ALL too often we think of silent film as a vehicle for slapstick – and certainly some of the greatest slapstick performances are on the silver screen, where soulful expressions, doleful eyes and astonished gasps at the latest mess they have got into provide plenty of laughs for the audience. But those same characterists of a great actor were used to overpowering effect by Lon Chaney, the greatest star of the silent period, a man who could wrench your heart with nothing more than the penetrating melancholy of his eyes, his extraordinary smile and his ability to transform himself into something unrecognisable.
And no film better displays this chameleon ability, combined with a compellingly tragic performance, than He Who Gets Slapped, which Chaney himself believed to have been his greatest work. A forgotten gem, this film has been given a new score and was one of the highlights of this year’s Bath Festival, screened at Komedia – a former cinema from the appropriate period – with the music played live by composer Will Gregory of Goldfrapp with multi-instrumentalist Ross Hughes and percussionist Jacob Smedegaard Andreasen.
The film, directed by Victor Sjostrom, was produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer and is the first to feature the famous roaring lion. There is a certain symmetry in this, as a lion plays a key role in the film, most of which is set in a circus.
The story tells of Paul Beaumont, a brilliant but impoverished scientist who, with his wife Marie, is taken under the protection of the Baron de Regnard. When his researches produce spectacular results, the evil Baron claims them as his own and takes Beaumont’s wife as well as the acclaim of the Academy. Beaumont disappears and we next meet him five years later as the star clown in a circus. He is HE Who Gets Slapped – the butt of everyone’s jokes, slapped by all 60 clowns (the clowns and the professors of the Academy merge and blur in this brilliantly conceived film).
The circus gains a new act – a beautiful young bare-back rider, Consuelo (Norma Shearer), daughter of a bankrupt Italian count. She falls in love with the dashing star rider (John Gilbert) and he with her, but greedy daddy has spotted a wealthy admirer – the Baron. The stage is set for HE (Beaumont) to extract a revenge which is brutally satisfying. As he predicted early in the drama, he who laughs last …
Gregory’s score is a brilliant complement to the drama, using the full range of saxophone, keyboard, guitar, percussion and electronica at the trio’s disposal. It subtly underlines aspects of the action, heightens the tension, provides a counterpoint to the occasional moments of happiness or romance and orchestrates the climactic scenes with pounding drums and overwhelming electronic noise (in a good sense!)
We often forget how sophisticated these early films were and He Who Gets Slapped is very sophisticated, using techniques that we now take for granted (thanks to the wonders of computer and digital wizardry). Some features – such as the circle of clowns around the spinning globe – foreshadow the choreography that would dominate the early days of the talkies, including the Busby Berkeley musicals.
The film is based on a play by Leonid Andreyev, one of the leading playwrights of Russian’s late 19th century golden age. He had been a supporter of the Russian Revolution but fled to Finland in 1917 and lived in bitter poverty, disappointed by the excesses of the Bolsheviks. He died prematurely at the age of 48. He Who Gets Slapped was written in 1914 and first performed in the USA in 1922.
The original play is even darker than the film – MGM liked a “happy” ending so Andreyev’s double tragedy with Consuelo drinking a glass of poisoned wine and HE finishing it, was changed to allow Consuelo to live happily ever after with her handsome bareback rider. For HE there could be no happy ending, so he dies. But he has had the last laugh against his appalling betrayer.