Plot: Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) is a scientist with some impressive research and a beautiful wife, but a tragic turn of events sparks him to change his entire life. His rival Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott) is able to steal his hard earned research and present it as his own, which makes Beaumont a laughingstock when he claims it his work, while the Baron reaps the praise and adulation of their peers. As if that heavy setback to his professional life isn’t enough, Regnard also steals away Beaumont’s life, throwing his personal life into chaos. After he is slapped during this humiliation, Beaumont retreats and leaves his life behind, taking refuge behind the paint of a clown and his act involves him being slapped while the audiences howl in laughter. He becomes a celebrated entertainer, all while his mind continues to deteriorate, but when a chance for payback arrives, how will Beaumont respond?
Entertainment Value: This melodrama has an odd narrative, but features a terrific performance from screen legend Lon Chaney, as well as some light surreal elements that help it stand out. How Beaumont’s story begins is kind of a stretch, but once the path to madness begins, He Who Gets Slapped is tense and well crafted, though it once again reaches when it comes to the finale. But these narrative stretches aren’t a real concern, as the movie doesn’t mask the melodrama involved and the visuals and performances more than compensate. The eerie, surreal moments that involve the clowns are nearly horror movie in presence at times, whether in the fever dream segments or the scene where Beaumont performs alongside them. The crowd of all clowns laughing and clapping is rather unsettling and again, boosts the tension and melodrama, which push the atmosphere to another level. Needless to say, if you have a fear of clowns, He Who Gets Slapped is bound to give you nightmares, as it is packed with creepy clowns once Beaumont begins his performances. I found this to be a dark, memorable movie and I think it deserves a strong recommendation.
I loved the dark visuals of He Who Gets Slapped, but as usual, it is Lon Chaney that really makes this movie run at full impact. His performance is at times over the top, but that is in line with the general melodramatic approach and Chaney is superb here, even when he dials things up. The character of Beaumont is obviously a tragic figure and Chaney brings that across, but there is also a desperation under that and even some mania, which again Chaney conveys with great skill. The internal anguish brought out in some of the later scenes is beyond impressive, especially when combined with the dark visuals and eerie clowns that abound. I wouldn’t rank this with Chaney’s absolute best work, but it is a tremendous effort and a testament to his skills, proving even with little makeup he could command the screen. Norma Shearer is also here and I am always glad to find her in movies, as she also has great presence. Her role in He Who Gets Slapped isn’t a lead, but she has a prominent part, nonetheless. Although she doesn’t get to fully showcase her talents in this case, Shearer brings another good performance to the table and her scenes with Chaney are often powerful. The cast also includes John Gilbert, Tully Marshall, and in a very small extra role, Bela Lugosi.