This singular American film was directed by the legendary Victor Sjöström, a Swede who emigrated to the United States after great success at home. The film stars Lon Chaney as HE. This time, Chaney does not play a misshapen, criminally ugly or sinister individual but rather the opposite. HE is a broken man. His wounds, his disfigurement, are internal. Dashing John Gilbert and pretty Norma Shearer are the supporting players.
As an acclaimed European director at work in America, Sjöström enjoyed the same sort of contractual privileges as fellow émigrés F.W. Murnau and Ernest Lubitsch, including script approval, choice of cast, selection of cameraman and assistant director and the right to supervise editing. “It was like making a picture back home in Sweden,” he once said. “I wrote the script without any interference, and actual shooting went quickly and without complications.”
Attentive to every facet of a film, Sjöström carefully considered the stories he was offered, and the existential themes of He Who Gets Slapped no doubt appealed to the director. He Who Gets Slapped is based on a 1914 play by the Russian writer Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919). Acclaimed in Europe, the play had its American premiere in 1922 at New York’s Garrick Theater, where it enjoyed a six-month run and was widely reviewed. Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, wrote, “It has things in it that belong to the theater of all the world.” After its debut in New York City, He Who Gets Slapped was performed around the country.
Andreyev, considered the “Russian Poe,” was described by the New York Times in 1910 as the most popular living Russian writer, and after Tolstoy, the most gifted. At home, his books were bestsellers; in the United States his opinions on current issues both artistic and political were widely reported, while his short fiction was printed in the supplements of Sunday newspapers. According to his granddaughter Olga, it was Andreyev who convinced Tolstoy to write for the movies!
Lon Chaney, a great success as a pathetic character in a previous Thalberg production, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), was given the lead role as the disillusioned, masochistic clown. Canadian-born Norma Shearer, then an emerging actress, played the bareback rider. The role helped make her a star. John Gilbert, also on the brink of stardom, at first refused his part, thinking his role too small. In a recent interview, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, the actor’s daughter and biographer, said, “I heard about Jack’s reluctance to play the role from several people. I believe the first was his friend Carey Wilson, who adapted the story for the film. He quoted Irving Thalberg to me, ‘Jack, that part will do more for your career than anything you have done so far.’ He Who Gets Slapped was a quality movie. Jack’s part was small, but he glittered brightly in it, and it did indeed move his career forward.”
He Who Gets Slapped opened on November 3, 1924, at the Capitol Theatre in New York City, setting a one-day world record with $15,000 in ticket sales, a one-week record of $71,900 and a two-week record of $121,574. Similar success was repeated throughout the country. The Boston Post, New York News, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times selected the film as one of the top ten movies of the year. So did Photoplay, Cine Mundial, Movie Monthly and Motion Picture.
Sjöström’s seven years in the United States resulted in eight other highly regarded works, including The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), both with Lillian Gish, as well as the now-lost Greta Garbo film The Divine Woman (1928). With the coming of sound, his career began to falter and he decided to return home, where he acted both in movies and on the stage. At age 78, Sjöström gave his final performance, as the elderly professor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957).
Thomas Gladysz is a San Francisco arts journalist and the director of the Louise Brooks Society. Reprinted with permission of the author.
HE WHO GETS SLAPPED | United States, 1924, 95m | Director: Victor Sjöström
Starring: Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert
With live, original score by The Alloy Orchestra. Print courtesy of George Eastman House.