He Who gets Slapped – Victor Sjostrom (aka Seastrom) – 1924

He Who gets Slapped – Victor Sjostrom (aka Seastrom) – 1924

No clowning about
He who gets slapped presents as a film about collusive victimhood, a subject area at the core of European and American political sensibilities. Authoritarian cultures and societies develop mechanisms through which scapegoat becomes a role voluntarily adapted by despised and excluded groups as a strategy for their survival.

He Who gets Slapped – Victor Sjostrom (aka Seastrom)  –  1924 – with piano accompaniment
Paulette Goddard Lon Chaney John Gilbert,
Seen Star and Shadow –  17 12 06 – ticket price £3-50

It seems useful when the opportunity arises to appraise films long forgotten and submit them to a contemporary critique.  Its also interesting to speculate who might have been exposed to the thought forms and influences of films such as ‘He who gets Slapped’.   Did Sergei Eisenstein Fritz Lang Orson Welles  von Sternberg or Wilder see it?  Sjostrom often seen as the father of Swedish Cinema made many films including this one in Hollywood for MGM.

No clowning about
He who gets slapped presents as a film about collusive victimhood, a subject area at the core of European and American political sensibilities.  Authoritarian cultures and societies develop mechanisms through which scapegoat becomes a role voluntarily adapted by despised and excluded groups as a strategy for their survival.
The film is set in the world of the circus – which is represented as a transposed variation of bourgeois life.  It is a film about clowns with no clowns: a film about clowns that involves no clowning.  Sjostrom’s film is energised by his  vision of a world created out of spiralling vectors.  In some of the key shots everything moves with a dynamic of circular fluidity.  Sjostrom endows his film with a centrifugal force which governs the core aspects of its realisation: the script, the settings, the camera work and the special effects.  They’re all informed with the powerful movement principle of the film that sucks matter out of the centre to the periphery before guiding it back to the centre again.  This centrifugal action works both actually and morally creating a complex interplay of ideas and technical skill. 

This understanding of the world as a moral spiralling motion is most strongly realised in the beautiful special effect transition sequence which takes us from the world of the humiliated bourgeois professor to his reincarnation as clown.   Using mattes and in camera effects, the huge spinning globe to which the professor clings resolves magically and unexpectedly into a circus ring.  The effect is breathtaking as the professor sitting astride the giant globe is thrown to the edge of the world by the centrifugal forces in play.  For a moment he is threatened with being hurled off the face of the world into oblivion, only for the edged outline of the world to dissolve and transform into the perimeter blocks of the circus ring.  We are in the world of the circus:  a world whose rationale is circularity and non stop centrifugal motion. 

The film contains both ourselves and the performers in this circuitous motion.  None   more so than the ridiculed professor who has transformed himself into the eponymous clown called: He who gets Slapped (HWGS).  HWGS is clown reinvented as a sado/masochistic iconic scapegoat.   The clown figure invented for the circus spectators – the masses – who have come to laugh at the clown’s slapstick pain.  It is difficult to escape the notion that at the core of Sjostrom’s filming is a political/social idea: that the enjoyment of another’s pain is the basis of certain political psychic forms.  A political psyche characteristic of hierarchic societies which exploit sadistic humour to undermine and demean attempts by individuals seen as representatives of despised groups to challenge in any way the established order.   The use of poisoned  humour to humiliate is a key weapon favoured by societies based on suppression through stereotypes.  HWGS is famous and popular as a clown simply for his ability to be slapped hurt and abused as the circus geek.  HWGS takes his public humiliation with a smile and comes back for more:  more pain equates with more laughs.  In one shot, an extraordinary superimposition, a huge blazing lit up sign erected over the big  top, shows HWGS in neon getting whacked and bouncing back. Masochism has become an addictive and collusive survival technique raised to an art form in societies that are grounded in the abasement of t groups and individuals through corrective humiliation.

There is a powerful mechanicality in Sjostrom’s filming of  the circus scenes.  Like other social performers such as prostitutes, clowns however they feel, have to play out a utopian entertainment ethos to the spectator.    In the sequence where a crowd of 60 clowns erupts into the ring, the performers are filmed as if they were clockwork toy soldiers (vide Laurel and Hardy in Toyland) with a relentless and impassive automative intent to entertain.  The clowns with their white emaciated features have two faces: one turned to the public that represents the desire to entertain, the other turned in on itself.  
In a compelling way the film creates out of the circus a world that either seems to anticipate the concentration camps, or perhaps recalls the POW camps of the First World War.   There is something in the compressed collective experience suggested in some of the circus sequences that call up ominous portents.  The circus seems a place of confinement.  The shots in the changing room, where men turn themselves into white-faced clowns and in the arena where they have to play the clown, have the quality of punishment parks.   Sjoberg seems to understand the entertainment business as a very dark metaphor for a world in which you are made to be the hand maiden of your own psychic mutilation (vide Singing in the Rain the big production number “Make ‘em Laugh”):  for a world in which one day there will be whole races and peoples forced to act out their own roles – as victims.  A world of the future where Jews Palestinians Tibetans (perhaps in another sense Big Brother Wannabees) will be reduced simply to the status of He Who Gets Slapped and find themselves powerless to be anything other than victims who provide political entertainment for the hierarchies that define them. 

The clown facial make-up devised for HWGS anticipates this type of social development.  HWGS doesn’t make-up to look like a clown.  The design of his make up turns him into a mutant, a freak of nature who should have been strangled at birth.  The make up effect is extraordinarily powerful in its effect as a justifier for abuse, and a righteous excuse for the crude childish enjoyment of the spectators in his pain.   There are disturbing resonances again in the way that in the future the costume and appearance of the Jew, of the Palestinian and other minority groups will be exploited as a source of ridicule and contempt.

The film ends by having recourse to the natural world albeit from the periphery of the circus.  The circus lion effects the end of the sources of evil in the film.  Sjostrom seems to be saying that the powerless cannot by themselves resolve the problems of their exploitation and abuse.  Once a certain stage of descent into powerlessness is reached the only solution is to invoke or call in outside powers.    Sjostrom in his resolution of the problem, whilst it might not tally with the ethos of self assertion,  at least avoids the fake pat solutions more usual in Hollywood plots, in which the hero transformed by his negative experiences returns to the fray with the weapons and knowledge to defeat the power of evil.  Sjostrum  declines the fake romanticism of the returning hero and opts for an outside intervention from the natural world,  as the equaliser. 
adrin neatrour 

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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