According to Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation, up to 90 percent of all American films made before 1929 have disappeared. And whenever something as remarkable as Victor Seastrom's He Who Gets Slapped turns up, it's hard not to dream about and long for a look at some of those long-gone movie treasures. Seastrom's bold, unnerving 1924 melodrama — presented by Indie Memphis and playing Thursday, October 10th, at the Malco Paradiso Theater with live accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra — is a forgotten classic as rewarding and vital and strange as any new release you could name.
He Who Gets Slapped begins with an ominous inter-title: "In the grim comedy of life, it has been wisely said that the last laugh is the best." The second shot of the film shows a clown spinning a giant circus ball — a surreal, non-narrative visual motif that grows both more sardonic and more haunting whenever it reappears. The clown spinning the ball eventually becomes a man toying with a globe: struggling scientist Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney Sr.), who has just proven his "startling theories on the Origin of Mankind." Overjoyed and exhausted, Beaumont shares his good news with his wife (Ruth King) and his benefactor, Baron Regnard (Mark McDermott).
Soon after his triumph, Beaumont suffers two sanity-shattering tragedies. First, during a lecture to the Academy of the Sciences, Regnard steals Beaumont's theories and ideas; he soaks up the academy's applause while Beaumont watches in disbelief. Beaumont immediately tries to discredit Regnard, but Regnard calls Beaumont a madman and slaps him in the face, which, in a Kafkaesque twist, sets off peals of laughter from the ancient academy members sitting in the gallery. Second, when Beaumont returns home to seek comfort in his wife's arms, he discovers that she and Regnard are having an affair.
After a well-earned nervous breakdown, Beaumont abandons traditional scientific pursuits in favor of more existential inquiries. Reinventing himself as a circus clown, Beaumont — now called "HE" — fashions a bizarre big-top act that repeatedly tests Samuel Beckett's theory that "nothing is funnier than unhappiness." Gaunt and porcine spectators of all ages collapse in hysterics as, every night, HE is slapped in the face up to a hundred times by an army of fellow clowns. His fame grows and grows.
The speed and economy of the storytelling in He Who Gets Slapped is one of its best assets: All of the aforementioned psychodrama takes place during the film's first 16 minutes, and there are plenty of wicked surprises to come. But the best thing about this film may be Chaney's performance. If Charlie Chaplin was the silent era's great puppy dog, Buster Keaton its great bionic man, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. its great macho cartoon, then Chaney was its great escaped lunatic. Throughout the film, Chaney is unpredictable, feral, dangerous: A casual study of the emotions he evokes simply by widening his eyes and baring his teeth makes today's onscreen depictions of psychos, losers, and loonies look puerile and stupid.
In very short: Don't miss this one. ■
Thursday, October 10th, 8 p.m.
$12/$8 students/free for Indie Memphis members