Film review, by Jason Day, of He Who Gets Slapped, the 1924 silent tragedy set in a circus that was the first movie produced by the new studio MGM. Starring Lon Chaney, John Gilbert and Norma Shearer.
Nice scientist Paul (Lon Chaney) makes a remarkable breakthrough and entrusts the publication of his findings to his friend and patron, the Baron (Marc McDermott). Unbeknownst to him, the Baron is having an affair with Paul’s wife (Ruth King) and steals his research, claiming it as his own in front of an august scientific institution.
Paul immediately suffers a catastrophic breakdown that sees him fall into uncontrollable hysterics when faced with this double deceit. He leaves to join a circus as a clown who, fetishistically, likes being humiliated and slapped, recreating the moment the Baron did this to him. When beautiful horse-rider Consuela (Norma Shearer) joins his troupe, Paul falls in love, but finds competition for her hand in the form of her riding act partner (John Gilbert).
Review, by @Reelreviewer
Historically significant as the first film to be wholly produced by the newly formed trio of film studio Metro and independent producers (Samuel) Goldwyn and (Louis B.) Mayer. It was not, however, its first to be released, as that was delayed some months until the more lucrative Christmas period.
Given its plot, Slapped was a surprisingly depressing start for a studio that would become synonymous with beauty, glamour, happy endings and all of the tripe that you associated with the normality and banality of the middle-classes it promoted.
But then, choosing the esteemed Victor Seastrom, who specialised in moody, epic pastoral dramas in his native Sweden – and to much acclaim – was never going to result in the rosiest of products.
The director, formerly known as Sjostrom in his homeland, was seen as a demi-god by MGM CEO Louis B. Mayer who felt he could do no wrong.
Seastom was not entirely new to America new – he spent his childhood from 1-7 years of age in Brooklyn, after which he returned to Sweden and, after sometime, became the preeminent film director in Scandinavia.
This, his second Amercan film (after Name the Man, released the same year) is a veritable one-man band for him as he works as co-writer, co-producer and director. Riding high following years of commercial and critical success in Europe, Seastrom was allowed unprecedented artistic freedom in his films.
This film allows him the chance to continue exploring the themes of cruelty and fate that he had established in Europe and would elaborate on throughout his sojourn in America (The Scarlet Letter, 1926 and The Wind, 1928).
Despite the hoary, theatrical set-up and giddy, fun of the fair atmosphere, this film is as grim a morality tale as anything he told in Sweden or would tell in years to come.
It also lets him show off his unique and arresting visual style – the recurring motif of the clowns dancing around a globe, symbolic of the fools we all are on this earth. This is a world that is also perpetually spinning out of control only to be thrown to the ground, just as Paul’s wife is revealed as an adulterer.
Seastrom’s arrangement of the members of the scientific institution is also genius – seated in serried rows of cold judgement like Paul’s judge, jury and executioner.
The cast list features three actors who would become some of the brightest stars of the silent era, Chaney in particular is heart tugging. He was a silent actor of enormous skill, having honed his craft as a mime artist after acting out the day’s activities for his deaf parents as a child. Here, he deftly arouses audience sympathy, although given the brutality he faces during his “act”, it’s understandable why he is so morose.
Gilbert had been acting in films for many years but here hit the big time and would soon mature into the leading man of the twenties. His bouncy joie de vivre is readily apparent.
Pretty Shearer is underused and her role is under-focused but she would go onto bigger and better things – and very soon after her 1927 marriage to producer wunderkind Irving Thalberg…who was production chief at MGM.
Support actor Tully Marshall, who specialised in playing small time villainy and perversity, is delectably vile as Shearer’s down-at-heel, minor aristocrat father who sees opportunity around every corner before he even steps outside.
Cast & credits
Director: Victor Seastrom/Sjostrom. 1hr 11mins-1hr 35 mins. MGM.
Producer: Victor Seastrom.
Writer: Carey Wilson, Victor Seastrom.
Camera: Milton Moore.
Sets: Cedric Gibbons.
Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Ruth King, Marc McDermott, Ford Sterling, Tully Marshall.