Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) is a scientist who has spent years researching the origin of humans. Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott) has become his patron, funding all of the research. On top of that, Regnard opens up his mansion to Paul and his wife Marie. On the surface, the three seem to be a happy bunch of roommates.
But the Baron is harboring a secret. He is having an affair with Marie, and he plans on passing all of Paul’s work off as his own at an upcoming scientific conference.
Paul’s world is shattered when the Baron carries out this plan, and five years later we find him working as a clown. To the public he is known only as “HE Who Gets Slapped,” because that’s all his act involves: other clowns smacking him around.
HE finds himself engulfed in drama once again when he begins falling for a fellow circus worker named Consuelo (Norma Shearer), who seems to capture the attention of every man she meets.
Victor Sjöström (credited as Victor Seastrom) directs 1924’s He Who Gets Slapped, which is based on a Russian play. This was the first film to feature the Leo the Lion MGM logo (which has previously been used for Goldwyn Pictures Corporation), and was the first film to begin production by MGM, though it was not the first film that the new studio released.
The tone of this dark, circus-y, love triangle-based melodrama is set immediately with an opening title card that reads, “In the grim comedy of life, it has been wisely said that the last laugh is the best.”
And boy, does Paul/HE lead a grim life. First his wife cheats on him, then his patron steals all of his work, and then he moves on to a career of getting slapped for a living. It’s a pathetic and tragic journey.
Chaney gives a fantastic performance in the role — one of his best — and creates a very high level of sympathy for the character. There is a lot of talent in this film, but Chaney steals the show 100% and carries the story.
Chaney’s top-notch performance aisde, the film is also remarkable in its social commentary on how humans derive pleasure from the pain or failure of others.
Sometimes the portrayal of this message is quite literal, with the audience shown losing their minds over the slaps that HE receives, accompanied by a laugh track. A title card reads: “What is it in human nature that makes people quick to laugh when someone else gets slapped – whether the slap be spiritual, mental – or physical -?”
On a less obvious level, the character of Baron Regnard seems to be a symbol of some of humanity’s greatest flaws. Regnard lies, he cheats, he steals — and he has a grand old time doing it, never giving thought to the negative effects his actions can have on other people except to relish in that negativity.
If all of that greatness isn’t enough to convince you of He Who Gets Slapped‘s merit, there’s even more to gush about: surprising plot developments; interesting camera work and effects; a great score. The film’s mood is not only dramatic but also quite eerie, and it is maintained successfully by the score, the odd circus imagery and the dark photography. The “love triangle” premise is quite typical of the romantic drama genre, but the film’s uniqueness in other ways overshadows that typicality, and the pure tragedy of Paul/HE’s journey puts a new spin on a familiar ol’ story.
He Who Gets Slapped is a true classic, and a remarkable film in every way. It has earned a spot among my favorites, so I give it a score of: 5/5!