The Sunday Intertitle / Question(s) of the Day

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 ~

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~ and then answer them with a single image ~

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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!”)

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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.

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12 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle / Question(s) of the Day”

  1. FYI, for those who don’t follow TCM schedules, they’re running a couple of the very common Gish/Sjostrom MGM silents this week (Thursday morning, I believe). Not rare (you can guess which two they are) but if you haven’t seen them, at least you have a chance if you live in the US. Also a couple of other Gish silents, including the Gish/Vidor La Boheme. My insane desire to collect anything made pre-1940 means I will be in front of the TV all day (they have some other precodes that evening also).

    They’re running the usual Chaney/Browning silent fare this evening (The Unknown, The Unholy Three), as they do regularly.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    David C.,It is really good that you are running these silents in your class and countering the negative impressions against b/w films, let alone silents.
    Someday, when the numbers situation gets better, I’m going to teach a class on silent films totally. Until then, I run extracts.

  3. Oops, it’s this Wednesday for those who care.

  4. Thanks guys. My class seem pretty up on cinema from 1940 to the present but confess to a lack of experience of older works, so it was nice to start them off on something wildly atypical and unrecognizable, but still enjoyable. It hints at the vast submerged continent of silent movies out there.

    This coming week: it was impossible to get even a vague sense of the breadth of precode cinema into one double-bill, but Bed of Roses and Freaks will give them some hint as to variety.

  5. The more of Chaney’s work I see, the more I think he may be one of the most underrated actors in the history of cinema. And what a face – on the occasions he uses it undistorted (here, and in Tell it to the Marines) it’s recognisably kin to Lee Marvin and William Holden, a resolutely unpretty, male face, of a sort that movies don’t seem to have a place for anymore.

  6. Holden earned that face by hard living, having started out as a prettyboy of sorts. I guess today’s leading men resort to the plastic surgeon or even clean living in an attempt to avoid getting that kind of kisser.

  7. Freaks will have them squirming in their seats. What a delicious thought.

  8. Christopher Says:

    lol…unleash the FREAKS on the kiddies…THey’ll be seein’ armless torsos,midgets and Catepiller men crawling between the desks and chairs all day,and trying to slap them away like imaginary spiders..

  9. It’s a distinct possibility. Whether this will aid or hinder their work, I don’t know.

  10. Jack Womack Says:

    Re: that type of face, it always seemed to me that Tommy Lee Jones, in some films (and I can’t think of specific examples off the top) bears a reasonably close resemblance to Chaney, though LC does far more with his face than TLJ ever does, with his.

  11. That might be good casting. If that Batman movie hadn’t been a mess, he could have done something Chaneylike with Two-Face. His work in Cobb is almost wild enough, and good enough, to merit comparison with the great Lon.

  12. […] of this device in my favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED — see here. And this was the very first MGM release. It was meant to […]

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