Monday, July 14, 2014

He Who Gets Slapped

He Who Gets Slapped
seen @ Celebrate Brooklyn, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

There's a Batman graphic novella called The Killing Joke, written by Watchmen scribe Alan Moore, which tells, in flashback, what may or may not be the origin of the Joker. (It was an influence on the screenplay for the movie The Dark Knight.) In the main story, the Joker tries to drive Batman and Commissioner Gordon as insane as he is, and the point he attempts to make in the process is that it only takes one bad day to send a so-called ordinary person over the edge... something which may have happened to him.

I thought of that while watching the silent movie He Who Gets Slapped Saturday night, because Lon Chaney's character experiences that very thing. Betrayed by his wife and friend, he succumbs to madness and, like the Joker, becomes what he believes the world sees him as - a clown. Unfortunately, he doesn't go on a mad killing spree; he joins the circus, becoming the butt of cheap slapstick gags by getting slapped around. The film's title is, in fact, the name of his new identity - "He" for short. (Seriously, that's what they call him!)

Slapped is a very dark, psychologically twisted tale, an unusual choice for the first movie released by MGM Studios ninety years ago, but a powerful one. I imagine that the old adage, "Comedy equals tragedy plus time," could have been inspired by this film, based on a play. Though some of its title-card narration comes across as a bit overwrought and pretentious, the film attempts to seriously examine the nature of comedy. Chaney's circus antics are inspired by the circumstances that led to his downfall, and while they're tragic in one context, in another one they're comic, and the audiences really get off on it, to the point where Chaney becomes a star.

When one thinks about some of the greatest comedians of the last century - Pryor, Bruce, Hicks, Lewis, Rivers - many of them worked from a place of some kind of personal pain. It's something we tend to take for granted because we're too busy laughing, but if you step back and give it some thought, it's a remarkable thing. One imagines that this unique kind of alchemy may be therapeutic on a certain level as well...

... although that doesn't seem to apply to Chaney's character. To return to The Killing Joke for a moment, an idea touched upon in that story - one which also pops up in Moore's Watchmen in the form of a character appropriately named the Comedian - is how sometimes, the only sane response to the indiscriminate horror, tragedy and madness of the world is to laugh. 

That's something that guys like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert understand. It's something every political cartoonist understands. In Slapped, though, Chaney's character doesn't use humor to cope with reality, he uses it to escape from reality. When reality finds him, though, in the guise of the former friend who betrayed him, it doesn't take long for plans of vengeance to spin in his head.

The look of Slapped is also compelling. Director/co-writer Victor Seastrom returns again and again to the image of Chaney, in full clown regalia, gleefully spinning a large ball on his finger. By itself, it means nothing; an image of light frivolity. Within the film's context, however, it takes on a more sinister flavor, especially through its repetition. It's as if Chaney, and by extension Seastrom, are saying, "Aren't you amused? This is what you want - to be entertained, to laugh at the funny-looking man and the funny things he does! So why aren't you laughing?" The irony, of course, lies in what's underneath the humor.

Seastrom also has a way with the segue. Compositions at the end of one scene repeat themselves in the beginning of the next. A spinning ball becomes a spinning globe. Hands clutching pearls become hands holding a daisy chain. This makes me think Moore must be a fan of this movie, because he, too, is known for similar transitions in his comics, no matter which artist he works with, and we see examples of this in The Killing Joke as well.

A brief word on co-stars John Gilbert and Norma Shearer: their romantic subplot didn't do a great deal for me, but I can see how they became stars. They're glamorous and good-looking and in Slapped, they have great chemistry together. Gilbert is the one who supposedly couldn't cut it in the sound era on account of his voice, but I looked at several YouTube clips from his talkies and I don't see the problem.

Jeanine Basinger's book Silent Stars devotes a chapter to Gilbert, and she theorizes that he wasn't able to be anything more than a romantic lead, and sound was only a minor difference that changed nothing about his screen persona, which needed to evolve with the medium in order to survive. (So maybe The Artist wasn't secretly about him at all.)

The fabulous Alloy Orchestra performed an original accompanying score for Slapped at Prospect Park's Celebrate Brooklyn festival, and again, they were superb. Their score didn't have the same level of bombast as their Metropolis score, but then, it's a different kind of movie. This one felt a little more melodic, and indeed, there were some moving passages throughout the film. The music for the circus scenes had a lot of punch, and they turned up the volume and the intensity for the big climactic scene near the end. I highly recommend seeing a movie with these guys doing the score if they come to your town. They're one of a kind.

The musical opening act was a guitarist named Stephane Wrembel who, among other things, appeared on the soundtrack to the Woody Allen films Midnight in Paris and Vicky Christina Barcelona. He and his band were quite good. Very jovial.

Looks a lot like the last photo we took together, doesn't it?
Once again, I was joined by the ever-delightful Aurora, as well as Joe from Nitrate Stock, although I didn't see as much of him. He had an aversion to sitting in the front section of the outdoor ampitheater, and sat towards the back instead, so I didn't see him until afterwards. As for Aurora, she and Kellee from O&F have been the talk of our little blogger circles in social media ever since they were spotted in a TCM interview with Maureen O'Hara taken at this year's TCM Film Festival. They were in the crowd behind O'Hara and Robert Osborne, but they were both clearly visible. I happened to be watching TCM the first night it aired, earlier this month (playing as part of a month-long spotlight on O'Hara), and like everyone else, I was pleasantly surprised. I think repeat showings have made Aurora slightly embarrassed because every repeat means someone new sees it and tweets her about it. But hey, how many of us ever get on TV without making fools of ourselves?


  1. He who gets slapped was the first Lon Chaney film I've watched and it was sooooo good! I agree with you that many times comedy is drama seen from another angle, or even by another people - after all, the circus audience didn't know about He's past. I also happened to enjoy Gilbert's funny-looking pants.
    Hey, did you ask Aurora for an autograph? She is a celebrity know! :)

  2. I knew I forgot something...!

    In case I didn't make it clear, I thought Chaney was amazing. He doesn't do much in the way of his usual bodily contortions and his only fancy makeup is the clown makeup, but he really sells the madness angle.

  3. I find the movie fascinating and troubling. It was the first silent MGM movie I ever watched (courtesy of Ontario Cinematheque) and the lion who didn't roar looked so confused to me.

    Chaney has such power that I swear I have heard him speak, though I know I haven't. Gilbert had a very likeable screen persona.

    Great picture of you guys. The outdoor setting is cool.

  4. Someone in the audience said something about not hearing Leo roar, and I joked, 'It's a silent movie, of course you're not gonna hear him roar!'

  5. Gilbert had a longstanding bad relationship with Louie B. Mayor who, it's said, gave him very poor scripts after sound came in (if you've seen many of his sound films, you might agree). Personally, I think Gilbert had the talent to play all kinds of roles, including the anti-hero roles that Cagney, Gable, Muni, etc. made popular in the early '30s.

  6. I haven't seen enough of him to say one way or another, so I'll take your word for it. I thought he was okay in this one. He didn't have to do much more than look handsome and ride a circus horse.


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