The melodramatic story of a scientist who after being robbed of his discoveries and his wife by a bourgeois swindler becomes a circus clown, He Who Gets Slapped, directed in Hollywood for MGM by Swede Victor Sjöström starred Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, and John Gilbert, and was based on a Russian play Tot, kto poluchayet poshchechini by playwright Leonid Andreyev.
A wonderfully expressionistic work which uses the circus ring cum spinning globe as a deeply pessimistic metaphor for life, love, and death. A deeply profound performance by Lon Chaney in the lead role as He, the clown whose act is built on his being slapped for laughs as he repeatedly falls and gets up for more. Before a tragic finale he wreaks a terrible revenge on his tormentors.
Director: Victor Sjöström (or Seastrom)
Cast: Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert
Run Time: 72m
Breakout roles for Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer
by Dennis Schwartz
It's based on the Russian Leonid Andreyev's 1914 play about a circus melodrama. The arty silent film was the first movie made entirely under MGM's control and the first to feature the MGM lion, but it was not its first release as the studio chose to delay its opening until the busy holiday season. Young 'genius' executive Irving Thalberg, just under studio head Louis B. Mayer, produced it; during filming he was seeing Norma Shearer, and three years later they were married.
It marked the American debut of Swedish director Victor Seastrom ("A Lady To Love"/"The Divine Woman"/"The Tower of Lies"), who masterfully helms it. Thalberg, the discoverer of Lon Chaney at Universal Pictures, has the "man of a thousand faces" follow him to his new studio to star in the role of the tragic clown. A subdued Chaney offers one of his greatest performances.
Workaholic obsessed scientist Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) unceremoniously finds out at an academic ceremony that his work 'on the origins of mankind' has been stolen by his devious patron, the Baron de Regnard (Marc McDermott); the patron also makes off with Beaumont's selfish wife Maria. They both regard Paul as a fool. The humiliated Paul remembers his colleagues all laughing in unison when the Baron slapped him and turns that bit into a clown act, where he works for a small circus outside of Paris and bills himself as "He – who gets slapped." He soon becomes one of France's most famous clowns, as audiences love to see him get slapped as many as a hundred times in his act. The clown secretly falls in love with the beautiful bareback rider Consuelo (Norma Shearer), who loves her handsome partner Bezano (John Gilbert). When he tells Consuelo this she first moves away in horror, and then thinks he's fooling and starts laughing at him. Her unprincipled father Count Mancini (Tully Marshall) gets money from Baron de Regnard and arranges for his daughter to marry the Baron after the evening performance. The clown reveals himself to the Baron and tells him to see "who is the one who laughs last." The Count stabs the clown with his sword-cane, but unknown to them the clown released the lion from his cage in the next room. When the door is opened, the lion devours both the Count and the Baron. The clown goes on to finish his act, and in his last breaths tells Consuelo they are both happy now – she is free to marry the man she loves and for him his suffering has come to an end.