As a culture, we seriously hate our clowns. A deep-seated and supposedly irrational fear of clowns is so commonplace it’s even been given a scientific name: coulrophobia. It’s hardly a surprise then that angry, axe-wielding or merely creepy clowns would become such a pop cultural mainstay, from The Simpsons and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and more recently from Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight to Stephen King’s It and It Chapter Two. Back in the day, the video store where I used to work carried (I counted) nineteen clown-themed horror movies, from Killer Klowns From Outer Space to Divine’s last film, Out of the Dark.
Evil Clown comics used to be a regular feature in National Lampoon. The 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs (based on a Victor Hugo novel) presaged Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s The Joker–a feat we’d see come full circle on screen with 2019’s melodramatic take on the character, Joker–and Rob Zombie’s 31 features a rampaging horde of murderous clowns. So none of this is anything new. In fact in terms of creepy cinematic clowns, few can touch Lon Chaney’s turn in He Who Gets Slapped.
To call the 1924 silent film perhaps the creepiest and most disturbing film of Lon Chaney’s career is saying quite a bit, especially as it was made smack in the middle of his 10-film collaboration with Tod Browning—a collaboration that gave us films like West of Zanzibar, The Penalty, and The Unknown—but there’s something about the vengeful clown picture that wriggles under the skin and settles in the subconscious. For those of us who came to the film with a deep and profound fear of clowns already in place, it’s like a nightmare realized.
Written originally as a Russian novel by Leonid Andreyev, Tot, kto poluchaet poshchechiny (as it was known) was adapted for the stage by the author, and in 1916 received its first film treatment under the direction of Aleksandr Ivanov-Gai. This should come as little surprise, as although the story is set in Paris, it remains inextricably Russian in character. In 1922 the novel was translated into English as He Who Gets Slapped and again adapted for the New York stage by Gregory Zillboorg. The play was a minor hit, but still enough of a hit that the rights were picked up by the newly-formed Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios and handed to Victor Sjöström, the father of Swedish cinema, to direct.
That makes a lot of sense, too, once you become familiar with the plot. Given the star would be spending two-thirds of the film in clown makeup, casting Chaney seems to have been a forgone conclusion. He Who Gets Slapped was the first film to be shot in MGM’s new studios, but the release was delayed a few months until Christmas in order to draw bigger crowds for what was obviously a, ya know, Christmasy-type film for the whole family.
Chaney plays Paul Beaumont, a young and unknown scientist who has only been able to support himself and his wife thanks to the generosity of his patron, Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). For years now Beaumont has been struggling to prove his radical new theory about the origins of mankind. Now that his work is finally complete, he’s ready to present it before the Academy of Science. But the night before the presentation, his wife steals all of his papers and hands them over to the Baron. On the day of the presentation, instead of introducing him as had been expected, the Baron delivers all of Beaumont’s findings as his own. When Beaumont confronts him in front of the gathered crowd of scientists, the Baron dismisses his claims and worse, slaps him in the face as the crowd roars with laughter. If that wasn’t bad enough, when Beaumont returns home to tell his wife about the outrage, she reveals that she’s in love with the Baron, that they’ve been carrying on behind his back, and—just as bad as that slap—she calls him a fool and a clown. Pondering this turn of events, Beaumont sees he has two choices.
Sure enough we cut to five years later, when Beaumont, now known only as “He,” has joined a small Parisian circus as a clown with a growing reputation. His act, quite simply, involves being slapped in the face repeatedly by other clowns. In some performances he recreates his humiliation at the Academy of Science, and in others the troupe’s other clowns simply form a rotating ring around He, each giving him a slap as they pass. The crowd goes wild. As another member of the circus puts it, “There’s nothing that makes people laugh so hard as seeing someone else get slapped.”
But of course knowing the back story, it’s more terrifying and unsettling than hilarious, which Sjöström points up in two ways. First, though the cinematography in the first part of the film is quite normal and straightforward, once we cut to the circus things change. During the performance sequences the film is intentionally underdeveloped, leaving the clowns a collection of stark, intensely white, almost featureless figures frolicking against an impenetrably black background. Instead of the wild, fun, crazy circus atmosphere we’re used to seeing on film, it plays like the cold psychodrama it really is, as He relives his betrayal and humiliation over and over every night.
Apart from that Sjöström drops in a series of nightmarish inserts filmed the same way, featuring He laughing madly as he spins a ball on his finger. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a deeply disturbing image, especially when it comes back around for the fifth time.
Meanwhile, as explained in some of the most extensive intertitles I’ve ever seen in a silent film, a nasty web of romantic complications arises under the big top. He falls for a bareback rider named Consuelo (Norma Shearer), who is unsurprisingly in love with someone else while her father is insisting she marry yet a third man. It all becomes a moot point, however, thanks to the picture’s most singularly frustrating and troubling sequence. In the middle of a performance, He spots the Baron and his ex-wife sitting in the front row. They clearly don’t recognize him, knowing him only as his now immensely popular clown persona. As he tries to call to them, to reveal their crimes to the rest of the audience, the words don’t come out because the clowns on either side of him keep slapping him in the face as he’s about to speak.
It’s to Chaney’s credit as an actor that we see all his emotions playing out on his face and in his eyes as it becomes clear how pointless it all is. And again, his humiliation and frustration and pain are drowned out by the cackling of the crowd. Things only grow worse after that evening’s performance, but He concocts a devilishly savage scheme to at last exact the revenge he’s been seeking.
Even if on the surface the final moments aren’t as standardly tragic as they were in the original novel (MGM didn’t want to kick start their new studio with a bummer, lord knows), in a way it’s far worse, with He laying dead in the center ring as the bright clown march kicks in on the soundtrack one last time and all the other fools begin to dance around his corpse against that deep black background in a mockery of a funeral.
Three years after this Chaney would once again play a clown whose romantic rivalries lead to tragedy in the much milder (and much better known) Laugh Clown Laugh. But it was only his films with Tod Browning that could begin to touch, on a visual and emotional level, the kind of gut wrenching anguish tapped into in He Who Gets Slapped. The difference is that unlike the Browning films, the horror here is not the result of overt grotesquerie or violence (though there is a bit of violence here, it’s hardly the issue), but rather in the visual representation of inescapable shame and emotional agony—the memories we try and fail to repress, the masks we use to try and hide from our pasts, the old buried pains that won’t let us be. No, there are no butcher knives or chainsaws here, but there are images here that, for reasons you may not be able to name, will crawl inside your skull and haunt you for years.