“A fool is always smiling.”
I am not afraid of clowns but they kind of give me the creeps. I do not find them funny or amusing or happy. I usually try to avoid any form of entertainment in which clowns are involved. He Who Gets Slapped I could not avoid because Norma Shearer is in the film and I adore her. Also I heard the film was very good. For both reasons I had to sit through the film eventually. I found He Who Gets Slapped to be moving and excellently made.
Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) was a scientist who was working under the patronage of the Baron Regnard. Paul and his wife Marie whom he loves dearly live in the same home as the Baron. One night Paul tells his wife and the Baron that he has successfully proven his theory and is ready to bring it forward to a board of scientists. The Baron makes all the arrangements to bring Paul’s theory forward. Unfortunately the Baron and Marie have other plans as they are having an affair together. The Baron speaks to the board of scientists as if he is the one who proved the theory. At the meeting Paul understandably freaks out when the Baron takes credit for his work. The Baron has Paul taken away saying he is crazy. As Paul is taken out the scientists laugh at him. He becomes ashamed and embarrassed because they laughed at him thinking he was a fool. To make matters worse, the same night Marie tells him she does not love him with his silly face and his books. She calls him a fool and a clown.
Years later Paul has joined a circus troop. Paul works under the name of HE- as in He Who Gets Slapped. His act consists of him dress like a clown and having clowns slap him every time he says something. His act is a huge hit and draws crowds and laughter every night.
A young girl named Consuelo (Shearer) joins the circus as a bareback horse rider. Her father is count who has fallen on hard times which is why she is in the circus. A young daredevil horse rider named Bezano (John Gilbert) notices her and it is pretty much love at first sight. Paul notices that Consuelo and Bezano are in love but she is willing to leave him and marry someone rich for her father’s sake. He sees Consuelo and her father as a reminder of the life that he has left behind. He loves Consuelo in his own way. Before every show she helps him sew his heart patch back onto his costume.
When HE performs his act he pretends to imagine the clowns are the scientists who laughed at him. One night HE sees the Baron sitting in the audience laughing. After the show Paul sees the Baron is the rich man the Count has been setting Consuelo up with. The Baron goes backstage after the show to wait for Consuelo. Paul sees his chance to mock the Baron without the man even knowing who he is.
The next day the Count goes out to make arrangements with the Baron. Consuelo sneaks out to the woods for lunch with Bezano. Bezano proposes to Consuelo but she tells him she cannot get married without her father’s approval. The Count tells the Baron that his daughter cannot accept the jewels the Baron has given to her because he is not her husband. The Baron had no intentions of marrying her because she is a circus performer. The Count says something to make the Baron change his mind.
At the circus, Consuelo and Paul go through their usual routine. She tells him that he could be happy if he had someone to love. Paul takes her hand and pretends to read her palm telling her that if she marries the Baron she is doomed. He in all seriousness tells Conseulo that he loves her and wants her to run away with him. Consuelo reacts by hitting him in the face and laughing at him. Whenever the poor man is being serious people laugh at him and he is devastated.
When Paul comes into contacts with the two titles he rips into them. He yells at the Count asking how a father can sell off his own daughter. He makes the Baron look at him and really think who he is looking at and the Baron is shocked. Paul goes to attack the Count but the count has a blade in his cane and stabs Paul. He told the Baron and the Count that he will have the last laugh. Paul goes into another room where there is a lion. Before he was stabbed he set the lion up so that when the titles left the lion would be set free to attack them. The plan works.
HE is suffering when he goes out into the ring and collapses. Consuelo sees what has happened and rushes out to him. HE dies in her arms with a heart that that was placed inside the sewn one in his hands.
This was the first film I have ever seen Lon Chaney in. Chaney was called “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and although he was just playing a clown with not too much expression I can definitely see why. The man was a true chameleon. Chaney was wonderful as Paul/HE. You can clearly see the character’s torment on his face as if he really was the character. His actions were perfect and smooth. This film made a star out of Norma Shearer. It is not hard to see why she lit up the screen in her scenes. I know I always mention this whenever I write about Shearer but she was completely watchable although she was not the best actress. Her scene with Gilbert in the woods was beautiful and she was amazing. John Gilbert I had never seen before either. He was good paired with Shearer, which is all I can say about him at the moment. I will have to watch more films with him.
The film was given high production values that make it a stand out amongst other silent films. It looks like a great work of art. The overall greatness of the film is an early testament to the great work of Irving Thalberg who spared no expense and did whatever had to be done to make every one of his pictures to the highest standard. Victor Seastrom worked with Thalberg for a number of years. He was a great director which is why Thalberg liked to have him work on his pictures.
He Who Gets Slapped is a beautiful touching and moving. As I mentioned I am not afraid of clowns but they give me the creeps. The clowns in the film, especially Chaney, do give me the creeps but I can get over that since it was so good. He Who Gets Slapped is one of the best and most beautifully made films from the silent era.