I decided to show this film because I wanted to share my interest in the films of John Gilbert and Norma Shearer. What makes this film even more worthwhile is that it’s directed by Victor Sjöström and stars silent star Lon Chaney. In addition, this is MGM’s first-ever solely produced film as well as the studio’s first use of Leo the Lion.
I was impressed with the music; thought it really added to the atmosphere and weirdness of the film and wondered if this was the original score created by William Axt. After some researching and finding no definitive answer, I have come to the conclusion that it must be the original just because I could find no credit given on the DVD or online and, as you will see, Axt‘s name is NOT listed in the film credits, nor was he given credit in 1924. (My guests and I discussed this afterwards and it was decided that the score we heard was contemporary.)
Of these three big names, I would say Gilbert had the least important role. You will read later in this evening’s notes how he didn’t want to do the film, but as it turned out it was not a bad career move when the film became a blockbuster of its day. Norma Shearer was up and coming and this definitely was a wise choice for her. This was Gilbert and Shearer’s second film together, their first being THE WOLF MAN earlier in the year.
This is such an odd film, a strange story of how a man goes from a brilliant scientist to a heartbreaking clown in the circus. He’s actually not pathetic, he’s something different; someone who is philosophical but hides his truth behind sadness seen as humour by the outside world. I know that people steal and plagiarize other people’s work but I wondered how anyone could get away with it so perfectly as the Baron did in this story. It seemed too big of a project.
The comeuppance for the villains is really quite a horrific ending and you are left to wonder how Consuelo really feels about her father at the end of the film. Maybe she’s matter-of-factly thinking, “Ces’t la vie”, “such is the way it goes” or instead is shocked and thinking “How horrible! He was my father after all!”
In any event, I’m sure you will enjoy this film and think about it for the next few days. Caren
Saturday, June 21, 2014
HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by Victor Sjöström (as Victor Seastrom). Play by Leonid Andreyev. Adapted for the Screen by Carey Wilson and Victor Sjöström. Produced by Victor Sjöström and Irving Thalberg (uncredited). Cinematography by Milton Moore. Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons. Film editing by Hugh Wynn. Costume Design by Sophie Wachner. Music by William Axt (uncredited). Released: December 22, 1924. 95 minutes.
Lon Chaney…………………………………………………. Paul Beaumont/HE
Norma Shearer…………………………………………………………. Consuelo
John Gilbert……………………………………………………………….. Bezano
Ruth King……………………………………………………….. Maria Beaumont
Marc McDermott……………………………………………….. Baron Regnard
Ford Sterling………………………………………………………………. Tricaud
Tully Marshall…………………………………………………….. Count Mancin
Edward Arnold………………………………………………………………. Extra
(The Mayers) departed (for Italy where Ben Hur was being filmed) toward the end of 1924, just when the Christmas release of He Who Gets Slapped was being hailed around the world as one of the year’s best movies. It was the first film Mayer and Thalberg had put before the cameras at the Culver City studio. Its merit was recognized by the company’s sales force when it was completed but its showing held until the holidays when theater business was at its best. The title role was played by Lon Chaney, the actor known as “the man of a thousand faces” when Thalberg was at Universal. He was acclaimed, as were John Gilbert and Norma Shearer for their performances as lovers.
…(Now in Germany) When Mayer’s arrival was reported in the Berlin press, (Mauritz) Stiller contacted Victor Seastrom at the MGM studio and asked his countryman for an introduction to the American producer. That was fortuitous, because Seastrom, director of the successful He Who Gets Slapped, impressed Mayer so much that he felt drawn to all Swedish directors. Seastrom cabled Mayer, extolling Stiller’s ability, where upon Mayer accepted an invitation to a screening of Gösta Berling.
Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints by Samuel Marx (1975)
Jack began work on his next picture. The film was He Who Gets Slapped, and Irving Thalberg had selected it for him without asking his opinion. It was a small romantic part, the starring roles going to Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer. The director was the brilliant Victor Seastrom, who had come from Sweden the year before. Jack read the script and became distressed and then alarmed. There were only twenty scenes for him in the entire picture. He’d convinced himself that he was rotten in His Hour before it was even released. Now he was sure the studio knew it too, and they were punishing him for that, for expressing independent ideas, and for pushing too hard for better stories. He was being taught a lesson; maybe they were even trying to force him out. Jack stormed into Thalberg’s office.
“Look,” he said, “if you want to get rid of me you don’t have to give me rotten parts to do it. I’ll leave today and it won’t cost you a cent!”
Thalberg, not yet accustomed to Jack’s soaring highs and lows, sat back in his chair and stared at him in amazement. “Have you gone mad? he asked quietly. “That part, small as it is, will do you more good than anything you’ve done so far”
Jack was doubtful but relived. On Thalberg’s advice, he agreed to take the script home and read it more carefully. In the end he accepted the assignment.
The picture opened to rave reviews. The New York Time said: “…a picture which defies one to write about it without indulging in superlatives…so beautifully told, so flawlessly directed that we imagine it will be held up as a model by all producers.” Photoplay said: “The acting is remarkably fine. Norma Shearer and John Gilbert as the lovers are delightful.”
He Who Gets Slapped is still regarded as a small masterpiece. It’s the story of a brilliant scientist, disappointed in love, who gives up the academic life to become a circus clown. Norma Shearer and Jack Gilbert play two young bareback riders in love. When the aristocrat who cuckolded Lon Chaney, now the clown, shows up with designs on Norma, Chaney gets his revenge, sacrificing himself in the process and leaving the lovers free to marry. Thalberg turned out to be right once more. Jack’s popularity grew enormously after playing this small romantic part in such distinguished company. His fan mail increased and he was favorably mentioned by critics who’d overlooked him before.
(Jack was married to Leatrice Joy and their daughter was born in 1924.) Louis B. Mayer was outraged by the divorce, and particularly by its timing. MGM had just released His Hour. He Who Gets Slapped was being filmed; Jack’s face was about to be spread across thousands of movie screens under the new MGM logo, and the “degenerate” had picked just this moment to show his true colors to the world! Variety headlined the story: LIQUOR IN BULK MADE LEATRICE JOY’S LIFE SAD. Almost every newspaper in the country carried a story entirely sympathetic to Leatrice, because nearly all of the stories were based largely on the language of her complaint, which was public record.
Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of the Legendary John Gilbert by Leatrice Gilbert Fountain (1985)
He Who Gets Slapped (1924) was tabbed by the new Metro-Goldwyn company as a super special-prestige picture from the word go. It was to be their first official production, and they were determined to get off to a rousing start. A success d’estime, when the Theatre Guild produced it on Broadway in 1922, it was, according to Thalberg and Mayer, a perfect vehicle for the great Lon Chaney, who was then under contract to them after his singular triumphs in Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera.
One of the more prestigious pictures of the early postamalgamation period of Metro-Goldwyn, He Who Gets Slapped has a compelling story. A once-brilliant scientist (Chaney) becomes disillusioned when he is cuckolded by a baron he thought was his friend; he joins a circus where he becomes a pathetic clown whose self-denigrating act depicts his inner disillusionment with mankind. He falls in love with a bareback rider, played by Shearer, who in turn is in love with her riding partner, Gilbert. The clown’s slapping act, complete with another variation of the famed Chaney makeup, becomes a great success. Chaney hides his unrequited love for Shearer until his old nemesis, the baron, reveals his intention of marrying Shearer, who recoils from him. Her father, who seeks a life of ease, conspires with the baron to win her over. In a thrilling, grisly, and rousing denouement, the enraged clown unleashes a lion on the two miscreants, killing them both but sacrificing his own life when he is shot by the baron. (He isn’t shot by the baron, but stabbed by the father.) He dies in Shearer’s arms, and she and Gilbert are united.
The brilliant Swedish director Victor Seastrom, who at that time had only been in the United States for a year, was assigned to the film; he not only directed it, but cowrote the screenplay with Carey Wilson, who transcribed Seastrom’s thoughts from Swedish into English.
Shearer and Gilbert were not all that satisfied with their parts, as they felt they were playing second-fiddle to the great Chaney. There was no denying that it was his picture; he dominated the proceedings throughout and didn’t let anyone forget it.
Norma later remembered Chaney as grim, withdrawn, totally self-absorbed–and even a little frightening. He fussed endlessly with his makeup, went over scenes compulsively in advance, and seemed oblivious to most of the people around him.
Gilbert had not wanted to do the role of the bareback rider, feeling that his scenes were limited and that he was being consigned for romantic stud duty. Thalberg convinced him, however, that the picture would do a lot for him, and that he and Norma ought to sacrifice their prideful yens for center-stage and attach themselves, that once, to Chaney’s prestigious kite and reap the benefits. This proved to be wise advice, for fan mail for both increased after the picture’s release.
While reminiscing via letter with Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, Norma wrote: “Jack and I played circus performers who were, of course, in love. This was easy to imagine, as we rode, standing in each other’s arms, on the back of a prancing white horse. Fortunately my heart belonged to someone else or I might have lost my balance!” (The “someone else” of the particular moment remains a mystery. As Helen Ferguson put it: “There were so many infatuations for Norma then–they came and went revolving-door style.”)
The critics went all out in their praise for He Who Gets Slapped. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Seastrom has directed this dramatic story with all the genius of a Chaplin or a Lubitsch…Miss Shearer is charming as Consuelo and Mr. Gilbert is a sympathetic sweetheart.”
The great Chaney, of course, dominated the reviews. Theatre magazine’s critic pronounced: “Lon Chaney, the clown who accepts the kicks and jeers of the multitude, gives an interpretation of surpassing fineness. One of his tender moments with the little bareback rider whom he so hopelessly loves is memorable. Norma Shearer, too, is delightful in the freshness and gaiety of youth.”
When I saw He Who Gets Slapped at Frank Rowley’s Regency Revival House in New York sixty years later, the film retained every ounce of its original force and power, and deeply moved the 1984 audience. Quirk’s Reviews associate editor and film critic William Schoell wrote: “Victor Seastrom’s direction, far from being primitive, is most clever and imaginative, and the pace, for the most part, is faster than that of a lot of contemporary pictures. Performances (particularly Chaney’s) are excellent.”
Jimmy Quirk personally wrote the Photoplay review that ran, in part: “The acting is remarkably fine. Lon Chaney does the best work of his career. Here his performance has breadth, force and imagination….Norma Shearer and Jack Gilbert, as the lovers, are delightful.”
Despite the film’s critical and popular success, Norma expressed no desire to work with Chaney. Joan Crawford remembered that three years later, when she expressed her excitement ot Norma over being cast in Chaney’s The Unknown, Norma replied: “Don’t get overjoyed too soon–you may get a letdown, like I did. There’s something strange about the man. He makes you glad he’s self-involved, as he usually is, because it would be goose-pimply to be the direct object of that man’s attention or interest.” When Joan asked Norma what she meant exactly, Norma merely replied, “You’ll find out for yourself soon enough.”
Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence J. Quirk (1988)
Thalberg was impressed with Norma’s work over the past few months, and the new promise she showed in Broadway After Dark and Empty Hands; her reward was a leading role in He Who Gets Slapped opposite Chaney and Gilbert. Thalberg had advised Mayer to buy the rights to this play by the Russian dramatist Leonid Andreyev during its successful Broadway run, and all he needed now to complete a prestigious package, his first “all-star production,” was an important director. Victor Seastrom, already on the payroll, drew this prize assignment. He had the necessary “international” touch, Thalberg decided, for Andreyev’s circus melodrama about a sad clown who falls in love with a bareback rider, herself in love with her lion-taming partner.
As part of a littering inaugural package, Norma realized she had earned the seal of approval she longed for, even if Thalberg never told her so directly. In those days, she remembered, “Mr. Thalberg and I met often and spoke rarely.” The young vice president was occupied not only with his workload but a block in his personal life. For over a year Constance Talmadge, light of his heart, independent of mind, had been his unrequited love. She turned down Thalberg’s invitations to dinner because she preferred touring speakeasies with William Haines and Jimmy Shields, the actor’s former stand-in who had become his lover, and she made sudden, mysterious, romantic disappearances to Paris. During the latest of them, in the summer of 1924, Carl Laemmle’s daughter, Rosabelle–“with beautiful eyes but an unfortunate jaw,” according to Irene Selznick–came out to California. She had known Thalberg since he was nineteen, getting his start in the movie business as Laemmle’s secretary in New York, and shown little interest in him there. Now she made signals to a famous admired figure. Thalberg felt himself attracted and answered them but was unprepared for the next stage, when Rosabelle declared herself in love with him. Although drawn to independent women, he set limits; behind her eagerness to marry him, he sensed the ambition for social success. Rosabelle had no real interest in movies, he feared, only in the opportunity to look chic at premieres and throw important parties. And he withheld the offer she was longing to accept.
Meanwhile, as shooting progressed, Norma’s personal hopes for He Who Gets Slapped began to die. She found Seastrom more interested in camera setups than in actors, and in most of the scenes she wore a circus tutu, which made her self-conscious about her legs. But here at least Seastrom helped her, using long shots when she rode bareback in the ring, shooting her love scenes from the waist up, or with her legs partly concealed by a bedpost or a screen. Another disappointment was Chaney. He seemed remote and self-involved, very much the star of the picture. John Gilbert also felt that Seastrom and Chaney showed no interest in him, and it cemented the “companionable friendship” that Norma later said had begun on The Wolf Man. He took her to a few parties, where she always hoped to meet Thalberg. Sometimes she did, but he was always with Rosabelle and paid little attention to her.
When He Who Gets Slapped was finished, Mayer screened it for his sales executives. The advised him to hold up its release until the peak Christmas season, and Thalberg was sufficiently impressed with Norma and Gilbert so cast them in another picture right away.
The newest star at M-G-M now became the focus of Thalberg’s professional interest. Garbo secured the studio’s most imaginative cameraman, William Daniels, and, after a couple of dull leading men, John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil–which made him the most popular romantic icon since Valentino. Everyone except Norma, it seemed, was sustaining the “prestige” of He Who Gets Slapped, Chaney making a series of successful melodramas with Tod Browning (number four “outstanding director”), Seastrom working with Lillian Gish. Strongly competitive, Norma never underestimated the competition. Recognizing Garbo as one of a kind, she demanded recognition as one of another kind; time after time she went to Thalberg’s office and pleaded for better material, better parts. Occasionally she dissolved in tears, which made “no more impression than rain on a raincoat.” Sympathetic and yet firmly unhelpful, he advised her to continue toeing the line, for the movies she complained about had made her a popular actress and Mayer was very pleased with her.
Norma Shearer by Gavin Lambert (1990)
At twenty-one, Shearer’s star quality was hard to resist. She stood out. Arriving in Hollywood in an ear of fuzzy-haired, pudgy-faced actresses, Shearer was as crisp as a newly minted coin. It wasn’t just her face. It was her whole aura. Her non-nonsense, cheery beauty beamed with optimism, intelligence, and sanity, not to mention an individuality that could not be suppressed.
Her technique was equally crisp and defined. By Lucretia Lombard (1923), Shearer had the ability to delineate a complicated chain of subtle and believable thought on screen. By He Who Gets Slapped (1924)–playing the sweet object of Lon Chaney’s obsessive devotion–her emotional transitions were delicate and seamless. In one scene, Chaney, a grotesque clown, is on his knees, confessing that he loves her. As he blathers on and on, she watches him with concern, then horror…and then smiles, believing him to be joking. Her moment-by-moment clarity is striking.
Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle (2000)
Successful as Name the Man had been, there was a longer delay before Sjöström’s next film appeared than had been anticipated in his contract primarily because of the upheavals within the Goldwyn Company attendant on the financial problems caused by von Stroheim’s Greed and the merger with Metro and Mayer to form MGM in April 1924. He worked on a script with Hjalmar Bergman (before the latter gave up and returned to Sweden) which came to nothing and then was offered the play He Who Gets Slapped by another popular literary figure of the period, Leonid Andreyev. Forslund quotes from an interview for a Swedish newspaper at the time that shows Sjöström both aware of, and apparently reconciled to, the fact that he would have to work in America in a very different way than he had been accustomed to in Sweden:
One thing I’ve learnt to acknowledge out here, and that is that it’s absolutely meaningless to try to make Swedish films for America. It’s an utter waste of energy. One realizes that, when one stays in America and the American film world and sees how vastly separated their ideas are from ours. They don’t recognized themselves in the foreign milieu, they are totally ignorant of it, uninterested, yawn, and talk about something else.
His comments here seem to place him somewhere in between Murnau and Lubitsch: like Murnau, with his desire for a chain of “art” cinemas, he seems aware that the American mass audience had little interest in adjusting to ways of thinking and behaving that differed significantly from those presented by their own cinema; yet, as his subsequent career proved, he was temperamentally unable to accept the kind of adjustment and compromise that allowed Lubitsch to appeal to an American audience and yet retain a “European” touch.
Despite his forebodings, however, Sjöström made few concessions to popular taste in He Who Gets Slapped, which illustrates even more clearly than Name the Man that his American films were not the unmitigated disasters that (with the conventional exceptions of The Wind and The Scarlet Letter) they are commonly presented as. Once again there is the distancing effect of a foreign setting (in this case, France), and the fact that the action takes place almost entirely indoors perhaps accounts for the film’s neglect at the hands of critics who associate Sjöström exclusively with themes of Man and Nature. Its analysis of a profoundly masochistic personality takes it considerably beyond The Phantom Chariot in its psychological insight and, though it lacks the structural intricacy of that film, it operates through a complex pattern of repetition and variation of images, motifs, gestures, actions, and character relationships that goes far beyond the intermittent use of these devices in the Swedish films.
The film is built around two parallel and interlocking sets of action and character relationships. Paul Beaumont (brilliantly played by Lon Chaney) is a shy and passive person whose wife Marie first of all cuckolds him with Baron Regnard, then helps the latter to steal the documents relating to Paul’s scientific research. In a deliberately nightmarish and grotesque sequence, the Baron presents Paul’s work as his own to an audience of admiring scientists and, when Paul attempts to intervene and protest, the Baron publicly ridicules and humiliates him, slapping him on the face to the applause and laughter of the onlookers. When the bewildered Paul returns home and appeals to Marie for consolation, she too mocks and insults him, calling him a “fool” and a “clown.” Instead of protesting or fighting back, Paul accepts this designation and becomes a circus clown whose act consists of an elaborate and endless series of ritual humiliations: he enters on stilts and is knocked off them by the other clowns; he then tries to offer the audience a series of what he calls “scientific” propositions, but is interrupted and silenced by a barrage of slaps from his fellow performers. When things have reached the point that he cannot even open his mouth without being greeted by a rapid series of blows, he is made to remain immobile while a line of clowns, ending with a small boy, file past and slap him. The next part of the act begins with Paul (who by now is known and advertised only as “He Who Gets Slapped”) being thrown back into the circus ring bound and gagged; the other clowns gather round and one of them rips off a cloth heart sewn on to Paul’s costume, squeezes it, and buries it in the sand of the ring. They then conduct a mock funeral for him and carry him off on a stretcher, but even this cannot be performed with dignity, for the canvas on the stretcher must break and send him sprawling to the ground while the others march off triumphantly with the empty framework.
It is possible to see at least some of this as a social comment on the ineffectiveness of the intellectual in the face of public ignorance, disdain, and even hatred, or as an acknowledgment that sadism and cruelty often lie at the wellsprings of comedy; yet the mechanical intensity with which Paul persists in acting out in detail both his personal and his professional degradation points to an astonishing degree of masochism and self-pity. The heart motif refers back both to his betrayal by Marie and to the pattern that dominates the second half of the film: the heart is sewn on to his costume before each performance by Consuelo, the beautiful bareback rider (played by Norma Shearer), with whom he is secretly and hopelessly in love, knowing that she prefers her partner Bezano (played by John Gilbert). As a symbol of his despairing love, he keeps a smaller “heart” hidden in his pocket. The Baron meanwhile reappears, having grown tired of Marie; he witnesses a circus performance, without recognizing Paul, and is attracted to Consuelo, whom he negotiates to “buy” from her degenerate father, the impoverished Count Mancini.
Once again Paul invites rejection and humiliation by confessing his love to Consuelo as she sews his cloth heart on one day. She responds with astonishment and amusement, refusing to take him seriously, and slaps him playfully on the face; after a moment’s hesitation, placing his hand on his cheek, Paul laughs too and invites her to slap him again. They are interrupted by Mancini and the Baron, who tell Consuelo to prepare for her marriage immediately after she has completed her performance. Paul then loses all sense of self-preservation and deliberately antagonizes the two men; consequently the Baron finally recognizes him and a scuffle takes place in which Mancini stabs Paul with his swordstick. As he collapses, he pulls the miniature heart from his pocket and tries to staunch the flow of blood with it. He has already prepared his revenge, however, though it is a typically indirect and passive one: as the men leave they are confronted and killed by a circus lion that Paul has released from its cage.
Paul begs the lion to give him “the last slap” but the animal is driven back into its cage by its trainer. The other clowns dance into the ring for Paul’s performance and he staggers in to join them; when he starts to talk about his love for Consuelo they think he is merely changing his act a little and begin the routine of slapping. It is only after he has been knocked down several times that they realize the true situation and he is allowed to die in Consuelo’s arms, with a close-up revealing his outstretched hand clutching the blood-stained heart. Nevertheless the show continues, with the oblivious audience applauding Consuelo and Bezano as they ride on horseback together.
The overall structural pattern of the film presents a relentless series of symbolic and actual humiliations, on both the public and the private level, performed on a character who makes no real attempt to resist them and seems in fact to invite even more persecution as the action proceeds. In the first half of the film, he is betrayed by his wife and thwarted in his professional life by his wife’s seducer; in the second half he is rejected by the woman he loves, who seems at one point destined to belong to his previous tormentor. His attempt to avert this leads to a second failure, parallel to the earlier lecture hall scene, where once again he struggles to communicate his ideas to an audience and is greeted with laughter; and this failure is followed by death.
The larger parallels are linked together by an intricate series of motifs such as the various forms of slapping already mentioned, or the hearts. Audiences and applause punctuate the film at regular intervals and in many ingenious ways: in the lecture hall the Baron’s speech is applauded by an audience seated in steep tiers of seats who are shown mainly in close-ups of grotesque, toothless, wrinkled faces; after Paul has intervened and the Baron has slapped him, close-ups of his bewildered face are intercut with shots of the mocking audience. When Paul is giving his circus performance, Sjöström cuts repeatedly to a particularly fat member of the audience (accompanied by his equally overweight family) who goes into convulsions of mirth at each successive humiliation and ends by almost choking on an apple that he is eating. At one point the faces of Paul’s fellow clowns as they mock him dissolve into the faces of the audience in the lecture hall. When the Baron and Mancini are being attacked by the lion, their shouts for help are drowned out by the applause of the audience for Bezano and Consuelo; and in the final scenes the audience unthinkingly applauds as the dying Paul tries to express his thoughts on what a title calls “Hate, Life, Love,” and is repeatedly knocked down by the other clowns.
As in Name the Man, Sjöström also uses crosscutting for ironic or dramatic effect, particularly when a love scene in a forest glade between Consuelo and Bezano is intercut with the negotiations between Mancini and the Baron as to how much the Baron is prepared to pay for Consuelo. Consuelo is coy and flirtatious, making Beznao pursue her; Mancini suggests that the Baron should marry his daughter; an iris shot closes in on the Baron fingering a string of pearls and this dissolves to an iris opening out on Bezano making a daisy chain; the lovers are observed by a woodcutter who plays a joke on them; the Baron says he will marry Consuelo; Bezano proposes and Consuelo says she must have her father’s consent; Mancini asks his prospective son-in-law for a “loan.” Though there are conventional elements in the scene, especially in Consuelo’s maidenly reluctance to be won too easily, it is well handled overall; the woodcutter, however, introduces a jarring note of broad comedy that had already occurred rather inappropriately in the trial scene of Name the Man and was to mar certain scenes of both The Scarlet Letter and The Wind. As Sjöström had rarely included comic interludes of this kind in his Swedish films, it seems likely that they were a deliberate concession to the presumed taste of an American audience and its unwillingness to sit through ninety minutes of unrelieved seriousness.
The film begins with a shot of a clown spinning a huge globe; this dissolves into a shot of Paul in his study with a smaller globe on his desk. At crucial points in the story, the clown and globe reappear: after Paul is spurned by Marie, we see the clown and the globe, then a host of clowns superimposed on the rim of a spinning globe, and then this dissolves to a shot of the circus ring. After Mancini and the Baron have concluded their bargain over Consuelo, there is a shot of the clown vigorously spinning the globe; the Baron then takes his leave of Marie, and as she looks at the check he has given her for her services, the clown is seen thumbing his nose at the globe. The last shot of the film is of the globe, with a group of clowns tossing Paul’s body off into the void–a startlingly bleak ending for a Hollywood film of this period.
He Who Gets Slapped was made on a relatively low budget and seems to have been written, shot, and released as Sjöström intended it to be and without studio interference. Stylistically it has much in common with his Swedish films, particularly in the cutting and the lighting; he is reported to have insisted on atmospheric lighting rather than the purely naturalistic style that he had used in Name the Man, and this helped greatly to create the sense of loneliness, despair, and isolation around the main character. One of the most striking shots of this kind shows Paul alone in the ring after a performance; he listlessly digs the cloth heart out of the sand with his toe and puts it in his pocket. The spotlights go out, leaving him in darkness, with only the white clown make-up of his face visible.
Once again the critical response was overwhelmingly favorable. Moving Picture World (15 November 1924, 267) called it “one of the most human, gripping and at the same time artistic motion pictures that it has been the pleasure of the writer to witness this year.” The reviewer also thought it “real box office stuff.” He praised the script and the acting, but concluded with the main reason for the film’s success: “Victor Seastrom’s direction is of finest craftsmanship. His staging of each scene is well night [sic] perfect and the backgrounds are marvels of beauty and artistry.” Motion Picture Classic (January 1925, 50) agreed that “the Scandinavian director has not missed a single trick in establishing the deep well of pathos which governs the life of the clown–superbly played by Lon Chaney.” While acknowledging that the picture was “off the beaten path,” it felt that it was “certain to be appreciated by all thinking people.” And the New York Times (10 November 1924) fully atoned for its lukewarm response to Name the Man:
At the Capitol this week there is a picture which defies one to write about it without indulging in superlatives. It is a shadow drama so beautifully told, so flawlessly directed that we imagine that it will be held up as a model by all producers. Throughout its length there is not an instant of ennui, not a second one wants to lose; it held the spectators spellbound yesterday afternoon, the last fade-out being the signal for a hearty round of applause. This celluloid masterpiece is Victor Seastrom’s picturization of Leonid Andreyev’s play “He Who Gets Slapped.”
After describing the plot, the reviewer (Mordaunt Hall) concluded:
Mr. Seastrom has directed this dramatic story with all the genius of a Chaplin or a Lubitsch, and he has accomplished more than they have in their respective works, A Woman of Paris and The Marriage Circle, as he had, what they did not have, a stirring, dramatic story to put into pictures.
Hollywood Destinies, European Directors in America, 1922-1931 by Graham Petrie (2002)
Jack’s first project to be produced at MGM was the circus thriller He Who Gets Slapped, directed by Victor Sjöström, the Swedish great who had been acting and directing for some ten years by this point. Brought to the United States in 1923 by Goldwyn, he was grandfathered in to the new corporation (his name anglicized to Seastrom). The film was budgeted at $172,000 (an average “A” budget for those days) and costarred Jack’s friend Norma Shearer and Lon Chaney, who had recently burst into real stardom with Universal’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
It was a very weird film, an odd one with which to inaugurate the new company. Based on a Russian play (which also ran on Broadway in 1922), it told the story of a brilliant scientist who goes mad when betrayed by his wife and business partner. He becomes a circus clown, one who “desired only to be slapped” (clowns are pretty hard to deal with under any circumstances, but insane S&M clowns reach a whole new level of creepy). Jack played Bezano, a young bareback rider, looking very fetching and youthful in circus garb. He Who Gets Slapped–which, happily, survives–is fast moving and entertaining (with, clown-phobics be warned, lots of clowns). Chaney gives his usual superb performance (and, unexpectedly to fans of his horror films, he looks quite handsome in the early scenes, in mussed hair and trim goatee). The plot moves quickly, as everyone falls in love with poor Norma Shearer; the mad clown, Jack’s callow bareback rider, the evil former business partner. It all ends satisfyingly with vengeance, blood, and a hungry circus lion.
Jack had little to do (though he did some of the easier riding and trapeze work, of course the dangerous stunts were left to professionals). And he was pretty angry about it. In fact, he was angry about a lot: Jack later recalled that he was infuriated at seeing the size of his role in He Who Gets Slapped: “Any one of fifty men could have played the part. What was the angle? What were they trying to do with me? Were they dissatisfied with my work? That was it. They were sorry they had signed me.”
A major part of Irving Thalberg’s job was calming down actors and playing diplomat. He told Jack, “This part, as small as it is, will do you more good than anything you have ever done”–which was absolute nonsense, but it worked.
Filming continued through June and July 1924; the Slapped set was not a particularly happy one. The older, more serious Seastrom and Chaney paired off, leaving youngsters Jack and Norma Shearer to fend for themselves–this only strengthened their friendship. They went to parties and nigtclubs together, but there was never a serious romance between the two–Norma Shearer already had her eye on Irving Thalberg, one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors. While Jack and Norma Shearer were great friends, Lon Chaney did not get on with his second lead at all, according to an anonymous tipster, who told writer Jim Tully years later that Jack had asked that Chaney’s visiting wife not watch while he was filming. “Chaney was disgusted,” Tully quotes this source. “For Gilbert to do this to an outsider, Chaney thought, might be all right, and a fine gesture. But to do it to someone in the business…that both disgusted and amused the older actor.”
Released in November 1924, He Who Gets Slapped proved to be a big moneymaker for the new young studio (it made an impressive profit of $349,000), and it helped set MGM on its feet. This was not yet the glamorous Dream Factory of the 1930s and ’40s: Mayer biographer Scott Eyman notes that the offices were still “small, shabby and jury-rigged,” and the lot was dubbed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in honor of both the notorious sweatshop death trap and the old Triangle Studios. “Everything was piled on top of everything else,” writes Eyman. “The portrait studio was three rooms on the third floor of the editing building, and could only be reached by [an] exterior iron staircase; even the grandest stars had to lug their own costumes up the stairs for sittings.”
John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden (2013)
Sjöström’s second film in Hollywood, He Who Gets Slapped, was shot under the aegis of the newly established MGM company, which launched “Seastrom” as one of its first directors. After finishing Name the Man, Sjöström was offered a new script called “A Tree in the Garden”, written by Hjalmar Bergman, but to Berman’s great disappointment, he expressed his scepticism towards this scenario, in which he had himself been involved. It should be noted that Sjöström had already made four films based on Bergman’s scripts in Sweden, and it was to a large extent through Sjöström’s mediation that Bergman had come to Hollywood.
However, “A Tree in the Garden” also had a prehistory. Upon his arrival in Hollywood, Hjalmar Bergman was asked by Goldwyn Pictures to write a script for Sjöström based on another novel by Hall Caine: The Bondman: A New Saga (1890). This project, however, was declined due to financial reasons. Bergman then took an initiative of his own: to write a synopsis based on Ibsen’s play Bygmester Solness (The Master Builder) (1892). This project, however, was refused by Abraham Lehr, head of production at Goldwyn, as it was considered as “not commercial”. It was only then that he, upon invitation from Goldwyn, undertook the project based on the novel by Edwin C. Booth, The Tree of Knowledge, which Bergman turned into the synopsis called “A Tree in the Garden”. By that time, the new company MGM had taken over from Goldwyn, which considered this new script to be “not commercial”. Upon Sjöström’s comment that this script actually was chosen by Goldwyn for commercial purposes, after declining the Bygmester Solness script for the same reason, Irving Thalberg sarcastically responded that Goldwyn’s pictures had generally suffered from being “not commercial”.
Instead, Sjöström now received the suggestion from Irving Thalberg to film Leonid Andreyev’s play He Who Gets Slapped. This play had been published in English translation in 1922 and had been staged on Broadway in the same year. The Broadway run was a success and, as a result, Thalberg wanted to bring it to the screen. An original outline for a film script had been written by Albert P. Lewis as early as September 1922. Sjöström himself was already familiar with the playwright since one of his most successful interpretations as an actor was the lead role in Andreyev’s play Professor Storitzyn, which had been staged at Intiman in Stockholm in 1920.
In addition to this, Bengt Forslund also argues that there is a resemblance between He Who Gets Slapped and the heroes that he both directed and acted during his Swedish career in A Man There Was and The Outlaw and His Wife. Both characters are cheated as they try to do what is right, and they have to leave their dear ones behind and fight alone for their human rights. In any case, Sjöström decided to sign a new contract with MGM, and immediately started working on the script himself. He Who Gets Slapped is the only film from the American period for which Sjöström actually wrote the entire script, though he was obviously involved in later revisions of the script concerning other films as well. In the case of He Who Gets Slapped, staff writer Carey Wilson finalized the script and received equal credit for the work with Sjöström, which greatly irritated Sjöström according to Arne Lunde.
In this chapter, I will first outline some examples of media and paratexts surrounding He Who Gets Slapped. From this general cultural-historical perspective. I will move on to a close textual reading, departing from a short discussion of Sjöström as Hollywood scriptwriter and moving on to tracing his presence as narrator in the work, both textually and visually: through intertitles adding to the original text of the play, and through symbolic images of the key figure of the clown. In analyzing the use of one of Sjöström’s preferred devices, the dissolve, in this film, the argument of transformation as both a stylistic and thematic key figure in his work is further developed. But the various possible implications of the circus theme are just as important, from Arne Ludne’s reading of the film as a performance of “whiteface” to a more general emphasis on circus films, for which I will argue, and finally looking into the afterlife of the film in a Swedish context. Here, the basic plot with the circus as an arena where questions of life, love and death may be performed stands out as an exemplary case study of Sjöström’s Hollywood career, with far-ranging connections.
The story of the film is as follows: Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney), a scientist working on his dissertation on the origin of mankind, only cares for his work and his wife. His patron Baron Regnard (Marc MacDermott), however, doubly betrays him: as the dissertation is about to be defended, the Baron claims the results as his own and it turns out that he has not only stolen Beaumont’s career, but also his wife. The Baron slaps him in the face and his wife calls him “fool” and “clown”. This turns out to be decisive for what is to come; he transforms himself into a clown called “He”. This “He”–according to Lewis’s script outline–“has a brilliant notion he will make the groundlings laugh by being slapped and his name will simply be He-He Who Gets Slapped”. In his new role, in telling obvious truths to the audience and being constantly slapped, “He” enjoys great public success. Five years later, Consuelo (Norma Shearer), the daughter of a ruined Italian count (Tully Marshall), has joined the circus. “He” falls in love with her, but she in turn is in love with Benzano (John Gilbert) at the circus but her father wants to marry her off to Baron Regnard. As the latter is recognized by “He”, it all comes to a dramatic ending. “He” prepares the lion’s cage, Consuelo’s father stabs him, and in the upcoming chaos, the count and Baron Regnard try to escape, but are caught by the lion. “He” stumbles out into the arena with a bloody piece of cloth, a heart, in his hand, and dies. This is followed by a new bareback act, which is applauded by the audience.
The film was shot during one month, starting 17 June and, according to the production reports, was finished no less than six weeks later. It premiered on 9 November 1924 at the Capitol in New York. According to Sjöström in his “unwritten memoirs” published in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, the whole working process was a positive experience:
as if I had made a film during the good old times. Like at home in Sweden, in other words. I was allowed to make my script without interference, and the shooting was made quickly and without a hitch. In a month, the whole film was finished.
He Who Gets Slapped was hailed by both critics and audience, and new box office takings were recorded at the Capitol, which celebrated its fifth anniversary: it made “a one-day world’s record business with $15,000, a one-week’s record business with $71,900, and a two-week’s record with $121,574. The same success was reported throughout the country.” In Sweden, however, an influential critic like the writer Sven Stolpe discovered an American influence in the film, and thus expressed a certain ambivalence:
He Who Gets Slapped is a strong dramatic piece, rich with intensely captivating scenes. Some might be considered as too ‘American’–in any case, they would have been unthinkable in Sjöström’s Swedish films. We think of such a horrible scene as the one where the lion dashes into the small room and before the eyes of the dying clown tears his two enemies to pieces! Still, the boundary between the sensational and the tasteless is never crossed.
Voices in the American press were unanimously positive, the Photoplay critic comparing it to Name the Man, which he considered a failure, but stating that “this adaption of Leonid Andreyev’s ‘He Who Gets Slapped’ is a superb thing–and it lifts Seastrom to the very front rank of directors, and Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times commenting that “Mr Seastrom has directed this dramatic story with all the genius of a Chaplin or a Lubitsch and he has accomplished more than they have in their respective works”. The comparison with Lubitsch, another European, is particularly interesting as he, like Sjöström, had come from Europe–but was discussed as an American director. The tendency is similar in the treatment of Sjöström’s later works in the United States; apparently, the imported directors became naturalized rather quickly. Still, in Seastrom’s case, critics seemed to be sensitive about his past with its low-key effects, as a comment from Exceptional Photoplay reveals: “The picture is full of typical Seastrom effects. He is the master of light and shade and knows how to get the most out of his groupings without using huge mobs.”
In retrospect, it is striking that both Name the Man and He Who Gets Slapped were featured in Motion Picture Magazine in January 1924 and January 1925 respectively (the last issue of the magazine that was devoted to film stories appeared in September 1925). The aim of these films stories issues in the monthly magazine was to further exploit the films produced by retelling their plots in new versions, as short stories, along with publicity photos and ‘behind the scenes’ profiles of popular movie personalities. As the concept had become quite established, the fact that Sjöström’s first two films in Hollywood were actually included also testifies to the importance ascribed to them. The magazine was independent in relation to the production companies, but in reality, it also helped to attract new audiences to the films chosen.
Photoplay editions, which had been used systematically since the 1910s, were another way or recycling film material for commercial purposes. They were cheap reprints of original novels, released to coincide with the premiere of a motion picture, with film stills both on the cover and illustrating the text. One of the largest publishing houses in this context was New York-based Gorsset & Dunlap. In the case of He Who Gets Slapped, however, the photoplay edition is particularly interesting. Here, a tie-in was produced; a novelization of Andreyev’s play and the Sjöström film, by a totally unknown writer, George A. Carlin, which combined elements from both sources. The fact that Carlin was anonymous as a writer is interesting; usually, the commercial concept of photoplay editions was based on the successful combination of a well-known writer and a newly released picture. Here, however, the editors seem to have relied almost uniquely on the picture, as stated on the front page: “With scenes from the photoplay, A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture”.
For Sjöström’s next Hollywood film, Confessions of a Queen, another publishing house, A.L. Burt Company, took up the competition in publishing Alphonse Daudet’s Kings in Exile, with an added explanation on the cover: “Screened as Confessions of a Queen”. This choice of non-American literary source was an exception in Sjöström’s case.
The two stories by American novelists later brought to the screen by Sjöström during the Hollywood years, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind, were again published by Grosset & Dunlap, a publishing house which seems to have had a flair for success, as they published editions of the three films that have generally been considered the most important during the Hollywood years. The fact that no less than four of his films were released as photoplay editions also testifies to the recognition of Sjöström as a successful American director, an acknowledged part of the Hollywood dream factory.
SJÖSTRÖM AS HOLLYWOOD SCRIPTWRITER
The idea that Sjöström had changed the play radically, which seems to be generally accepted by most scholars, must, however, also be related to the intermediary stage of Lewis’ script outline. A suggestive headline following the title of the play in this outline reads: “(Sensational and symbolic melodrama of circus life, with tragic ending)”. This short summary seems to have inspired Sjöström in his work on script and film. Also, this script outline, in contrast to Andreyev’s play, isn’t limited to one single space but, rather, seems to suggest multiple spaces for the plot development, just like in Sjöström’s later script. It also suggests a past for “he” as “a man of distinction, fashionably dressed”, but also, more specifically, as “a great thinker and a great writer”, in Sjöström’s script, as we have seen, turned into a scientist. But in Andreyev’s play, a past for “He” is suggested: among other things by a line put in the mouth of one of his former acquaintances, here called The Gentleman:
I really don’t know… Everything here strikes me so… These posters, horses, animals, which I passed when I was looking for you… And finally, you, a clown in a circus![…] Could I expect it? It is true, when everybody there decided you were dead, I was the only man who did not agree with them. I felt that you were still alive. But to find you among such surroundings… I can’t understand it.
Forslund also states that Sjöström’s revision of the original play was, above all, related to the end–as Consuelo and “He” both die in the play, as a result of him poisoning her. But a change that, in retrospect, turns out to be just as important is the fact that two characters in the play–the so-called Gentleman who had stolen his work and his wife, and Baron Regnard who is intending to marry Consuelo–are changed into one and the same in the film version. This testifies not so much to a simplification of the story as to a more complex character portrayal, and could thus rather be seen as a development of the kind of complex split personalities that Sjöström introduced in 1916 in The Kiss of Death.
However, another interpretation might be made from the revision of the end. In Lagerlöf’s novel, The Phantom Carriage, the mutual love between Sister Edith and David Holm is the main reason for him wanting to make up for his evil deeds, and her support from the other side, together with his hopes for their future reunion beyond death, is the driving force that leads to his final conversion. Sjöström, however, downplays this sublime aspect. In contrast to Lagerlöf, he insists on the reunion of the husband and wife. The unearthly love has to give away to the earthly, and the lyrically sublime is replaced by lyrical intimacy.
“He” poisons Consuelo in the play because he wants to rescue her from the evil Baron and he believes that only her death will achieve that goal. He hopes that they will be reunited after death and describes to her future scenes of happiness. To her question: “Is that the ring?”, “He” answers: “No, it is the sea and he sun… what a sun! Don’t you feel that you are the foam, white sea-foam, and you are flying to the sun? You feel light, you have no body, you are flying higher, my love!” And, as the Baron shoots himself, “He” is disappointed: “You loved her so much, Baron? So Much? My Consuelo? And you want to be ahead of me even there? No! I am coming. We shall prove then whose she is to be forever.” However, just as in The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström, both in his script and in the final film, gives priority to the earthly love between Consuelo and Benzano over the unearthly love between “He” and Consuelo described in the play, and therefore changes the ending.
TRACES OF THE NARRATOR
If Sjöström’s role as a scriptwriter has generally been emphasized, little has been said about the actual results of his work, apart from more general comparisons of the plot in the play and the film respectively. A closer look at the cutting continuity script–that is, also, in the finished film–would thus be well motivated. How, if at all, could the voice of the implicit narrator be traced in the script? In which ways has Sjöström as a screenwriter left his actual imprint in the script, and thus in the finished film? The question is all the more interesting as he generally follows his scripts very closely as a director. This would, then be a unique opportunity to discern a possible authorial presence at several stages of the work, operating also within the more limited system of production in Hollywood.
A first addition to the play is made by the introductory intertitle in the film, which, by its proverbial reference, strikes a note for what is to follow:
“In the grim comedy of life it has been wisely said that the last laugh is the best -“
Moreover, on the subject of laughter, another intertitle in the beginning, as Beaumont is slapped by the Baron and ridiculed by the whole academy of scientists, reads:
Laugher – the bitterest and most subtle death to hope –
Likewise, later in the film (in the third reel), two more intertitles appear which both share a similar function as general, philosophical statements. The first occurs as Consuelo and Benzano talk, as “He” is looking at them in turn falling in love with Consuelo, at the same time as their mutual love is revealed both to the spectator and to him:
A strange thing, the heart of man – that loves, suffers, and despairs – yet has courage to hope, believe – and love – again.
The second is formulated as a rhetorical question, and appears as the Baron has been shown looking into the programme to discover that “He” is the next to appear on the arena. The intertitle is immediately followed by “He” making his entrance, getting up on stilts.
Finally, towards the end of the film (in the seventh reel), three more rhetorical questions are posed, which Graham Petrie has mistakenly interpreted as the dying man’s last attempts to express his thoughts. However, as the intertitle appears, “He” is already dead; “He” has been shown falling to the ground, having a final talk with Consuelo, but then “He” stops smiling, falls away from her and out of scene”. The shot immediately preceding the intertitle shows his hand in close-up, holding the bloody heart of cloth, followed by a final fade-out, which definitely marks his death. This title, just like those previously cited, should thus rather be interpreted as voiced by an implicit narrator.
- What is Death – ?
What is Life – ?
What is Love – ?
As this intertitle fades out, it is followed by a fade-in on the circus ring, where a horse enters at a gallop–as Forslund writes, “the show must go on, Consuela (sic) and Benzano are allowed to ride out… and people applaud…”. In this case, however, the rhetorical questions posed also seem to be inspired by Andreyev’s play, where Consuelo on three occasions questions “He” on matters of life and death: “What does ‘love’ mean?”; “And what is–death?”; “What is sickness?” In spite of the fact that “the show must go on”, this intertitle functions as an ending point to the film, to which the following, final images only seem to respond.
The fact that only one of these reflective intertitles has any background at all in the play clearly underlines their importance as a vehicle for the narrator. They communicate to the spectator a dimension that he obviously wanted to add to the original story. Also, these intertitles must be seen in their historical context, against the backdrop of general practices in Hollywood in the mid-1920s. As Kristin Thompson has pointed out, expository titles were severely limited, and replaced–to the extent that it was possible–by dialogue:
Dialogue titles insured the most of the spectator’s understanding of the narrative came directly from the characters themselves – from their words and gestures – rather than from an intervening narration’s presentation.
The function of these intertitles in Sjöström’s film is nothing else than a breaking of this rule–a narration that intervenes–though they rather represent an attempt to include a dimension which would not be possible by any other means of expression; a philosophical dimension, commenting on abstract issues which would not easily lend themselves to being expressed in the dialogue. However, the film in general–with only these noteworthy exceptions–seems to conform to the norms of the time; to a large extent, it is also carried by dialogue titles, and the visual aspects of the narrative, including an equally symbolic dimension, is just as important as the words.
THE SYMBOLIC CLOWN
It is not only through his intertitles, adding a new dimension to Andreyev’s play, that Sjöström as a narrator could be discerned in the script. Another important aspect, added by Sjöström, is the image of the clown with his ball. In the cutting continuity script, this scene is described as follows:
- 21 FADE IN
- M.S. Symbolic clown with whirling globe looks away, laughs, looks back at globe, strikes globe to make it turn.–Clown Fades out. Globe fades to geographer’s globe Scientist fades in, strikes globe to make it whirl.
The “Symbolic clown” reoccurs throughout the film, which will also be discussed in further detail later in relation to transitions between shots. However, the general function of this image in the narration has hitherto been overlooked. The first time, it appears directly after the first intertitle, as a visual effect doubling the function of striking a note for the narrative. The second time, it concludes the whole introductory sequence. From a medium shot of the symbolic clown laughing, the globe fades in, and the clown turns his head to one side and laughs. A close-up of the symbolic clown laughing, looking to his left, is followed by a close-up of a spinning ball, which in turn is dissolved to the globe of the world spinning. There is a cut back to a close-up on the clown laughing, followed by another cut back to the globe spinning, where clowns now appear from above “and sit down on meridian round globe”. A cut back to the clown laughing in close-up is followed by a final cut back to a close-up of “globe clowns seated about it. Globe dissolves to Circus Ring. Clowns seated around ring, small boy turning somersaults in ring.”
When the Symbolic clown appears for the third and fourth time, these two shots serve as a frame for the love story between the wife and the Baron. The fifth and sixth time, they serve equally as a frame, but now for the counterpart of the same story: that of the Baron leaving the wife. Towards the end of the film, upon the death of the clown, the visual theme of the revolving globe with the clowns standing on the meridian is once again taken up, as the clowns pick up the body of “He”, throwing it out of the ring, which is followed by the final fade-out of the film. Thus, the Symbolic clown offers a number of different framings: first that of the introductory sequence, leading to Beaumont becoming “He”, and secondly and thirdly also the two stories of the wife and the Baron. However, the image of the spinning globe, then surrounded by the meridian, and the clowns entering the ring–that is, the arena–also serves as an overlapping framework, containing the whole circus story.
This image is also interesting in relation to Hollywood conventions of the time. The Symbolic clown, in white, is turned halfway towards the spectator–and thus towards the camera–as he first rotates the ball on the palm of his left hand. He then glances furtively and mockingly towards the audience, as if he wanted to suggest a secret understanding, as he keeps the ball spinning with his right index finger. The direct address to the audience, which seems to be the main function of these images of the Symbolic clown, is quite unique in Hollywood cinema of the mid 1920s. In his definition of the cinema of attraction, To Gunning starts by pointing to “this different relationship the cinema of attractions constructs with its spectator: the recurring look at the camera by actors. This action, which is later perceived as spoiling the realistic illusion of the cinema, is here undertaken with brio, establishing contact with the audience.” In a decade obsessed with “natural effect”, where overt narration, in general, had become reserved for certain codified moments, such as in the beginning and ending of the film, looking into the camera was banished. Just like the intertitles mentioned above, this clear break with the norms in the dominant system of production calls for interpretation. They make He Who Gets Slapped into another kind of film than most of its contemporaries. It is not a continuous fictional story, made in the invisible style that had by this tine been established as Hollywood’s landmark. Rather, the film seems to aim at delivering a general, philosophical statement on the conditions of life on the globe, using the clown as metaphor; it is construed as a film essay in a style that would reappear much later in film history.
This construction of the film as an essay is, as has already been discussed, to a large extent based on the consequent use of certain devices which privilege, the intersection between style and thematics, between cinematic form and general, philosophical content. In a ground-breaking analysis from 1985, Swedish film historian Örjan Roth-Lindberg discusses Sjöström’s visual fantasy in He Who Gets Slapped, concentrating, in particular, on his aesthetics through some carefully analyzed examples of dissolves which, as it turns out, also contribute to a complex play with identities and transformations. In He Who Gets Slapped, the dissolves occur on five occasions. The first and the second dissolves have already been discussed above–the image of the symbolic clown with his large ball dissolved into a man who turns out to be the film’s main character, the scientist Beaumont, spinning a glove, as well as the clown with his ball being dissolved into a globe which, in turn, is dissolved into a circus ring. The third instance is made up of a series of several transformations, some of which take place through dissolves. The scientist, who has now become the clown “He”, is in the ring in front of a group of other clowns, The image dissolves, and instead of the clowns the spectator now sees an academy of scientists with stiff appearances, a visual memory of an earlier humiliating situation that “He” found himself in. After a cut back to “He”, there is a new cut to the men, who are now wearing clown hats and laughing. After yet another cut to “He”, the same scientists in clown hats re-emerge. This image is finally dissolved into the original group of clowns. On the fourth occasion, we see the film’s villain, the Baron (who is the reason for “He” having had to become a clown) in the company of the greedy Mancini, who is about to give his daughter away in marriage to the wealthy Baron. He is absent-mindedly fingering a necklace, which is focused upon through an iris closing. However, this closing is not completed; instead, the image is dissolved to another pair of hands fiddling about with a garland of flowers, followed by an iris opening to reveal the girl’s beloved who is holding the garland. Last, “He” is shown in clown make-up again, with a dissolve reverting to his actual self–the scientist Beaumont–and, thereafter, back again to the clown. This final dissolve marks the Baron’s discovery of the clown’s true identity.
With the exception of the dissolve from ball turning into globe and then into circus arena, or from necklace to garland, these dissolves function in the same way, to establish a parallel between two different images of one or several persons, where the change of costume also seems to imply the dissolving of the previously established identity.
As for the other dissolves in the film, these also establish an analogy between two shots, but here, the analogy is based on the visual contrast between two different objects. In the case of the ball and the globe, this may seem as the simplest kind of dissolve, as it merely evokes a resemblance in form. Arne Lunde, who in his book Nordic Exposure has devoted a chapter to He Who Gets Slapped, has suggested an allegorical interpretation of the globe:
In its opening moments the film thus introduces globes and “globalization” as a semi-veiled thematic. Back at the Baron’s study […] the doubly betrayed Beaumont hurls his scientific manuscript at the desk globe and sends the orb spiralling onto the floor. When it finally stops rolling, the North America continent is laying face-up toward the camera. This scene occurs just before Beaumont vanishes to reemerge as the circus star “He”. Narratively, the circus exists on the outskirts of Paris, but, on the level of allegory, the insistent close-up shot of a spinning world map finally reaching stasis point toward a different geographical destination–America and Hollywood.
This could indeed be interpreted in relation to Sjöström’s change of production culture, from Europe to Hollywood–a remark that is most relevant also in the context of this study. The clown, indeed, might be interpreted as a tragic hero in a changing culture of images, struggling in vain to find his new identity in a new, globalized production context. However, in the even wider perspective of a film essay on the conditions of life on the globe that has been outlined here, the dissolve also opens for yet another interpretation. When the globe is dissolved into the circus ring, this, on another level, also seems to imply the more general analogy of a global circus; the circus: as metaphor for life itself. The necklace and the garland of flowers, on the other hand, appear as opposites, but also as metonymies for the people handling them; on one hand, the greedy Baron and, on the other, the unselfish lover. It is left to the viewer to draw the conclusion that the value of the garland is higher than that of the pearl necklace, that true love is more valuable than wealth without love.
THE QUESTION OF WHITEFACING
If the metaphor of the globe might thus be read in different perspectives, it might nevertheless be worth to follow up more consequently the more specific discussion on Arne Lunde’s reading of the film, as he situates his analysis precisely in the intersection between the two production systems, Sweden and Hollywood. Lunde interprets the film by discussing, as the subtitle to his essay reads, “Ethnic Whiteness and Assimilation in Victor Sjöström’s He Who Gets Slapped.” That is, as it turns out, “by examining the film’s underlying thematics of transnational hybridity and the performance of whiteness”, as “an allegorical exploration of the terrain between ‘Sjöström’ and ‘Seastrom'”, a self-reflexive assessment of “the director’s own (re)assimilation into American identity in the 1920s” through Beaumont’s “self-reinvention through the performance of ‘whiteface'”. According to Lunde, “Seastrom’s thematic manipulations of clown whiteface point to a more complex social dynamic–‘whiteface’ as a self-conscious practice of racial masquerade, passing, and assimilation”, just as Jewish or Irish immigrants used to “black up” themselves “in order to paradoxically ‘become more white’ in Anglo-Protestant America”.
By citing a number of historical sources, Lunde first quite convincingly argues that Scandinavian ethnicity had to “become” white, or to claim whiteness, in America. Lunde’s examples, however, are all quite general and concern America society as a whole rather than in a more specific context. Thus, the question is whether this may be generalized to the extent that it automatically includes He Who Gets Slapped, insofar as this film uses–as stated in a presentation from the New York Film Festival in 1969–“a dazzling white-on-white technique”. Lunde also argues that no thorough analysis has previously been devoted to this film, although he actually quotes Roth-Lindberg’s in-depth analysis.
Another problem with Lunde’s analysis in this connection is that he seems not only to want to reread He Who Gets Slapped from the perspective of critical whiteness studies, developed in a later scholarly context, which in itself may be a both interesting and valid approach to the film, but also to prove that Sjöström himself conceived his film in this perspective of whiteness, as a kind of cinematic critical whiteness study avant la lettre. He bases his convictions on Sjöström’s transnational identity; his crowing up in the United States and thus in a certain sense being a re-émigré, returning to the country of his childhood when going to Hollywood.
Apart from this general observation, however, the only contemporary source to prove his engagement with questions of ethnicity is a rather meagre one: the comment cited by Lunde from Märta Lindqvist’s interview with Sjöström, where he talks about his wife, Edith, taking English lessons “in an evening school together with Negroes, mulattos, Chinese, and other colored individuals”. Lunde’s translation “colored”, however, does not render the slightly ironic touch of the original expression “kulörta individer”, a Swedish term used mainly in connection with coloured lanterns. The quotation in Swedish would rather suggest a “motley collection” of different individuals. As proof of Sjöström’s engagement with–or even the degree of his awareness of–questions of hybridity, transnationality and whiteness, which Lunde seems to imply, could barely be considered as convincing.
Another problem occurs when trying to review the full consequences of Lunde’s analysis. If he is right, and Sjöström in He Who Gets Slapped is consciously developing a cinematic discourse on whiteness, then this discourse seems an extremely pessimistic one. If He appears as Sjöström’s own point of identification in the film (as Lunde seems to suggest), what happens to this whiteness–and indeed to the possibility of integrating Swedishness in an American context at all–since He dies at the end of the film? From what followed during the next six years in Hollywood, little seems to confirm this pessimistic view of Sjöström’s position in the new cultural context.
But even if whiteness could be a possible historical context in which to interpret the film–which after all might be plausible–how about considering its being part of another historical tradition: that of circus films, a context that seems just as relevant? This tradition contains several early films from the silent era, but a number of later examples followed He Who Gets Slapped, which have been pioneering, not only in developing the clown character, but also the circus theme. Among the early films, some are Scandinavian, such as the Danish Dodsspring til Hest fra Cirkus-Kuplen, directed by Eduard Schnedler-Sorensen for Nordisk Films 1912, and the Swedish Dödsritten Under Cirkus-Kupolen, directed by Georg af Klercker for Svenska Bio the same year, both based on the same historical event. Other Danish examples include Den Fly-vende Cirkus and Bjornetaemmeren, both from 1912 and directed by Alfred Lind. Among other examples of circus films from the period, a Russian film version of He Who Gets Slapped (Tot, Kto Poluchaet Poshchechiny) from 1916 should be mentioned, directed by Alekasandr Ivanov-Gai and I. Schmitt. In 1917, A.W. Sandberg directed the Danish Klovnen (The Clown), which also involves a man whose wife leaves him for a nobleman. The film was remade in Denmark in 1926 by the same director, immediately following the release of He Who Gets Slapped. In 1923, Dimitri Buchowetski also directed a film for Svensk Vilmindustri, Karusellen, where both the triangle drama of adultery and the circus theme intersect. Interestingly enough, Sjöström’s film was also followed by a number of other circus films from émigré directors: Danish director Benjamin Christensen’s The Devil’s Circus (1926, his first Hollywood film), Hungarian director Michael Curtis’ The Third Degree (1926, also his first Hollywood film), Irish director Herbert Brenon’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928, Brenon was an experienced Hollywood director), F.W. Murnau’s 4 Devils (1928, the director’s second Hollywood film)–or, for that matter, Chaplin’s Circus (1928). What, then, happens to the critical whiteness perspective proposed by Lunde in relation to these circus films? Should this perspective be reserved for Sjöström only, as Lunde seems to suggest, by using arguments anchored in his biography in relation to his own transnationalism as an individual, or because of his particular stylistic choices, his already-mentioned “dazzling white-on-white technique”? However, as white-facing may also be considered an important element in a film like Laugh, Clown, Laugh, the interesting question remains whether this reading could also be extended to other circus films. This, however, is another story.
A more general perspective on the circus theme is offered by Helen Stoddart, in her cultural history of clowning and the circus, Rings of Desire. She notes that the circus is “at once one of the most entertaining and the most frustrating of arts upon which to attempt research”, as history and mythology are here entwined to such a large extent. She argues that the “features of the circus which make it so characteristically modern are also those which suggest its fascinating challenge to representation”, namely the fact that it provides an immediate, physical sensation–which of course, one might add, also links the circus theme in a particular way to the early cinema of attractions. Whereas Stoddart, who does include cinema in her study, mainly focuses on later film examples (such as Fellini or Wenders), it is tempting to draw out the full consequences of her introductory remarks, arguing that the circus indeed might function as a central metaphor for early sensational cinema. In his groundbreaking study on the circus film, Matthias Christen discusses at length the media historical focus of early circus films, particularly emphasizing the “circus-cinematographs” from the first decades of the twentieth century. With their close association between the circus and cinema, they indeed seem to suggest an intersection or even integration between the two.
This early sensational cinema is also modern not only in the sense that it provides a particular form of performative energy, but because these early circus performances on screen have indeed provided the main aspect, according to Stoddart, of the modernity of the circus itself: “figures which draw attention to the limitations of the very forms of inscription and narration through which we continually attempt to describe ourselves as such”. Also, and more importantly in this context, He Who Gets Slapped, not least through its numerous followers, may serve as bridge for this vital metaphor, paving the way into classical and post-classical cinema.
I has already been suggested, in connection with the circus films of this period, that the circus theme–in addition to its attractional or sensational character, which seemed to be the main motivation for the films from the 1910s in the genre–has dramatic potential as a powerful metaphor for life itself. Matthias Christen opens his introduction with a quote from Paul Bouissac: “It [the circus] is a kind of mirror in which culture is reflected, condensed and at the same time transcended; perhaps the circus seems to stand outside the culture only because it is at its very center. Christen here offers a thorough study of the circus genre in cinema as such, particularly focusing on the themes of exotism, conformism and transgression, where he also deals explicitly with He Who Gets Slapped. This analysis takes into account the double identity of “He”, and thus also the transgressive character of the clown, which interestingly varies the melodramatic theme of doubling. The comic part of clownery is here doubled by the empathy for his main, “true” character, which also demonstrates to what extent the stereotype is actually widened in this film by the extension of the original psychodrama into a more universal metaphor, as theatrum mundi.
This double role of the clown in He Who Gets Slapped, both in the traditional function as unfortunate lover and as model figure for a more general outsidership in history and society, has its forerunners in nineteenth-century literature by the romantics, as both Jean Starobinski and Louisa E. Jones have aptly demonstrated; if, according to Jones, “neither pierrots nor clowns were sad” in the 1820s, the clown as the alter ego of the artist in the screen versions some hundred years later nevertheless remains a tragic figure. The theme of cruelty in the circus ha also been a theme in art; in an article that Sjöström wrote about his Hollywood years, he explicitly mentions an 1878 Nils Forsberg painting entitled Akrobatfamilj inför cirkusdirektören (Acrobat Family before the Circus Director) that came to mind when picking an actor to lay a child in one of his films. He Who Gets Slapped also features a picture composition in which the Forsberg influence clearly shines through. Thus, both literary and pictorial frameworks may serve as historical and intertextual references to Sjöström’s work.
As already discussed, the general metaphor of the circus as a privileged arena for life itself as well as for outsidership in society is suggested in He Who Gets Slapped by Sjöström’s additional intertitles as well as by the presence of the symbolic clown and the dissolves from globe to circus ring. But it also becomes obvious, not least in comparison to The Devil’s Circus, where an actual circus is represented, but the title must be read as symbolic, as an image of earth itself, with its inhabitants performing strange acts in what may appear as precisely a devil’s circus. Thus, it would seem just as relevant to interpret He Who Gets Slapped in relation to these more fundamental questions–questions of love, of how to lead one’s life–though probably at the same time not unrelated to the director’s own life and his change from Sjöström to Seastrom.
It is also quite obvious that these films, just as I have shown to be the case in connection with Name the Man, were attempts to recreate a number of other films within a framework that had already proven to generate both commercial and critical success, as seen in Christensen’s The Devil’s Circus, where Norma Shearer (from He Who Gets Slapped) also starred, though most obviously so with Brenon’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh, where Lon Chaney starred, which further develops the clown theme from He Who Gets Slapped.
HE, THE CLOWN
When discussing the ways in which He Who Gets Slapped has had an afterlife, being used as source of inspiration or point of departure for other works, it is impossible not to mention Hjalmar Bergman’s novel Jac the Clown. The novel was written in 1929 and is generally interpreted as Bergman’s reckoning of his experiences as a screenwriter in Hollywood, which for him, was a massive failure, not least because his old friend Sjöström refused to shoot the script Bergman wrote and decided instead to write a script of his own. Arne Lunde comments in a footnote that:
- this bizarre, modernist novel reads as an anti-Hollywood allegory about a successful American émigré clown in America who has sold out as an artist and lives in a huge Southern California mansion, despising himself and his new mass public–a narrative with suggestive thematic parallels to He Who Gets Slapped.
To mention a few of these parallels: In Sjöström’s film, the scientists are turned into clowns as “He” remembers the original scene of his humiliation. In Bergman’s novel, Jac the Clown makes a grand performance on the verge of collapse, and addresses his audience as fellow clowns. Likewise, his repeated formula, “Rattle, clown, rattle. Tremble, heart, tremble”, recalls the heart that He carries in the film. And just like “He”, Jac transgresses the basic assumption that a clown should never engage with feelings: “I? Talking about love? A clown discussing love? Damn it, how disgusting–.” Jac also states, as part of his long “clown catechism”, that:
- The clown’s love life is like everything else about him–it’s methodical, calculating–mental gymnastics. His heart must stay in shape. Precision is essential. Like shooting practice–it must respond within a tenth of a second to the instructor’s sharp, hasty commands: ‘Love! Hate! Have fun! Suffer!’
“He” in the film and Jac in the novel share one basic condition: they are both tragic heroes who in different ways use the circus arena to perform the grand questions of life, love and death. Jac, however, seems to suffer just as much from the commands of the system of production, which can be compared to a factory assembly line. Thus, it seems obvious that Sjöström’s film about the tragic clown’s destiny actually did inspire his old friend and colleague in Hollywood, Hjalmar Bergman, though not without an undertone of bitterness and irony.
In his book on images of Sweden in the United States, Jeff Werner discusses the fact that the film seems to have been interpreted by some critics as a hidden self-portrait, where the clown in the film is a portrait of Sjöström, the director, himself, and the slaps represented the injustices that he had endured in Hollywood. Such an interpretation, however, seems to transfer misunderstandings, failures and disagreements alike to a purely personal level. But, as Werner also writes, “both Sjöström himself and is critics more often saw the problems as an expression of cultural differences”.
An important aspect of its Swedish afterlife is of course the fact that Ingmar Bergman drew considerable inspiration from this Sjöström film; firstly, as the programme directors for New York Film Festival in 1969 stated, that: “this tale of humiliation in a circus reminds one curiously of Bergman’s The Naked Night. Not so curiously, actually, considering the close relationship between Bergman and Seastrom. But he phantasmagorical circus scenes which are the exciting heart of the film are unique in film history.” Matthias Christen also links He Who Gets Slapped to Berman’s Gychlarnas Afton [The Naked Night, aka Stardust and Tinsel], as this film has clearly drawn its inspiration from plot structures deriving from He Who Gets Slapped and its predecessors. Secondly, in Wild Strawberries, the last role created as actor by Victor Sjöström, it is clear that Bergman in his script for Sjöström obviously also draws the parallel to Sjöström’s own script, as he includes Isak Borg’s nightmare of his humiliation during an academic public defence; here, however, it is not the scientists but the woman supposed to be dead who laughs at him.
In retrospect, it is clear that He Who Gets Slapped was Sjöström’s greatest success during his career in Hollywood, and it was only his second film in the new system. When Sjöström talks about his work on the film as a positive experience, as quoted above, he seems to offer little support for such an interpretation at this stage of his career. Still, there is evidence to interpret the film, at least partly, as a comment on the Hollywood system. However, it seems more apt to interpret the symbolic clown, the visual narrator, as Sjöström’s alter ego in the narration, and perhaps also to see “He” as a personification of Hjalmar Bergman, an anticipation of Jac the Clown, both figuring and mirroring the ironical twist that Hjalmar Bergman would provide to the clown story.
This tale of life narrated through the circus metaphor is at the same tine the most elaborated narration, both stylistically and thematically, that Sjöström actually accomplished throughout his whole Hollywood career. He has provided a highly original account not only of the clown theme, but also of the question of cinematic globalization, one that is relevant to the question of production cultures, as well as of the stylistic mode which remains one of his particular characteristics: a truly transformational mode.
But even though Sjöström, as I hope to have shown, remained free within the American mode of production to make the kind of film that he might have wanted to, and actually did make several important changes in relation to the original play, he still remained faithful in spirit to Leonid Andreyeve, the Symbolist poet, and seems to have tried to include his symbolism in the film, be it in a way adapted to the cinematographic style. In spite of the fact that Sjöström’s inserted philosophical intertitles were mostly additions to Andreyeve, framing his own cinematographic reinterpretation of the play, they still remain faithful to the spirit of the play, “a symbolist exploration of the dispossession of the righteous in a world of false values”. Sjöström as a film director, however, would be better equipped to express this than Andreyev, as he stated in an interview in 1924: “Many of the tings we know are learned through imagery and symbolism. The screen is the best medium to get these things to the audiences of the world.” In spite of these convictions on the superiority of the screen, however, Sjöström mostly chose to remain true to his original sources. In his next film, Confessions of a Queen, based on Alphonse Daudet’s realist novel, the differences in approach would become all the more apparent.
Transition and Transformation: Victor Sjöström in Hollywood, 1923-1930 by Bo Florin (2013)
THE CLOWN’S REVENGE
At the Capitol this week there is a picture which defies one to write about it without indulging in superlatives. It is a shadow drama so beautifully told, so flawlessly directed that we imagine that it will be held up as a model by all producers. Throughout its length there is not an instant of ennui, not a second one wants to lose; it held the spectators spellbound yesterday afternoon, the last fade-out being the signal for a hearty round of applause. This celluloid masterpiece is Victor Seastrom’s picturization of Leonid Andreyev’s play, “He Who Gets Slapped,” which was presented before the footlights in January, 1922, with Richard Bennett in the principal rôle.
The more enlightened producers were enthusiastic over Mr. Seastrom’s “The Stroke of Midnight,” which was at the same time considered too depressing to be a financial success over here. Nevertheless, this and other productions caused the management of Goldwyn Pictures, Ltd., to engage this director to make pictures in California. Mr. Seastrom left his native heath, Sweden, and his first American-made production was Sir Hall Caine’s “Name the Man,” a lugubrious story filled with anachronisms. A friend of the director predicted at the time that, although he did not like “Name the Man,” Mr. Seastrom eventually would turn out a production which would startle the film world.
Undoubtedly the story is half the battle with an accomplished director, and in “He Who Gets Slapped” Mr. Seastrom obviously realized that he had his great opportunity. He selected his cast with punctiliousness, choosing Lon Chancy, who will be remembered for his work in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and other films, to play the part of the heart-broken scientist who became a clown. Never in his efforts before the camera has Mr. Chaney delivered such a marvelous performance as he does as this character. He is restrained in his acting, never overdoing the sentimental situations, and is guarded in his make-up.
The first flash on the screen shows a clown twisting a colored ball, which gradually fades out into the figure of Beaumont, the scientist, gazing upon a revolving globe. There are many such clever touches in different chapters of this absorbing narrative which deals with the ultimate revenge of the scientist-clown, merely known as “He Who Gets Slapped,” on the man who stole the glory for his work and also his wife. You see the student arguing with Baron Regnard before a gallery of aged notables, and suddenly the nobleman slaps the scientist’s face. The old men rock in their mirth, and this, coupled with the loss of his wife, spurs the student to become a clown with a small traveling French circus. As the principal fun-maker, with a score of other painted-face clowns, he is seen making audiences roar with laughter by being slapped. At that time he had no thought of revenge, but one day he sees the Baron in a seat. The sight of what happened to him in front of the scientists comes before his eyes. One sees the clown fading into the gallery of wise old men, and then again the clowns are shown.
There is the dressing room of the circus, and the pretty daughter of an impecunious Count. The girl (Norma Shearer) soon falls in love with her partner in her riding act, Bezano (John Gilbert). The Count wants her to wed the Baron, and the scheming is discovered by He, the clown. He is weak in fistic encounters, so coolly arranges for a terrible death for the Count and the Baron. He loves the girl, Consuelo, too. She had stitched on his dummy heart night after night of the show. You see him move the lion’s cage up to the door of the little ante-room, which is all ready for a wine supper. Then he enters himself by another door, and in an encounter with the girl’s father heis stabbed by the Count’s sword-stick. He grips his breast tightly to stay the flow of blood, and gradually crawls toward the door, which has only to be opened to release the wild beast. There is wonderful suspense in this stretch, and one is stirred when one sees the startled lion spring through the open door.
Mr. Seastrom has directed this dramatic story with all the genius of a Chaplin or a Lubitsch, and he has accomplished more than they have in their respective works, “A Woman of Paris” and “The Marriage Circle,” as he had, what they did not have, a stirring, dramatic story to put into pictures.
Miss Shearer is charming as Consuelo, and Mr. Gilbert, who gave such an excellent account of himself in “His Hour,” is a sympathetic sweetheart. But the player who is entitled to honors only second to Mr. Chaney is Marc McDermott, who takes full advantage of the strength of his rôle. Tully Marshall is splendid as the scapegrace Count.
For dramatic value and a faultless adaptation of the play, this is the finest production we have yet seen.
The New York Times Review, by Moraunt Hall, November 10, 1924
CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA (1934)
I watched this film about a half-dozen or so years ago and think about it from time to time, especially when I’m reading about or watching films starring John Gilbert. This was his last film and he died shortly afterward. The more I learn about the people who made movies, especially the actors and actresses, the more I realize just how difficult their lives could be. Most of them would come from very humble beginnings. Of those people, some came from single parent homes and then some of those people were abused as children in some way or another. Many of them had very little formal education and although I believe to be an actor, a person has to be quite intelligent and observant, a lot of these people felt insecure and inferior and would have to make an effort to educate themselves.
Even after reading a recent, well-written biography on Gilbert, it’s hard to know why a person acts the way they do. He had a hard time staying married to any of his four wives and I got the impression that he hadn’t much to do with either of his two children although he didn’t live long enough to see much of his second daughter with Virginia Bruce. In a nutshell, for most artists and Gilbert specifically, I think that whenever a picture of his failed, or when the studio didn’t put him in the right role after a success, he found it affected him negatively and profoundly.
So with regards to THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA, it’s interesting that the last role he plays is an alcoholic writer. Lewis Milestone, the director, sought him out for this part. Why him in particular? Notorious type casting? Helping someone he thought was a great actor? Why did Milestone go to the lengths he did to cast Gilbert? And when shooting began, why did John Gilbert fall off the wagon so easily? I don’t think it was actually the role itself, but the team of actors who themselves were heavy drinkers. I think we should keep our observant eye open to see if we can detect when Gilbert is acting intoxicated or if he has truly imbibed while working.
There is quite an array of actors in this film; lots of subplots going on. The Three Stooges play musician’s in what I believe is their second feature film, their first being MEET THE BARON (1933). Their comedy shorts began the same year in May, probably near or around the same time THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA was being shot.
The Production Code came into effect July 1, 1934. Although this film was released in November of that year, it would have been in production earlier in the year and somehow seems to have gotten past the censors. And that’s a good thing. So I hope you enjoy this film! Caren
Columbia Pictures. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Novel and Screenplay by Wallace Smith. Produced by Lewis Milestone. Cinematography by Joseph H. August. Film editing by Gene Milford. Costume Design by Robert Kalloch. Released: November 2, 1934. 93 minutes.
Victor McLaglen………………………………………………………….. Schulte
John Gilbert………………………………………………………. Steve Bramley
Alison Skipworth……………………………………… Mrs. Yolanda Magruder
Wynne Gibson……………………………………………………. Mrs. Jeddock
Helen Vinson…………………………………………………….. Janet Grayson
Fred Keating……………………………………………………. Danny Checkett
Walter Connolly……………………………………………….. Captain Helquist
Tala Birell……………………………………………………………. Gerta Klangi
Leon Errol………………………………………………………………….. Layton
Walter Catlett………………………………………………………… Joe Silvers
Claude Gillingwater……………………………………………. Judge Griswold
Emily Fitzroy……………………………………………. Mrs. Victoria Griswold
John Wray………………………………………………………….. Mr. Jeddock
Donald Meek……………………………………………… Josephus Bushmills
Luis Alberni…………………………………………………………. Juan Gilboa
Akim Tamiroff………………………………………………… General Salazaro
Arthur Treacher…………………………………………….. Major Warringforth
Inez Courtney…………………………………………………………………. Flo
Moe Howard………………………………………… Saxophonist and Violinist
Curly Howard…………………………………………………………… Drummer
Larry Fine………………………………………………………………….. Pianist
In June of 1934, Jack told interviewer Gladys Hall, of Movie Classic, “I have been on the screen for twenty years and I have managed to squeeze out of it complete unhappiness. Today I can’t get a job. I mean exactly that. I-can’t-get-a-job. Four short years ago I had a contract calling for $250,000 a picture. Today I can’t get a job for $25 a week or for nothing at all. It doesn’t make sense but there it is.
“What am I to do? People advise me to go to Europe. What for? I don’t want to go to Europe. I don’t even want to go to Honolulu. I want to work. I want the simple right of every creature that walks the earth, the right to earn my own living.”
As if in response, a small miracle occurred. The phone finally rang with a movie offer. Jack’s old friend Lewis Milestone had gone to bat for him with Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures. Milestone had a part in a picture he was planning that he thought would be absolutely perfect for Jack, and he convinced Cohn to give Jack the chance. He telephoned Jack and asked him to come to the studio for a test.
Suddenly Jack was scared to death. A test? What if he couldn’t pull it off? What if he got sick again? And the thought of going from Louis B. Mayer to Harry (Get-in-the-fuckin’-bed-or-get-lost) Cohn could not have been comforting. But Milestone would not allow Jack to beg off:
“It made me mad to see Jack sitting there going to rot. He had everything right there, all his talent, everything, and no one was using it. It wasn’t hard to convince Cohn. Cohn had no use for Louis Mayer. He hated the bastard and he really enjoyed the idea of making Jack a big star again just to show him. Cohn did the same thing with Clark Gable. Mayer got mad at Gable for telling a reporter that Mayer paid him not to think, and he punished him by lending him to Columbia. They called Columbia the “bargain basement” but we were turning out some pretty good pictures. Well, Cohn put Gable together with Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night and won all the Academy Awards. Gable went back to MGM a bigger star than ever, and Mayer almost died.
Anyway, Cohn thought he’d do the same thing with Jack. But I couldn’t get him to go down for a test. He was really gun-shy. Metro had nearly destroyed him. He had no confidence left at all. Finally I promised I would shoot the test at six o’clock in the morning. Nobody around to see him, just ourselves and a skeleton crew. I didn’t think he’d show up, but he did and he made a hell of a good test. Cohn agreed it was fine and signed him for the picture, The Captain Hates the Sea. Cohn said to Jack, “if you behave yourself, stay sober, and do your work, you’ll be a star again. I’ll bet my shirt on you. It’s up to you.”
Well, Jack dried up almost immediately. He told me he had a good night’s sleep for the first time in months. He showed up ahead of time in the morning looking great.
A lot of the action took place on an old boat that was moored at San Pedro Harbor. The story was about a newspaperman who’s trying to stop drinking and get a book written. That was Jack. In the beginning he says good-bye to his sweetheart, gets aboard the cruise ship, and sails away. She’s going to meet him in New York. It’s the usual voyage story, little dramas between passengers. Jack’s novel never gets written and he weaves off the boat in New York an unrepentant failure. It was a nice little movie.
But we had a terrible time shooting it. We took the old boat away from the dock and sailed it around the harbor, and around, and around. The weather was bad and the people were sick. Meanwhile, just about every drunk in Hollywood managed to get a job on that picture. There was Walter Connolly, Walter Catlett, Fred Keating, Leon Errol, and Victor McLaglen. They all kidded around and played endless practical jokes. Jack started out with every good intention but it was hopeless. There was more wet stuff flowing inside the boat than out. There was one delay after another. Finally, Harry Cohn wired me: HURRY UP, THE COSTS ARE STAGGERING. I wired him back: SO IS THE CAST. We finally finished the damned thing. Jack did a good job, despite being drunk most of the time. When he wasn’t drunk, he was being sick at home. He had bleeding ulcers and sometimes fever and hallucinations–raving out of his mind. When it was over, Jack knew Cohn would never hire him again. He was too much trouble.”
Walter Connolly had promised his old friend Ina Claire that he would keep an eye on Jack during the picture. Since Walter was known to take a drink himself, he decided he’d better farm out the responsibility. He asked his good friend Carole Lombard, also under contract to Columbia but not in the picture, to be Jack’s guardian angel. Carole tried her best to keep him sober. She hovered about his dressing room and made outrageous passes at him whenever distraction was required. She would pour out drinks and then consume both of them herself. Carole probably kept Jack a good deal more sober than he would have been otherwise, but her task was next to impossible. Jack’s role called for him to drink almost constantly. The character he played is the first to arrive in the ship’s bar each day and his cabin is almost as fully stocked. No matter how often Lewis Milestone set out bottles filled with colored water, some member of the cast would toss them overboard and replace them with the real stuff. Jack’s character was supposed to have a buzz on almost all the time and he did.
Jack’s performance, however, was remarkable. He suggests drunkenness only by an understated swaying and a sad smile that occasionally flickers across his face. Of all his talking pictures, The Captain Hates the Sea is the closest to today’s movies in terms of content and treatment. It is a wry, cynical film, not so much a comedy as an irony. Walter Connolly, as the captain, sets the mood in the beginning by saying, “I detest the sea…. I’d like to see any damn-fool women and children beat me into a lifeboat…. I’d break them in two with my own hands.”
For all the boozing, Milestone found Jack to be the same finely intuitive actor he’d always been. Even his back could be extremely expressive. Milestone gave him one long tender sequence played almost entirely with his back to the camera. Alexander Walker wrote of it in his book Stardom: “Gilbert must have savored, and may eve have inspired, the irony of the moment in The Captain Hates the Sea when the writer unpacks his cabin trunk and finds that his wife has brought him a new suit for the voyage–a rather flashy ‘ice cream’ suit for tropical wear which reminds him of his palmier days in Beverly Hills. Gilbert eyes it hollowly for a second, then puts it back in the trunk; and with an undertone of contempt for all it represents to him, he quips, ‘I know I lived in Hollywood, but after all you got to remember I came from Chicago.’ For a man whom the talkies supposedly ruined, he managed to have a caustic last word.”
The picture was largely ignored by the press and the public. Critic Otis Furgeson, noting that Columbia seemed to have lost heart very early after having made a boldly different sort of movie, called it the “absolute best neglected picture of two years.”
“Gilbert was drinking heavily throughout the shooting,” Alexander Walker wrote, “and his very slightly swaying stance in scene after scene conveys the unsettling feeling that he is not just acting drunk, though his voice comes through unslurred and dryly cynical. In place of the old romantic fire he had developed a raffish Errol Flynnish charm. With his slightly fuller face he could almost pass for Flynn’s double. The picture ends with his wife collecting him on the quayside when the cruise ship docks again. ‘Did you stop drinking?’ she asks him. ‘No.’ Did you start your book?’ she asks. ‘No,’ he answers again. And that was the last heard on the screen from John Gilbert.”
Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of the Legendary John Gilbert by Leatrice Gilbert Fountain (1985)
A potential savior came in the unlikely form of Harry Cohn, the wild man of Columbia Pictures. Abrasive, autocratic, and opinionated, he was feared and hated by many of his stars (a beloved Hollywood legend has it that–at Cohn’s well-attended funeral–Red Skelton quipped, “Give the people what they want, and they’ll turn out for it!”). Harry and his brother Jack headed Columbia Pictures, which by the early 1930s was known for comedy shorts and low-budget fare, some of which succeeded admirably (most notably Frank Capra’s superb and critically acclaimed The Miracle Woman, Platinum Blonde, American Madness, Lady for a Day, and It Happened One Night). Columbia built up such baby stars as Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, and Carole Lombard, and propped up the waning careers of Jack Holt, Monte Blue, Laura La Plante, and Lew Cody.
So it is not surprising that Harry Cohen made it his mission to revive John Gilbert’s career. It helped matters that he hated Louis B. Mayer like poison and envied MGM’s huge budgets and stable of stars–if he could succeed with Jack where Mayer had failed, so much the better. Cohn was Mayer’s evil twin: coarse and vulgar, he would delight in Jack’s filthy “mother” stories and nose-picking characters.
Director Lewis Milestone brought Jack’s dilemma to Cohn’s attention. Milestone had never worked with Jack but was eager to try: he had recently helmed such great films as All Quiet on the Western Front and The Front Page and had coaxed out what was probably Joan Crawford’s greatest performance, in Rain. “I know Jack very well,” Cohn’s biographer Bob Thomas has Milestone saying. “I’m convinced he can come through with a performance….It’s a gamble, but a good gamble. Everybody in town is kicking Jack, now that he’s down. Here’s a chance to prove them wrong.” Cohn agreed to screen test Jack, which in itself might be seen as a slap in the face to such a huge star. But Milestone urged him to swallow what was left of his pride and do it: “I’ll do everything I can to make it easier for you in this test. If you want, I’ll shoot it at six in the morning. We’ll be finished by eight o’clock, and you can be out of the studio before anybody knows about it.” Jack aced the test, and a delighted Cohn signed him in June 1934 to a five-year contract–with options, of course, for Columbia to drop him at any time.
His debut with Columbia was a comedy-drama called The Captain Hates the Sea; kind of a floating Grand Hotel aboard a California to New York cruise ship. The titular sea-hating captain was played by gruff character actor Walter Connolly; his motley passengers included a detective (Victor McLaglen) and his prey (con artists Fred Keating and Helen Vinson), a roguish dowager (the delightfully vulgar Alison Skipworth), a South American revolutionary (Akim Tamiroff), and unhappily married ex-hooker (Wynne Gibson, in a particularly moving turn), and assorted passengers and crew played by the reliably entertaining Donald Meek, Leon Errol, Walter Catlett, Claude Gillingwater, and Arthur Treacher. Jack–billed fourth–played an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter working on a novel, seen off on his trip by his sadly hopeful society girlfriend (Tala Birell).
Harry Cohn told Jack that “if you keep your nose clean on this picture, I’ll see that you get work. I’ll go to bat for you with every producer in town.” Jack’s nose was not kept clean. Much of the film was shot aboard a ship in Los Angeles Harbor, which became a floating bar. Fellow cast members Connolly, McLaglen, Errol, and Catlett were, if not full-fledged alcoholics, heavy drinkers, and Jack kept his vow to stay dry for exactly one week–longer than the character he played, who started belting them back as soon as he got on board ship. As if that weren’t enough, the Three Stooges were in the film, too, playing cameos as orchestra musicians. According to the Los Angeles Times, Larry, Moe, and Curly provided “good, clean fun” on the set by pushing each other off the steamship and pretending they couldn’t swim, further holding up production.
Some scenes were shot in the studio, but many sequences had to be filmed at sea, aboard ship: weather interfered, and so did the casts’ drinking (Jack was so ill by this time that a day of imbibing led to at least a day at home from bleeding ulcers). “He was a quiet, strange man,” recalled sound engineer Irving Libbott, “and he drank all the time.” As The Captain Hates the Sea fell further behind schedule through the summer of 1934, Cohn cabled Milestone–according to Hollywood legend, anyway–“Hurry up. The cost is staggering.” Milestone supposedly replied, “So is the cast.” Milestone told Jack’s daughter Leatrice, “When he wasn’t drunk, he was being sick at home. He had bleeding ulcers and sometimes fever and hallucinations–raving out of his mind.”
The Captain Hates the Sea is a brisk, entertaining B movie, a nice mixture of wise-cracking comedy and dark drama, with some terrific performances. Jack is noticeably wobbly on his feet, but he is playing a drunk, so it is hard to tell where real life and acting intersect. He does make his Steve a sad, charming loser, a sort of late-career F. Scott Fitzgerald type. For a post-Code movie (the Hays Office began a major censorship crackdown in mid-1934), it also got away with an eyebrow-raising number of lewd lines and shocking situations.
And it was a bittersweet last glimpse at John Gilbert for audiences. The year before John Barrymore played an exaggerated version of himself in MGM’s Dinner at Eight: Larry Renault, a wished-up, alcoholic ex-matinee idol. And here was John Gilbert as a Hollywood refugee, unapologetically drinking himself into cheerful oblivion. In the last few moments of the film, his girlfriend greets him at the dock: “Did you stop drinking?” “No,” he smiles. “Did you start your book?” “No.”
Despite its charm, this ship sank upon release in October 1934. Something went agley with The Captain Hates the Sea,” wrote the New York Times. “It had a workable story, a good cast, a fine director….Yet the final result, as set before its audience last night, is an indefinite, round-about and generally meaningless production….Some of the things that happen are funny,” the reviewer admitted, “and some are tragic.” But, he felt, “some are just dull, as trying to understand what Mr. Gilbert is supposed to be doing.”
Jack’s Columbia contract was quietly allowed to lapse. “It’s too goddam bad,” said Cohn. “But if a man wants to go to hell, I can’t stop him.” And by 1934, most friends agreed that Jack did indeed want to go to hell. “I’d like to be sixty-seven instead of thirty-seven,” he told Gladys Hall. “It’s horrible to think that life has ended before it should have got into midstream.” He spent his days, he sighed, “sitting here on this hill watching the panorama of the sky in which I take no part.”
John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden (2013)
What really happened to Gilbert’s career is still unclear. Various reasons for his precipitous drop from the very top in 1927 to a frustrated death in 1936 have been put forth over the years. There is the “victim of sound” theory, by which his voice at best “does not suit his image” or “did not record well with the initial crude equipment.” There is his bad luck at having his first release be the Gaustarkian and old-fashioned His Glorious Night, when the more believable movie he had actually shot first, Redemption, might have fared better at the box office. There is also his unpleasant relationship with the powerful head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, who is alleged to have sabotaged him, preventing him from obtaining suitable sound roles and assigning him to several unworthy, low-budget projects. Finally, there is Gilbert’s own personality. He was often rumored to be temperamental and difficult to work with (although his friends adored him), and he was said to be insecure, uneducated, and addicted to alcohol.
Each of these arguments can be refuted: his voice is not bad; he did have some good roles in sound, and Garbo insisted on his starring opposite her in Queen Christina in 1933; Redemption isn’t really much better than His Glorious Night; and other stars lived down awkward sound debuts and personal problems. As to Mayer’s contentious relationship with him, he was not the only star to have that problem, and in An Evening’s Entertainment, Richard Koszarski points out that Mayer had a 10 percent share in the profits from Gilbert’s films, and Irving Thalberg had 5 percent. Koszarski’s good sense and solid historical research lead him to conclude:
Conspiracy buffs attribute too much wisdom and foresight to Mayer. The fact is, most silent stars were very badly presented in their early talkies, even those producing their own films. Pickford, Gish, Swanson, Talmadge, Lloyd, Keaton and Gilbert were only some of those whose talking picture debuts were far below their usual standard…John Gilbert was a victim of the inability of Hollywood’s best minds to predict a method of pushing silent stars to the edge of talkies.
No doubt it is the sum of all these possible explanations that did Gilbert in: his voice, his alcoholism, the changing times, Mayer, and disappointed audience expectations–all these combined are why his great career collapsed so suddenly. And yet studying Gilbert’s silent films and his sound work leads me to think that, despite everything, the original idea may be the correct one. It was sound that killed Gilbert. Not because he had a bad voice or a high voice and not because his sound roles were silly, since some of the (Captain Hates the Sea, Downstairs) are quite entertaining and modern, and he’s good in them. It was sound that killed him because sound diminished John Gilbert. Two other big matinee idols of the day were not diminished by it–Ronald Colman and John Barrymore. Their extensive stage training and experience, their beautiful voices, and their filmed images could carry forward. Barrymore more or less ceased being a matinee idol when sound came in, but he became a great character actor and a romantic leading man. Barrymore’s looks were adaptable to villains, rogues, and comedy characters as well as to leading men, and Colman’s excellent timing and line delivery gave him the ability to play in a wide range, from Raffles to François Villon. Gilbert could be a cad, but he wasn’t suitable for villainy, and he had only a minor comedy gift. His true forte was as the fulsome romantic idol. Sound added nothing to his ability to convey a man in love, to present a sensuous, impassioned romantic. On the contrary, sound subtracted heavily from it.
Whatever it was that happened, Gilbert’s career slowly died. He languished at home, drinking heavily. On March 2, 1934, he took out an ad on the back page of the Hollywood Reporter that said, “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer will neither offer me work nor release me from my contract. Signed, Jack Gilbert.” After Garbo had helped him get the romantic lead opposite her in Queen Christina, he saw the billing: “Greta Garbo in Queen Christina with John Gilbert” where once it had been “John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil with Greta Garbo.” “Oh, what the hell,” said Gilbert. “They liked me once. A man is an ass to squawk about life. Especially me.”
Various accounts have been given of Gilbert’s final years of misery. His daughter, Leatrice Joy Gilbert Fountain, wrote of his bleeding ulcers and chronic insomnia, and others of his severe alcoholism. In a November 1992 article entitled “Remembering Marlene,” Fountain quoted director William Dieterle’s conversation with her, forty years after the fact, recounting how he had told Dietrich of Gilbert’s plight. “I told Marlene…’There Gilbert sits in his palazzo on top of the mountain. He still looks wonderful, he’s only thirty-five years old, all the talent still there, the wit, the intellect. But it’s like a spell has been cast, those last bad years at MGM destroyed something in the center of him. We all used to drink. My God, how we drank, but Jack couldn’t stop. He drank till he threw up blood, till he was totally unconscious. You’d look at this handsome guy with all the parts still together, it was unbelievable what happened to him.'” According to Fountain, Dietrich immediately tried to rehabilitate Gilbert, and they had a short, satisfying affair during which time he began to thrive again. She tried to help his career, and it says a great deal for Gilbert that powerful stars like Dietrich and Garbo went out of their way to help him.
Gilbert reputedly studied with sound coaches and vocal experts, but somehow nothing worked for him after the silent era. He had always had a mercurial temperament, which was part of what gave him his spark on-screen, and losing his first-rank status so rapidly unnerved him. Observers remarked how he changed from the happy-go-lucky guy who drove onto the MGM lot with his car top down, waving to fans and fellow employees, into an angry loner who wore his hat pulled down low over his eyes as he avoided contact with anyone. (Ironically, Gilbert and John Barrymore were neighbors, and in these last sad years of Gilbert’s life, the two idols were said to be drinking buddies.) Then, on January 6, 1936, John Gilbert died at home, very suddenly, from a heart attack. Some say he died of a broken heart, a man who never understood what had happened to him. He was certainly not destitute, but the things he needed most–attention and fame–had abandoned him. He had been replaced by different kinds of leading men: Clark Gable, James Cagney, Fred Astaire, Dick Powell, Wallace Beery, Joe E. Brown, and Will Rogers, all on the list of top-ten box office draws of 1935. Adela Rogers St. Johns said of him, “He grew up with motion pictures and loved them and belonged to them. He wasn’t any New York stage actor who came into Hollywood for money. He didn’t look down on Hollywood. He looked up to it. He believed in movies as a great new art that belonged to the people and was closer to them, and gave them more real happiness than the other arts.
On that basis, Gilbert may yet have the last laugh. The Big Parade, The Merry Widow, and Flesh and the Devil are among the most revived and best known of all silent films (together with the great comedies, some of Chaney’s work, and the major Griffith efforts). He had the good fortune to work with excellent directors, writers, and designers at MGM, an he costarred with the most beautiful and successful women of the day, is films were directed by King Vidor, Clarence Brown, John Ford, Tod Browning, Edmund Goulding, Victor Seastrom, Erich von Stroheim, Monta Bell, Maurice Tourneur, Jack Conway, and in the sound era, Rouben Mamoulian and Lewis Milestone. His costars included Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Jeanne Eagels, Renée Adorée, and, of course, Garbo. The revivals of his movies can put the lie to much that has been said about him, because in them he remains splendid: vibrant and romantic, handsome and untouched by time.
Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger (1999)
Something went agley with “The Captain Hates the Sea,” which opened at the Rialto last night. Decidedly, something went agley. For it had a workable story, a good cast, a fine director and all the technical skill that the Columbia studio could contribute. Yet the final result, as set before its audience last night, is an indefinite, round-about and generally meaningless production. About the only item that stands out is Walter Connolly’s performance as the irascible skipper who hates the sea for the passengers he must carry.
Ever since “Grand Hotel” there has been the temptation to classify other films as being of its type. Weakening once again, this corner drops “The Captain Hates the Sea” into the “Grand Hotel” classification, under the subdivision: “At sea.” Which means, in substance, that the new film presents a cruise ship with its assorted human cargo, weaves some sort of a thread about them and brings them home again. The same device was employed recently in “Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round.”
Among the passengers are John Gilbert, who clutters up the ship’s bar and really has no bearing on the story; and Fred Keating and Helen Vinson, as a bond thief and his girl, and Victor McLaglen as a private detective who is out to recover the bonds and falls in love with Miss Vinson in transit; and Wynne Gibson as a woman with a past, and John Wray as her husband who can’t forget that people once called her “Goldie”; and Alison Skipworth as a rowdy widow; and Leon Errol as the comic ship’s steward, and quite a number of others who drift about and do things and say things.
Some of the things that happen are funny—when the captain gives way to his favorite temptation and knocks down the bearded man’s elbow so that his head falls into the soup. (It sounds complicated, but that’s what happens.) And some are tragic, as was the death of the general who was going back to his country to lead a revolution. And some are just dull, as trying to understand what Mr. Gilbert is supposed to be doing.
But when it is all over and the film fades out with a parting shot of the captain, still glowering, on the bridge, the audience finds itself right back where it started from and not too happy about where it had gone. Perhaps that’s what the producers intended it to do. This corner still is a bit confused and must remark again. Something seems to have gone agley.
The New York Times Review by F.S.N., November 29, 1934