Released 9 November 1924, He Who Gets Slapped was the very first film produced completely by newly-founded company MGM, and the first to feature their mascot Leo the Lion. The MGM lion in those years was named Slats. Unlike his successors, Slats just looked around inside the logo instead of roaring.
He Who Gets Slapped is based on Russian writer Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev’s 1914 play Tot, Kto Poluchayet Poshchyochiny. Andreyev was quite popular in the Anglophone world from about 1914–29, based on his stories’ similarity to those of Edgar Allan Poe.
In 2017, the film was chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. It was a big moneymaker for MGM, earning $349,000 ($5,240,286 today).
Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney), a struggling scientist, was lifted out of poverty when Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott) took interest in him and invited him into his home. Beaumont’s years of toil pay off when the Academy invites him to present his theories on the origins of humanity.
When the big day comes, the Baron stabs Beaumont in the back by presenting Beaumont’s theories as though they were his own research. When confronted, the Baron pretends Beaumont is insane, a starving student he took pity on. Beaumont’s humiliation reaches its apex when the Baron slaps him and the entire Academy breaks into laughter.
Back at home, Beaumont discovers his wife Marie and the Baron are having an affair. Awash in anguish, Beaumont gives up his scientific ambitions and decides to reinvent himself as a clown, HE Who Gets Slapped.
Also in the circus are bareback riders Bezano (John Gilbert) and Consuelo Mancini (Norma Shearer). Predictably, Bezano falls in instalove with Conseulo when her dad, an old count down on his luck (Tully Marshall), presents her as a new employee.
The addition of well-bred aristocrat Consuelo to the circus reminds HE of all he left behind, and soon he too is in love with her. Consuelo also has a third suitor, a rich friend of her father’s.
Who should attend the circus one night but the Baron! On this night, HE gets more laughs than ever, but the Baron’s presence rattles him so much he refuses to play dead like usual at the end of his act.
HE always gets slapped around by other clowns until he’s “dead,” followed by a clown ripping off a heart patch to reveal a little stuffed heart, dropping it in a hole in the ground, and burying it. Then comes the mock funeral.
The Baron comes backstage after the show and is smitten with Consuelo, so much so he insists on coming home with her and her dad. Meanwhile, he doesn’t recognise HE, and informs him he hates clowns.
Count Mancini isn’t impressed with the Baron’s attempt to win Consuelo with jewels, and goes to set the record straight. In his absence, Consuelo slips out on a date with Bezano.
Count Mancini informs the Baron Consuelo can only accept jewels from her husband, which enrages the Baron. He won’t hear of marrying someone who works for a circus.
Even after the Baron relents and agrees to marry her, Count Mancini still isn’t satisfied. He insists the Baron make formal request for her hand.
While these negotiations are going on, Consuelo and Bezano profess their love and plan to marry that afternoon.
Next time HE sees Consuelo, his sadness gets her attention, and she says he’d be happier if he were in love. HE reads her palm and says her dad is scheming to sell her to that beastly Baron, and only HE can save her. HE confesses his love and says he’s worshipped her since they met.
Consuelo responds with laughter and gently slaps him, saying she thought he were serious for a moment. HE heartbrokenly goes with it, knowing Consuelo will never love him.
Count Mancini and the Baron then enter, saying Consuelo will marry the Baron that night after the performance.
Backstage, HE confronts Count Mancini and berates him for selling his daughter, something no true father would do. After he’s thrown out of the room, he sees a lion in a cage and starts putting a macabre plan together.
Will HE succeed in getting the last laugh on his nemesis and saving Consuelo, and if so, at what price?