Monday, August 23, 2010

Perverted Movie Classic: He Who Gets Slapped

Tomorrow, August 24, at 7:00 am, TCM will be showing one of the best and most perverted movies ever made, the classic horror drama He Who Gets Slapped. The movie tells the genuinely disturbing story of a scientist called Paul Beaumont who has been working for years on some kind of theory on the origin of humankind. Finally, after flipping through a few pages in a book, he discovers something that proves! all! his! theories! correct! He tells his wealthy benefactor, the Baron, and his wife, all about it.

They seem happy for him, but in fact they're just happy for themselves, since they've been carrying on an affair right under Paul's nose and behind his back, all at the same time. The Baron arranges for Paul's proofs to be presented before "The Academy" (we never learn anything about them and because this is a silent film even when the Baron is speaking we don't hear what he says); however, the Baron takes all the credit for himself, telling The Academy members that Paul is just a crazed grad student he hired as an assistant.

Moreover, the Baron slaps Paul. Right in front of everyone at The Academy.

This sends The Academy members into conniptions of laughter.

And starts Paul on his decline into a raging, maddening victimhood.

Later, he returns home to get solace from his wife. Then he learns that she is seeing the Baron. Then, she slaps him, too.

Paul's descent into ravening self-pitying madness gathers steam.

I could post these pictures of Lon Chaney all day. Every single pose he strikes in this film, every movement of his eyes and mouth, perfectly conveys the sad- and madness that this man goes through. It's got to be one of the best performances ever captured on film.

Chaney had a -- shall we say, perverse devotion to the acting craft.

Chaney was known to be willing to undergo genuine physical pain if it would help him achieve a role. For example, in the famous vampire grin in "London After Midnight" he reportedly used fishhooks to widen the leer and showcase his pointed teeth. For "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" he donned a hump and harness weighing more than 50 pounds to help him capture the tortured nature of the character. He bound his feet to his thighs to play an amputee for his work in "The Penalty" which resulted in broken blood vessels and considerable long-term pain.
(Now compare that to Julia Roberts' assertion that she had "no regrets" about gaining 7 pounds while filming "Eat, Pray, Love.")

And, yes, the movie is silent, but unlike a lot of silent films it doesn't feel in any way dated or alien; the acting isn't "hammy," and the title cards aren't overripe. In fact, in many ways, the fact that we can't hear Paul's dialogue helps create a more claustrophobic, frustrating feel for the character.

He cannot be heard!

But, anyway,  back to the story. Paul becomes a clown with a circus. His entire routine consists of being slapped. In front of the crowd. Hundreds of times a night. He's taken his humiliation and turned it into an act. It's almost as if he actually likes being slapped. It's what he wanted all along.

Every single one of us has the power to rationalize our situations. How many times have you ever been, say, cheated on, and you convinced yourself that it was somehow your fault -- that if you'd only just shown her a little more affection, she wouldn't have strayed? Or, have you ever been stuck in a job you hate? I mean, that you really, really loathed at first, but after awhile you come to think, "Hey, this isn't so bad. In fact, I really like having to (sit at a desk all day) (stand on my feet all day) (remove that part from the press all day)" or whatever it is.

The movie gets even more perverse as it goes. The Baron attends the circus where HE is performing. After the show, the Baron starts to put the moves on Consuelo, the bareback rider that HE has fallen in love with. She is his one chance to finally break out of the maddening cage of self-loathing in which HE has locked himself. Things don't go well.

It's impossible to "spoil" this movie, since it is a great work of art. Everyone knows what happens at the end of Romeo and Juliet, but we still read it or watch performances anyway, because it's great. The same is true of He Who Gets Slapped, but I won't tell you just how badly and perversely the story turns out. I will point out that one of the movie's themes, as articulated by one of the other clowns in the circus, marveling at HE's popularity, is carried to its bitter and logical conclusion:

That is one of the most grim sentiments ever conveyed in a film! People like to see others get punished, but it's not just that. HE hasn't done anything to really deserve to be slapped. His guilt and his madness come from the fact that he was cheated on and lied to by people who were close to him, and maybe he should have seen it, but the humiliation piled on humiliation is totally out of proportion of any sin that HE might have committed.

Yes, perhaps there is a part of us that might say, He deserved to be cheated on if he was that clueless, but how much of that comes from recognizing that weakness in ourselves?

Even more than that, HE actually revels in his own humiliation. He's an emotional masochist, carrying his fetish to hysterical ends, and making the audience complicit. So who is the real loser in this scenario? HE who gets slapped, or the audience who laughs, and who slaps?

The movie was based on a play written by a Russian named Leonid Andreyev in 1915. Russia was still under tsarist rule, but the communists were gaining power as war and inflation weakened the government. The people were setting themselves up to trade one form of oppression for another. But Andreyev had some serious emotional issues outside of all that:

He experienced the utter depths of depression when he was twenty while studying law at St. Petersburg University then transferring to the University of Moscow. Onset of mental health issues led to several suicide attempts, thus he abandoned law and became a police court reporter for the Moscow Courier.
Then, after the revolution, insult was added to mental injury:

Like many other Russian writers at the time, the Revolution of 1905 and ensuing Communist revolution that overthrew the tsarist regime had a profound affect on Andreyev. He was imprisoned with Maxim Gorky who became a friend and supporter until they parted ways years later due to political differences.
Unlike the character HE, Andreyev didn't just sit by and accept what had happened to the country. He didn't try to rationalize that all along Russia needed to trade one tyrant for another.

During World War I, Andreyev was the patriotic editor of a government inspired newspaper, but as a fervent anti-revolutionary moved to Finland after the Bolsheviks gained power. His last work, S.O.S. (1919) was a blatant appeal to the Allies to save Russia.
Alas, that wasn't enough to prevent him traveling the same road of madness negotiated by that of HE. After all, he was a writer, not a politician or a soldier. Perhaps it's worse when you actually try to do something, but don't have the tools. He became more isolated and mentally ill as his life wore on and he finally died of heart failure on September 12, 1919.

The story of the artist is gloomy, but the art itself, while certainly downbeat, is nevertheless full of uplift and power. It's an insane, shocking, hilarious, and moving film that still retains its power. And it is perverse as hell. And I'm pretty sure that people who claim to be frightened of clowns might have HE in mind.

HE really is creepy.

And thanks to google, you don't have to wait until tomorrow; you can watch the movie any time, as long as you don't mind looking at French subtitles.

You can also, again thanks to google, read the play online.

HE clown pic source.


shampoo said...

this was a really interesting article. i didn't even know about this movie.. or the play. and i used to read a lot of russian authors from that time period.

actually, the communists didn't overthrow the tsar. there were two revolutions. they overthrew the provisional government which would have probably worked into system similar to what the u.k. has. so, the first revolution over threw strict tsarist rule, the communist revolution overhtrew that. a big incentive was people wanted an end to wwi. and the commmunists forced that to happen in a way that was not that favorable to russia. then they killed the tsar and his whole family, as you know.... what was i talking about?

oh yeah, this play. so anyway, that sort of fits what was shaping up in russia at the time because these political factions were both around in 1915. fewer people supported the communists, actually... but, people just didn't like wwi.

Ricky Sprague said...

shampoo, thanks for the insights. I really don't know all that much about the Russian revolutions, obviously --

History is complicated!

I do think it's great that you can actually watch this movie (and a lot of others, if you're so inclined) online. It's worth the time.