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?

A paralytic’s quest for revenge

Released 24 November 1928, West of Zanzibar was the penultimate of the ten films Lon Chaney, Sr., made with director Tod Browning. It’s based on a 1926 Broadway play, Kongo, which starred Walter Huston. (Huston later starred in a 1932 remake under the original name.)

Unfortunately, due to censorship, the known surviving print runs only 65 minutes. Among the scenes Browning was forced to edit out include Phroso as a duckman in a sideshow, and Phroso and his troupe arriving in Zanzibar.

Circus performer Phroso (Lon) suffers the ultimate heartache when his wife Anna leaves him for his partner Crane (Lionel Barrymore). Crane says they’re going to Africa, and pushes Phroso over a railing. This fall paralyses Phroso.

A year later, word reaches Phroso that Anna has returned with a baby. He crawls into the church where she was reported, and finds her dead. Phroso tells her he never followed her because Crane told him she loved him (Crane). He was man enough to let the woman he loved go to his rival.

He then vows, “For all the suffering he brought her…he’s going to pay! I’ll find him! I’ll make him pay! He and his brat will pay!”

Eighteen years later, Phroso has established himself west of Zanzibar, and is using the native Africans (who, typically for the era, are portrayed as cannibals and superstitious) to steal Crane’s ivory. It’s part of a plot to lure Crane and his daughter into Phroso’s clutches.

Crane’s daughter Maizie (Mary Nolan), who works at a very sleazy bar, is reluctant to leave her job and surrogate mother, but is persuaded when told she’s going to meet her father. All these years, Phroso has been paying for her upkeep there.

Maizie is horrified to encounter Phroso and his troupe, but relieved when Phroso reassures her he’s not her father. She wants to know what the game is, since the gentleman who brought her there claimed he was taking her to meet her father. Phroso says he’ll tell her when he’s good and ready.

Phroso puts on a mask for a big funeral, in which the deceased’s wife or daughter is burnt on his funeral pyre. One of Phroso’s troupe tells her it’s the law of the Congo, and nothing can ever change it.

Phroso’s alcoholic buddy Doc (Warner Baxter) offers Maizie a drink, but Phroso won’t hear of anyone treating her nicely. He makes her break the glass and eat on the floor. Doc announces he’ll eat with her. Maizie then discovers Phroso gave her clothes to the natives.

When Phroso’s ivory theft is discovered, he tells a native to report to the trader that his daughter is there. Crane comes immediately, and Phroso tells him he intends to pay for everything. When Phroso opens a coffin with a skeleton inside, Crane instantly recognises his old partner, and has a good laugh.

Phroso opens the revolving door coffin again, and reveals Maizie. Crane doesn’t make the connection, and thinks she’s Phroso’s lover or assistant.

Maizie has turned into an alcoholic, which greatly upsets Doc. To absolutely no one’s surprise, he’s fallen in instalove with her. After Doc carries her out of the bar, Phroso tells Crane Maizie is his daughter.

Crane reacts with laughter, and Phroso orders his assistant Bumbu to take care of his orders. He tells Crane he had Maizie raised in the lowest dive in Zanzibar so he could be proud of her. Now both father and daughter will pay for Crane’s betrayal.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but I will say there are some very emotional, intense, horrific twists and turns. As always, Lon stirs so much emotion for someone most people would never feel sympathy for. He truly excelled at playing outcasts.

Since his parents were Deaf-mutes, his first language was Sign. Lon knew how to talk with his hands and face before he could speak.

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.

Lon’s hunchbacked horrors

Released 2 September 1923, the fifth screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel was the film that catapulted Lon Chaney, Sr., from a popular character actor to a huge superstar. It grossed $3.5 million, making it Universal’s highest-earning film of the silent era.

In 1482, Quasimodo, a deaf, half-blind hunchback, lives in sanctuary at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. As an early intertitle tells us, “the bells were the only voice of his groping soul.”

The townspeople hate and jeer Quasimodo on account of his deformities, and he hates them right back.

Also living in sanctuary in the cathedral is Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the Archdeacon’s brother, who turned to evil and is Quasimodo’s puppet-master.

We then meet Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), a child of mystery whom beggar Clopin (awesome character actor Ernest Torrence) bought from Romani (referred to with the now-outdated term “Gypsies”) and raised as his own.

Marie, “Queen of the Gypsies,” a angry madwoman, taunts Esmeralda. We learn she once was happy and sane, but she lost her child and hasn’t been the same since. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess their possible connection!

During these first twenty minutes, we also meet a whole slew of other characters. As much as I love books with ensemble casts, this often creates cast bloat in films, esp. when characters are thrown at us thick and fast. The same for too many subplots. Even a longer than average film doesn’t have the luxury of as much space as a novel to fully, properly develop characters and storylines.

Jehan orders Quasimodo to kidnap Esmeralda, but Captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry), whom Esmeralda has long had a crush on, comes upon the scene and rescues her. Quasimodo is tied up and taken away.

Esmeralda is thrilled when Phoebus takes her to his place for some food and wine before going home. For Phoebus, it’s just another woman to seduce, but for Esmeralda, it’s a golden ticket. She says the fortuneteller was right when she predicted marriage to a Captain of the Guards.

Phoebus notices Esmeralda’s necklace, and she says her mother, whom she barely remembers, gave it to her. All she knows is that no harm shall befall her as long as she wears it. After hearing this, Phoebus steps back from his plans to seduce her.

In the public square, Quasimodo suffers twenty lashes for doing Jehan’s bidding. As always, Lon stirs so much emotion during this scene. He put so much humanity and sympathy into all these social outcasts, deformed people, people in great emotional pain, people who were outside the so-called norm in some way.

Esmeralda alone shows sympathy on Quasimodo after his lashing, while he’s still tied up. She fills a jug with water and brings it to him, then pulls his torn shirt back onto his body.

After this, Dom Claude (Jehan’s brother) comes up and unties him.

A ball is held to celebrate Phoebus’s appointment as Captain of the Guards, to which Esmeralda accompanies him. Though he’s engaged to Fleur de Lys de Gondelaurier, he now plans to marry Esmeralda instead. Phoebus gives her fine garments and introduces her as an Egyptian princess.

Clopin, enraged Esmeralda is running around with an aristocrat, storms the ball with his beggars. To prevent a huge row, Esmeralda declares she belongs with her people. When Phoebus reminds her of their engagement, she lies that she doesn’t love him, and leaves with Clopin.

Esmeralda sends the poet Gringoire, whose life she previously saved, to deliver a message to Phoebus. She asks for a goodbye rendezvous by the cathedral, and things don’t exactly go as planned. I won’t spoil what happens from this point on.

In the book, the main villain is Archdeacon Claude Frollo, not his younger brother Jehan. Censorship wouldn’t allow clergy to be shown in a negative light. There’s no motivation (religious, moral, cultural, etc.) for why he can’t act on his obsession with Esmeralda (the main focus of the book’s plot). Here, he’s very one-dimensional.

Nothing really comes of the subplot about Esmeralda’s long-lost mother. It’s like the producers were trying to follow the book too closely (minus the censorship), and thus stuck in everything and everyone, even when it leads nowhere.

Though the film does build rather slowly, and not all the characters are developed enough, Lon is excellent as Quasimodo, and the slow build leads up to an incredible final third. The payoff is worth it.

Laughing with a broken heart

Released 14 April 1928, Laugh, Clown, Laugh is one of several circus-themed films of Lon Chaney, Sr. Unlike HE Who Gets Slapped or The Unknown, however, this isn’t one of the ones where he starts out as a sympathetic character and then goes totally psycho. The only thing this clown is driven mad by is an inappropriate passion he knows he can’t act on.

Tito Beppi (Lon) and his partner Simon (Bernard Siegel) are travelling Italian clowns whose lives change when Tito finds a little girl tied up by the river. He rescues her and begs Simon to adopt her, but Simon is adamant women bring bad luck.

Tito’s heart is stolen immediately, and he names her Simonetta to sweeten the deal. She becomes part of their family.

When Simonetta (Loretta Young) grows up, she joins the act. Tito suggests she needs a rose in her hair, and she goes in search of it. While she’s climbing a wire fence, she snags her stockings and cuts her legs.

A handsome young count, Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), comes across her in his rose garden, and invites her into his home to tend to her wounded legs. He’s clearly smitten, though his fiancée Lucretia is very displeased at the peasant in her midst. While he’s dealing with Lucretia, Simonetta escapes through the window.

Simon announces he’s leaving the act if Simonetta is joining it, still insisting women bring bad luck. When Simonetta returns, made up in her new costume, with her new hairstyle, Tito realizes in shock she’s become a woman. His body language makes his other feelings obvious, and he demands Simonetta call Simon back. He needs that buffer.

Three years later, Luigi is in a shrink’s office, seeking help for his uncontrollable laughter. The doctor tells him the cause is his life of excess and always being unsatisfied. He suggests Luigi’s trouble might disappear if he sincerely falls in love with the right type of woman.

Tito then enters the office, and Luigi laughs hysterically. A nurse escorts him out to the balcony.

The doctor thinks Tito may be suffering from some kind of suppression, perhaps unrequited love. He says Tito will be cured when his hopelessness is gone, and urges him to waste no time in winning the lady.

Tito, knowing this is an inappropriate passion, dissolves into tears and tells the doctor he can never tell her. It’s not right. The doctor then suggests diversion, to make him laugh.

He takes Tito to the balcony and shows him a poster advertising Flik’s current show. The doctor says he’s making all Rome laugh, and will make Tito laugh too. Tito says that’s impossible, since he is Flik.

Luigi apologizes to Tito for laughing, and assures him it wasn’t intentional. He laughs uncontrollably, just as Tito cries uncontrollably. They soon realize they can help one another with their respective problems.

Luigi and Tito become great friends, little realizing how Simonetta helps them both.

Luigi has a string of pearls delivered to Simonetta’s dressing room, but she refuses them. She doesn’t want to be a rich man’s plaything or kept woman. Her life is with Tito.

Simon realizes Tito has feelings for Simonetta, and after he sees the pearls and Luigi’s calling card, realizes Luigi loves her too. He knows Luigi stopped laughing and Tito stopped crying because of the same woman.

Simon says men like Luigi don’t marry tightrope-walkers, and wouldn’t give Simonetta pearls for nothing. Tito is furious at this insult to her character.

When Luigi comes by, Tito lashes out at him too, saying his friendship was a farce, and that he’s trying to buy Simonetta with his filthy pearls. Simonetta’s not the type of woman he can buy.

Luigi diffuses the situation when he turns his calling card around and shows Tito his handwritten note. Those were his mother’s pearls, and he wants them to be his wife’s.

Tito tells Luigi he won’t stand in his way if he loves Simonetta. Luigi must ask her first, and if Simonetta agrees to be his, she’ll never know of Tito’s love.

Several tragic complications spring up after this.

LCL is based on a 1923–24 Broadway play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing, starring Lionel Barrymore and his second wife, Irene Fenwick. In turn, the play was based on Fausto Maria Martini’s 1919 story Ridi, Pagliaccio.

MGM held up film production for several years, because Lon had already played a clown in 1924, and the expectation that Lionel Barrymore would want to reprise his role.

This was Loretta Young’s first major film. She was only 13 when production started. Director Herbert Brenon was often quite harsh and mean to her, but changed his attitude every time Lon was there. Lon picked up on this, and made sure to always be there when Loretta was. She spoke very effusively about how much his kindness, guidance, and protection meant to her.

The trope of a man falling for his foster daughter or sister has so much potential to be creepy, but Tito knows how inappropriate these feelings are. Not only did he raise Simonetta, but he’s an old man. He doesn’t want to spoil her happiness and youth with his sadness and old age.