Thursday, March 12, 2015

He who gets slapped

The Swedish movie star and director, Viktor Sjostrom, made a half-dozen films in Hollywood, directing the pictures under the credit "Victor Seastrom."  Sjostrom directed a number of important Swedish silent films, including the pioneering Ingeborg Holm (1914)the open air Icelandic saga, The Outlaw and his Wife (1916), and The Phantom Carriage (1921), Ingmar Bergman's favorite picture and an extraordinary film by any standard.  On the strength of The Phantom Carriage, MGM invited Sjostrom to Hollywood.  His first film in the US, and one of MGM's earliest box office hits, is the morbidly masochistic He who gets slapped (1924) an adaptation of a celebrated expressionist stage play by the Russian, Leonid Andreyev.  Lon Chaney, who specialized in playing martyred grotesques, performs the part of the hero, a poor scholar (studying "the origin of the human race") driven mad by his wife's infidelity and the theft of his brilliant ideas by his wife's lover, the smarmy Count Bertrand.  Even without mask-like make-up, Chaney looks different in every film that I have seen:  in this picture, he sports a Mephistophelean goatee and seems thin, dapper, and athletic.  Chaney looks nothing like the homely and burly Marine drill instructor in the 1929 Tell it to the Marines, a part that played without the assistance of the alarming make-up effects featured in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Unholy Three, and The Phantom of the Opera.  For most of the film, Chaney's face is slathered with thick white paint and he slouches around in a vaguely cone-shaped harlequin outfit, also a ghostly white.  Chaney's "HE", the name adopted by the crazed former genetics scholar, is the king of the clowns, the general and major-domo of an army of slithering, prancing ghost-like white figures, at least a hundred of them, who inhabit a spectral circus somewhere on the outskirts of Paris.  The circus is famous for HE's act, a bizarrely choreographed spectacle in which the clowns parade by their lord and master, brazenly slapping his face while the orchestra plays a grotesque march.  This act is so renowned that a giant neon sign showing a white-faced clown being violently slapped adorns the skyline, mounted it seems on the "big top" of the circus tent.  It's unclear exactly why this nightmarish and tedious pantomime would be funny to anyone, but the film posits that audiences love the act and laugh uproariously, even uncontrollably, their crude and porcine faces themselves caricatures, like the vicious centurions and peasants clustering around the crucifixion of Christ in a painting by Bosch or Brueghel.  The sinister clown and his legions of pale minions looks like Koko, the famous cartoon  figure contrived by the Fleischer brothers in 1919 and, in fact, some of surreal and uncanny aspects of Koko's persona, for instance, his drug-addled duets with Cab Calloway in Betty Boop animated featurettes, things like "Minnie the Moocher" and"The Old Man of the Mountain" (both 1934) seem to have their source in the 1924 film's nightmare imagery. (The question of influence here is complex:  the cartoon Koko was famous before Sjostrom's film; but some of horror imagery from the 1924 picture seems to have leaked in the Fleischer films with Betty Boop, Koko and Bimbo made a decade later).  Of course, the evil Count Bertrand surfaces as an audience member at HE's circus, lusting for the equestrienne star, a comely maiden that HE also loves.  HE thwarts the bad guy and orchestrates a gory revenge on his nemesis, managing to get stabbed in the process.  Thus, HE dies at center-stage of the circus that he has made famous, his poor white heart, a fabric pillow clutched in his bloody hand, literally broken.  The maiden, presumably, marries her romantic interest, a handsome trapeze artist, and a startling final image shows the spinning globe encompassed by a ring of sinister white clowns who pick up the body of their dead leader and hurl it into the outer darkness.  The film is worth seeing for the dream-like sequences involving the clowns, images that have had some influence on later film-makers.  As is often the case with Chaney's films, the love interest between the regularly shaped and conventionally handsome actors who serve as counterpoint to the star's grotesque, but sympathetic, protagonists, is tedious, indeed, almost completely uninteresting.  The opening logo displays Slats, the MGM lion, glaring out of his oval frame, but not roaring -- he merely looks around in a confused manner.  At the climax of the film, Slats has to maul and eat two bad guys.  But the lion looks gentlemanly and a wee bit superannuated, a tired, dignified old beast that can barely be roused from his torpor to attack the villains.  Sjostrom doesn't know how to stage this gaudy sequence -- images of this sort were beyond his m├ętier -- and so he films the climax in the most banal and perfunctory manner possible, more or less, wrecking the film.  Chaney is always interesting and the slapping sequences have a horrific authority, but the movie is not as good as the star's shorter, more brutal shockers -- for instance, Tod Browning' ghastly 1927 The Unknown.      

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