Plenty of us film buffs, including me, are aware that 1924’s He Who Gets Slapped was MGM’s first movie. There were a few other films in production at the time of MGM’s incorporation, but He Who Gets Slapped is the first movie made by MGM as a new distinct entity. What I didn’t know until recently is that the film is based on a Leonid Andreyev play that was published in Russia in 1914 and then appeared in English in 1922. MGM chose it for their first official film because they wanted to be taken seriously, and their treatment of Andreyev’s play hit the spot.
Andreyev’s story is pretty simple: A mysterious stranger has a talent for making people laugh when someone slaps him, so he joins the circus and does it for money under the pseunodym, “HE,” as in “HE Who Gets Slapped.” Get it? There’s also a lady named Consuelo who’s famous for being the Tango Queen of bareback riding, and HE is soon dead gone on her. The play reveals details about HE bit by bit, and there’s a major subplot about Consuelo, whose father has other ambitions for her.
He Who Gets Slapped, or Tot, kto poluchayet poshchyochiny, was written during the Russian Revolution (Read the play here). Andreyev was in favor of the tsar’s government, and his writings during this period were very morose because he was sad about what was happening in Russia at that time. He ended up moving to Finland in 1917.
The story of HE utilizes two common themes in Andreyev’s writings–fate and accident. HE’s fate is that his profession becomes closed to him, and his move into the circus allows him to get revenge on the man who humiliated him and cut him off from his former life. In being reduced, he becomes empowered.
MGM made major changes to the play, and it’s a good thing, because otherwise He might have gotten panned instead of slapped.
The film opens with a clown spinning a ball, and then fades into Lon Chaney as Paul Beaumont spinning a globe. He’s a poor scientist under the patronage of the Baron Regnard (Marc MacDermott), but the Baron throws Paul under the bus when he not only steals Paul’s theories on the origin of mankind, but Paul’s wife Marie (Ruth King). To add insult to injury, he slaps Paul and calls him a clown. Marie agrees with him.
To everyone’s shock, Paul starts laughing uproariously. His next move is to go join the circus, where he becomes a clown, and he gets famous enough that there’s a whole act built around him. He goes in front of a group of clowns and asks them serious questions, like “Why is the earth flat?” The clowns all point and laugh, while the two clowns flanking Paul slap him around. The crowds love it, and Paul becomes so successful there’s a neon sign outside the big top with his face getting slapped. Paul might be famous, but professionally he’s a pronoun.
Another newcomer joins the circus: Consuelo (Norma Shearer), whose father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall) brags about her success as a bareback rider. Consuelo will be performing with Bezano (John Gilbert), and when the two of them see each other it’s love at first sight. Really, the two of them are adorable, spending every moment together even when they’re not performing.
One night the Baron sits in on a performance of the circus, and of course when Paul sees him he can’t handle it. His normally slappable self can’t sit still, even in the part of his act when he’s supposed to play dead. Then he realizes something rather liberating: The Baron doesn’t know he’s the circus’ star performer. He can troll him all he wants and the Baron will be annoyed, but none the wiser.
The Baron, who is a fatally true skirt-chaser, sets his sights on Consuelo, sending her jewelry at home. The Count is highly affronted so he huffs off to see the Baron and give him what-for. His daughter can’t accept lavish gifts from anyone unless she’s betrothed to them. Well, thinks the Baron, if that’s what it takes, then he wants to marry Consuelo. The Count is a bit of a hustler himself, though, and a condition of the engagement is that the Baron has to put up a healthy sum of cash.
However, Consuelo and Bezano are blissfully in love and want to get married. Preferably immediately. The only thing holding them back is that Consuelo can’t marry without her father’s permission, and it’s pretty safe to say Bezano’s pockets aren’t as deep as the Baron’s.
Things all come to a head that night at the circus, when the Baron and the Count come to revel in their new deal. What they don’t reckon on is Paul, who’s secretly in love with Consuelo himself. Who will have the last laugh is indeed the big question.
One of the biggest differences between Andreyev’s play and MGM’s adaptation is that the film moves way faster. It clocks in at just over an hour and launches right into the action, whereas the play kicks off with pages and pages of dialogue between the circus performers, mostly about Consuelo being the Tango Queen. The Count is also in attendance, but he’s a jovial, flirty fellow, almost the mascot of the circus. That he’s the guy who all but auctions his daughter off to the highest bidder doesn’t become apparent until later.
The other big difference is that the play has an element of suicide because Russia and revolution and sad Andreyev, but we won’t spoil anything.
He Who Gets Slapped was the debut of Victor Sjöström, credited as Seastrom, who brought a high level of vicarity to the story. There may not have been a ton of dialogue, but the emotion and motivation of the characters come through effectively. When HE gets slapped, it’s shown in closeup more often than not, and it makes the viewer focus on nothing but the slap. It doesn’t take long for the flinching to start.
When He has been revived on the stage, the sluggish pacing is what people complain about most, especially if there are a lot of circus acts sprinkled throughout. Its 1946 reboot only ran for forty-six performances. It’s a shame because Andreyev’s dialogue is very witty, even if it does slow down the action.
MGM’s adaptation was well-received, and holds up beautifully almost a century later. According to TCM, it was considered one of the top ten films of 1924, making a $349,000 profit. The studio took a chance, they succeeded, and He Who Gets Slapped set the tone for how they rolled at MGM: “Do it big, do it right, and give it class.”
Alice Faye, John Payne, Cesar Romero and Carmen Miranda are going to stop by for a visit on Friday. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you in a few days…
He Who Gets Slapped is available on DVD on Amazon.
Andreyev, Leonid. He Who Gets Slapped: A Play In Four Acts. New York: Brentano’s, 1922.
Eames, John Douglas. The M-G-M Story. Crown Publishers, Inc.: New York, 1976.