Jim Siergey: Slap Happy

June 8th, 2021

The other night I watched a movie that I last saw in the early 1970s that holds special meanings for me in different ways.

The film is He Who Gets Slapped and it was made in 1924. It stars Lon Chaney (Sr.), the “Man of a Thousand Faces”, in another remarkable performance. Co-starring are the young Norma Shearer, who went on to have a successful career in motion pictures and John Gilbert who became a matinee idol in The Silent Era but “talkies” killed his career. It was brilliantly directed and finished in one month on a scant budget by the Swedish director Victor Seastrom who, after directing some films, went back to Sweden to concentrate on his acting career (the opposite of how it usually happens) and joining up with Ingmar Bergman.

I apologize for all the cinematic foofaraw. Perhaps I should have handed out scorecards.

In the early ‘70s, a young film critic named Roger Ebert hosted a series of Lon Chaney films on PBS. He also hosted a series of Ingmar Bergman films.This was my introduction to both of those artists.

In He Who Gets Slapped Lon Chaney plays a scientist who, on the day of his presentation before an arena filled with scholars, scientists and other brainy types, is double-crossed by his benefactor who steals Lon’s ideas (and wife). When Lon protests, claiming the expressed ideas were stolen from him, he is humiliated by gales of laughter from the intellectual crowd that seemed to number in the hundreds. The laughter and jeering rises to an even more intense level when Lon’s benefactor/double-crosser slaps Lon across the face. Turning to plead with his wife, she, too, slaps him which causes even more howls of laughter from the literati.

siergeyclowns

Bring in the clowns…

 

When we next see Mr. Chaney he is  a clown,the star attraction in a circus billed as “He, Who Gets Slapped”. Yep, his shtick is getting slapped and slapped again and again. The crowd eats it up and can’t get enough.

It is quite a remarkable film but if you have a “thing” about clowns, I suggest viewing Saw VII or something else instead. There are scenes with literally hundreds of clowns and creepy-looking little devils they are.

Back in the day not everyone had televisions (Imagine that!) so a small group of us gathered to watch He… and were mesmerized.

So much so that one friend dressed as He to attend a Hallowe’en costume party to which all of us were invited. He donned the white face, the skull cap and his clown suit even had the torn heart half-sewn upon it, just like in the movie.

At the party, he was asked who he was dressed as. Being a character from a silent film, he could not speak so, ever willing to help a fellow human out, I politely intervened.

“Allow me to give you a clue.” I kindly and helpfully interjected, whereupon I slapped my friend in the face.

Seeing puzzlement on the asker’s face I said, “Watch closely. This is all part of who he is.”

I slapped him again.

“You still don’t know? Watch carefully now.”

I made it a point to be nearby him for the rest of the evening, waiting for someone to pose the fateful question. Before too long I had to begin using my left hand because my right one was beginning to get swollen from all the slapping I was doing.

Despite the constant cuffing of his countenance, we remained friends…for a few more years. Confidentially, he was a bit of a jerk, so I did not miss him much. I didn’t miss him much at that party either.

He Who Gets Slapped. Yeah, that classic film brings back some fond memories.

 

Editor’s note: Jim’s last post for The Third City was Boston Blackie…

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