One of the many many things I love about my favourite movie of all time, Victor Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, is the way it has the nerve to ask some BIG QUESTIONS ~
~ and then answer them with a single image ~
Showed this to my students on Tuesday evening, a roaring success! (Hope this week’s pre-codes are equally successful.) Impressively, the movie got only one “bad laugh” as the audience acclimatized themselves to Chaney’s eye-bulging. In general, the film is so emotionally off-kilter that laughter is at times a valid response to the goings-on, which I characterize as tragedy seen through an ironic filter. The whole thing proceeds like a fairy-tale, with implausible plot-turns and coincidences, and dicey story concepts (Chaney as scientist working on unspecified “startling theories”; Chaney becoming a clown out of despair) which the film doesn’t waste effort trying to “sell” to us. We just accept them the way an audience of children would, with the question “And what happens next?”
The biggest contortion of credibility is when Chaney confesses his love to Norma Shearer and she thinks he’s joking which, given his performance and the lines we get via intertitle, is impossible to accept as believable in any literal way. Nobody could be that dumb. A modern actor might say the scene is unplayable. But it works, because we get what it’s about (this film is deep but it ain’t exactly subtle, so Chaney even TELLS us what it’s about: “I say serious things and people laugh!”)
Chaney’s expressions, which are BIG and open and unbearably raw, still move me, as does his physical work — he’s not required to run on his knees or wear a heavy plaster hump here, but his tortured postures convey the essence of emotional suffering. Although he has two makeups in this film (bearded scientist, painted clown) it’s really all about performance, exposure rather than disguise.