Heartbreaking, horrifying hilarity

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?

Celebrating lost and rare silent horror

Three of the films I had on my list for October turned out to be lost, and another is only available at the George Eastman House. It’s always frustrating to review a lost, archive-only, or incomplete film, since I can only go by what other people have said about it. I can’t provide my own opinions or plot summary.

The Bells, released 15 September 1918, was a very popular story in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s based on a play of the same name, by Leopold Davis Lewis. In turn, that play was based on 1867’s Le Juif Polonais (The Polish Jew), by Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian (who co-wrote almost all their novels, stories, and plays as Erckmann-Chatrian). After Sir Henry Irving made the lead role of Mathias famous in 1871, every actor wanted to play him. Sir Henry played the role until the night before his death in 1905.

The story is set over 24 and 26 December 1833, in Alsace (a border area between France and Germany). Fifteen years before, on the night of Christmas Eve 1818, burgomaster Mathias robbed and horrifically murdered a Jewish seed merchant, Koveski, to pay off his mortgage.

Gradually, Mathias has gone insane with guilt, and begins hallucinating Koveski’s ghost. He also hears Koveski’s phantom sleigh bells. Mathias later dreams he’s on trial for the murder, confesses, and is hanged. When he wakes up, he tries to pull the phantom noose off, and dies of a heart attack.

In the film version, Mathias’s conscience begins torturing him with renewed vigour when he counts out the gold coins for his daughter Annette’s dowry. She’s engaged to Christian, the captain of the local gendarmes.

After a hypnotist wedding guest, Gari, puts the town fool under his spell, Mathias runs upstairs, falls asleep, and dreams of his trial. Gari wrings the confession from him, and he wakes hysterical. Mathias runs downstairs and dies in his wife’s arms.

The film was remade in 1926 with Lionel Barrymore, and again in 1931.

Sorry about the annoying watermark on this public domain image, but this was the best one I could find to illustrate the subject.

Alraune, die Henkerstochter, genannt die rote Hanne (Alraune, the Hangman’s Daughter, Named Red Hanna), released December 1918, is not to be confused with the Hungarian film of the same name from the same year. It was released as Sacrifice in the U.S.

Alraune is a sci-fi horror story very loosely based on Hanns Heinz Ewers’s 1911 novel of the same name. The only similarity is the use of a mandrake root to save a dying child.

A mad doctor (are there any other types in horror films?!) uses a dead man’s sperm to impregnate a prostitute. This child grows up to turn against her creator.

This film can be viewed at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.

The Last Moment, released 15 February 1928, was directed by Paul Fejos (né Pál Fejős), who fled Hungary in 1923 to escape the White Terror and Horthy régime. It was made on a budget of $13,000.

Like F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Schatten, this story too is told without any intertitles. It had a German Expressionistic style, and, unusually for the time, featured double- and triple-exposures.

Charlie Chaplin absolutely loved it, and after a private screening, arranged for United Artists to theatrically release it.

Director Paul Fejos

An unnamed man decides to drown himself in a lake. Before that final, irreversible step, he flashes back on pivotal moments of his life and the incidents which led up to his suicide—his unhappy childhood; his decision to leave home and stow away on an ocean freighter; his failed attempts to break into acting; his two drama-filled marriages.

The film ends as he walks towards the lake and wades in deeper and deeper, till he’s no longer visible from shore.

Though While Paris Sleeps released 21 January 1923, it was actually filmed in 1920. It stars two of my favouritest actors, Lon Chaney, Sr., and John Gilbert, and was based on Leslie Beresford’s novel The Glory of Love.

Henri Santados (Lon) is a sculptor in unrequited love with his model, Bebe Lavarche. He becomes extremely jealous when Bebe falls in love with rich American Dennis O’Keefe (Jack). Henri joins forces with Father Marionette, a wax museum owner, to get rid of Dennis.

Dennis’s father also disapproves of the relationship, and convinces him to leave Bebe, who asks for a goodbye at Mardi Gras. When Dennis comes to pick her up, Henri tricks her into a compromising position and makes Dennis think she’s cheating.

Dennis leaves heartbroken, and is kidnapped by Father Marionette. He’s tortured in the wax museum. When Father Marionette calls Henri with a report, Bebe hears Dennis over the phone. One of Dennis’s friends rescues him and rushes him to hospital, where his father consents to the marriage.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part X (Common myths debunked)

Over the past 90 years, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about TJS, the end of the silent era, and the dawn of sound. While many have a sliver of basis in truth, the truth is a lot different and more complex than popular opinion suggests.

Myth #1: TJS was the first talking picture.

As discussed in Part VI, sound-on-film technology had a long history, full of fits and starts, going back to 1894 or 1895. TJS was merely the most popular and successful, due largely to Al Jolson’s star power and charisma. This is similar to the oft-repeated myth about BOAN being the first feature-length film.

TJS also wasn’t even the first all-talking feature. That was 1928’s Lights of New York. TJS is at least 75% silent.

Myth #2: The silent era immediately ended after TJS came out

As discussed in Part IX, the transition from silent to sound film was very long and slow. Even if the entire film industry worldwide had decided, right then and there, to make sound the law of the land, they couldn’t wire all theatres for sound overnight. They also needed to buy a lot of expensive new equipment and film.

China, Japan, and Korea were largely silent well into the Thirties. They didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Japan also had the tradition of the benshi, a narrator who accompanied film screenings and was a star in his own right.

Myth #3: Most silent actors had horrible voices, and thus had to retire

Many actors had wonderful or at least competent voices, though they weren’t always best-served by early sound recording technology. People were so enamoured of talkies, they flocked to see anything and anyone. They didn’t mind voices which weren’t professionally trained, such as Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent. All they cared about was hearing someone talk during a movie.

Some actors genuinely had very thick accents or serious speech impediments which prematurely ended their careers, but this wasn’t the norm. Rare exceptions included:

1. Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb), a funny-looking character actor who became a comedian in his own right. His thick Danish accent soon relegated him to lesser and lesser roles, until MGM yanked his contract. He tried several other careers, but nothing panned out. Deep in depression, he finally took his own life.

2. Many foreign exports, like Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. They had heavy accents combined with poor English. However, their acting careers continued when they returned to their home countries. Other foreign actors, like Nils Asther, took voice lessons and were cast in roles where accents were expected.

The same thing happened with the large community of Russian actors in France. In that case, going home wasn’t an option if they valued their lives and freedom.

3. Raymond Griffith, a comedian whose voice was barely above a whisper due to childhood vocal chord damage (screaming every night in a stage play). His final acting role was a dying French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which had extra poignancy with his natural voice.

True blame goes to factors including:

1. ALL stars have a shelf life! Even actors who’ve been successful for several decades eventually slow down or lose popularity to the new generation. These actors just happened to reach their expiration date in the early sound era.

2. Some actors were looking towards retirement anyway. Vilma Bánky, for example, had a thick Hungarian accent, but wanted to leave acting for the full-time role of Rod La Rocque’s wife. She retired in 1930, just as she’d announced she would.

3. Studio politics and personality clashes. Enough said!

4. Even big-name silent stars, and the types of characters they played, were increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable, reminders of a bygone era.

5. Marriage (or lack thereof). Many women either chose to retire upon or shortly after marriage, or had husbands who insisted they stop working to be full-time wives and mothers. William Haines refused to enter a lavender marriage and dump his boyfriend (whom he was with for 47 years, until his death).

Myth #4: John Gilbert had a terrible, squeaky voice

Jack’s career was sabotaged by the vile, vindictive Louis B. Mayer. He had a lovely voice and well-received talkie début, but Mayer kept giving him sub-par roles. The wonderful Irving Thalberg gave Jack some great films, and ex-lover Greta Garbo chose him as her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), but the damage had already been done.

His depression with inferior films and long periods of unemployment led to increasing alcoholism, and Jack died of a heart attack at age 36.

Celebrating The Big Parade at 90

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The Big Parade, released 5 November 1925, is one of the all-time greatest films of the silent era, which I was thrilled to finally get to add to my master list at #928. It’s astonishing I had to wait that many years and that far into the list, since it wasn’t released on DVD till 2013, and when TCM finally broadcast it a few years before that, it was the first time they’d ever played it since I’d begun watching in 2004.

The film stars John Gilbert and Renée Adorée, neither of whom were long for this world. Jack passed away at only 40, and Renée was only 35. It’s really criminal how Louis B. Mayer (someone I have no kind words for) sabotaged dear Jack’s career in the early sound era and indirectly led to all those problems contributing to his early death. Jack had a lovely voice, and it really angers me when people perpetuate the easily-debunked lie about how he had a horrible voice and was a total failure in the sound era. This old myth is even perpetuated in Singin’ in the Rain.

Jack is one of my favorite male actors, and I named my Critter Piller (a neck pillow shaped like a dog) after him. I highly recommend his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain’s biography of him, Dark Star.

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The film is based on Plumes, an autobiographical novel by Laurence Stallings, and its subsequent stage version by Joseph Farnham. In 1925, World War I was only seven years in the past, as compared to today, when it’s largely a forgotten war. World War II and Vietnam seem to be the most commonly depicted wars.

The film opens in 1917, the day the U.S. finally joins the war, and introduces us to Jim Apperson (Jack), an idle playboy; Bull O’Hara, a Bowery bartender; and Slim Jensen, a construction worker. Jim, our hero, tells his mother there’s no way he’s enlisting, but his fiancée, the oddly-named Justyn, has other ideas. When Jim bumps into some friends by a parade, he’s moved to enlist.

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Jim’s father, who has no idea what just happened, rakes Jim over the coals for being lazy and useless, and says he’ll kick him out of the house if he doesn’t enlist or do something for the war effort like his brother Harry. When Justyn comes in, Jim is compelled into spilling the beans, and his father instantly changes his tune.

During basic training, Jim makes friends with Bull and Slim. Slim is played by Karl Dane, a silent star who also met a sad, premature end.

When Jim’s unit ships out, they’re stationed at a farm in Champillon, France, in the Marne. The three friends fall in instalove with Mélisande, the daughter of the woman who owns the farm. Mélisande rebuffs their advances, but she gradually starts to like Jim, in spite of neither knowing the other’s language. Their courtship is so cute and sweet, a refreshing contrast to modern films where couples often fall into bed immediately.

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One day, Mélisande comes across Jim after he’s read his latest letter from Justyn. Mélisande quickly realizes the truth when she sees Justyn’s picture, and runs away in tears after kissing Jim goodbye. Jim has no time to decide how to fix the situation, since his unit is ordered to the front. When Mélisande hears all the noise, she runs back, desperately searching for Jim. They find one another in time to kiss and embrace goodbye, and have to be physically separated more than once. Their goodbye is one of the most famous scenes of the silent era.

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I won’t spoil anything which happens after this point, but suffice it to say, it’s a harrowing, realistic depiction of what it’s like to be in battle, on the front lines, in the trenches. War isn’t a game or a grand, glorious adventure. It’s a frightening situation, with every single moment a matter of life or death. In another famous scene, we see the so-called enemy isn’t that much different, just someone who happens to be fighting for another side he was led to believe was right. Soldiers are never the ones who decide to make war.

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The Big Parade was the second-biggest blockbuster of the silent era, with 18–22 million dollars all totaled. I’m thrilled it’s finally available on DVD, and remain baffled at how such an important film wasn’t properly released years earlier.

Every single second of this film is absolutely perfect, and I get chills thinking about many of the scenes. This definitely gets a 6 out of 5 stars.

Favorite Famous Couples

My Heartbreaker post is here.

Express Yourself

This week’s topic of the Express Yourself meme is favorite famous couples, real or fictional. Here are a couple of my favorites:

1 and 2. Stan and Ida Laurel and Oliver and Lucille Hardy. My favorite comedians weren’t very lucky in the marriage department until their respective last marriages. These later-life couplings proved to be their happiest, the ones they’d been waiting for all along. The last Mrs. Laurel and Mrs. Hardy were even there for their husbands during their respective final illnesses, taking care of them in sickness as well as in health. Sometimes the best relationship and one’s soulmate is only found later in life, not in the first attempt at marriage or dating.

3. Isidor and Ida Straus, who died together on the Titanic rather than be separated or take seats away from children or younger people. Prior to that, they wrote to one another every day when they weren’t together, much like my fictional Cinnimin and Levon, during Levon’s various deployments in Korea and Vietnam.

4. Harpo and Susan Marx. Susan was actually the one who proposed to him, and they were married for 28 years, until Harpo’s death. With the exception of the early-retiring Gummo, Harpo had the longest, happiest, most successful marriage of any of his brothers. I also love how they adopted all four of their kids and never considered them anything but their real kids. Harpo was almost 48 when they got married (Susan was 20 years younger), and really nervous about making such a big life change, but he was more scared of living the rest of his life without Susan. He finally accepted the third time she proposed. (At least his response to being proposed to wasn’t to say nothing, start jamming the ring on his finger, and then say, “It’s stuck. I’m very upset.”)

5. Charles and Oona Chaplin. It took a long time for him to find his true soulmate, and there was a huge age difference (she was 18 to his 54), but it was a true love match, his happiest and most stable relationship by far. When there’s a true meeting of the minds, so long as you’re both legal, age doesn’t really matter.

6. One of my favorite screen pairings is that of Rudy Valentino and Nita Naldi. They were together in Blood and Sand (1922) and Cobra (1925), and slated to be leads in the never-filmed project The Hooded Falcon. Their chemistry was incredible, even if Nita always played the Vamp role, not the “good girl” Rudy’s characters were married to or courting.

7. I also love the frequent screen pairing of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, two of my favorite silent stars. (I’m far from the only person who prefers Garbo’s silents to her talkies!) They were together in four films—the incredible Flesh and the Devil (1926), Love (1927, a terrible screen adaption of Anna Karenina complete with happy ending), A Woman of Affairs (1928), and Queen Christina (1933). Their chemistry was even more incredible because they were involved offscreen as well, though they never married, much to Jack’s disappointment.

8. Moe and Helen Howard. As a huge Three Stooges fan, I’m not alone in finding it rather sweet and charming how the boys were quite the opposite of their screen personae in real life. They were all devoted family men, and not violent, mean people at all. Moe and Helen (a cousin of Harry Houdini) were married in 1925 and stayed married till Moe’s death in 1975. Helen died not quite 6 months later. I once read an excerpt of a love letter Moe wrote to her, in which he thanked her for letting him be her sweetheart for so many years.

9. Simon and Yasmin LeBon. They’ve been married for 27 years now, and have really gotten older together so gracefully, without any scandals in their marriage. I also like how they broke up originally because Yasmin didn’t want to have sex, but got back together later because it was just meant to be. If you’re meant to be with someone, you’ll find your way back together, even if you’re separated or not together. They’ve also gone through problems with having kids before having their three daughters. (I love the name of their middle daughter, Saffron!) Honestly, I wish I had been that strong about waiting, and not given my antique virginity to a guy who wouldn’t even freaking kiss me, but what’s done is done. At least I learnt my lesson and won’t compromise my beliefs again, if I ever find another partner at my age.

10. John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In spite of continued Yoko-bashing by certain immature, mean-spirited people, it’s so obvious these two were such soulmates, creative partners, and a perfect match. As a proud puma, graduated from a bobcat, I also love that John’s soulmate was an older woman. Age and culture didn’t matter, because they were such a perfect match and meeting of the minds. Yes, they had some difficult periods, but normal relationships aren’t always sunshine, flowers, and kittens. Sometimes you have problems, and you have to work to get the relationship back on track.