing you truly believe the switch from bliss to bedlam that has brought it forth. HE is contorted by the misfortunes of existence into someone who can only take solace in further violence from a world that won’t listen and which refuses to understand him.
Marc McDermott, Norma Shearer, Tully Marshall and John Gilbert
 How will it end? You hope for a peaceful resolution and an end to his suffering.

The supporting cast are excellent with Tully Marshall excelling as the Count just about keeping up appearances in order to cash in on Conseula whilst Marc McDermott plays the pantomime villain with subtlety – he genuinely doesn’t see anything wrong with what he does.

Norma Shearer
Norma Shearer is a picture of vibrant youth – possibly too young for Mr Gilbert – and a world away from the wise-cracking, self-assurance of her talkies.  Her Conseula is an important part of HE’s story and may ultimately help connect him back to the world he left so completely.

Mr Chaney
It’s also worth mentioning the cinematography of Milton Moore who helps his director maintain such a consistent tone throughout this symmetrical tale: the globes spin, the crowds laugh and the clowns all fall down in the end.

I watched the Warner Archives disc which comes with a new score from the Alloy Orchestra which mixes found sounds with cut up orchestrations to good effect. It’s available direct  or from Amazon.

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