April 1, 1883, is the birthday of Lon Chaney, whose stardom in movies puzzles many film lovers. How, they wonder, could a man with average looks, who never won the gal in the last reel, and who specialized in characters who were physically and psychologically repugnant have remained a box office giant for a decade? He was only 47 when he died on August 26, 1930, still at the peak of his powers and popularity. He made only one sound film, The Unholy Three (1930), and that was a remake of one of his silent successes. His two most famous pictures—The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925)—are more "known of" than watched.
But his fans, even today, are legion, and I count myself among them. To celebrate his career let's spend a few days looking at three of his lesser-known movies. We'll start with a picture that answers a trivia question: what was the first movie that used Leo the MGM lion as part of the studio logo?
In He Who Gets Slapped, Chaney worked with the great Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (Victor Seastrom in America). The film is based on the symbolist drama by Leonid Andreyev.
Chaney plays Paul Beaumont, a research scientist who has spent years working on an outré theory as to the origins of life on Earth. He and his wife Maria (Ruth King) are supported by the patronage of Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott, who made 195 films between 1909 and his death in 1928). But what Paul doesn't know about the Baron is that he is having an affair with Maria, and when it is time to present Beaumont's theories to the Academy of Science, the Baron claims them as his own, dismissing Paul as a starving student who was hired as a research assistant.
When Beaumont objects, the Baron slaps him and the members of the Academy laugh at his humiliation. Beaumont's grip on sanity has never been too secure, and when Marie spurns him with the words "Fool! Clown!" his fingers finally slip away and the abject figure makes the connection between getting slapped and generating laughter.
Seastrom concludes this episode by cutting to a laughing clown who watches a spinning globe, an image he will repeat to separate the film's sequences.
"With a supreme gesture of contempt," the intertitles tell us, Paul becomes a circus clown. Several years go by and the scientist, now known as HE, the clown, has become an international success. His act? Pontificating about the nature of the world to an academy of clowns and being knocked to the ground for his profundity. His clown/friend is Tricaud (Ford Sterling, best remembered now as the perpetually harried chief of the Keystone Kops), who reminds him that "There's nothing makes people laugh so hard as seeing someone else get slapped."
A down-at-the-heels Count Mancini (that brilliant character actor and eventual veteran of 197 movies, Tully Marshall), who is as much scam artist and blackmailer as he is minor nobility, enlists his lovely daughter Consuelo (Norma Shearer, whose 25th film and fourth pairing with John Gilbert this was) as an equestrian. She and her co-performer Bezano (a pre-Garbo John Gilbert) soon fall in love.
There is a visible ease to Gilbert's and Shearer's work together. Shearer was 22 but seemed younger; Gilbert was 27 but seemed older. Chaney was 41 but seemed older still. HE is also is love with Consuelo but the difference in their ages prevents anyone from seeing the depth of his affection for her. The theme of a psychologically or physically scarred older man in the thralls of unrequited love for a younger woman repeats itself in Chaney's films—Quasimodo and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Erik and Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, Sgt. O'Hara and Nurse Dale in Tell It to the Marines, Alonzo and Nanon in The Unknown, Tito and Simonetta in Laugh, Clown, Laugh. Chaney's woeful characters in these films pined for actresses as young as the 22-year old Joan Crawford, and Loretta Young, who was 15.
Just as we think that the pain of love will be HE's alone, the Baron returns to the story. Of course, he finds Consuelo fascinating and, dumping Marie with a large check and no kind words, the Baron strikes a bargain with Count Mancini for Consuelo's hand. Bezano is furious, but seemingly helpless when faced with such a powerful class distinction. HE, unrecognizable in his clown makeup, torments the Baron. "I hate clowns," the villain snarls. "I hate Barons!" HE snaps back.
Alone with her, HE confesses his passion for Consuelo, who is stunned and a little repulsed by this news. But HE is so serious, the young woman assumes he must be joking. She gives him a playful slap and laughs at him. Knowing that life holds little for him, HE devices a plan to rid the young lovers of the Baron and the Count, and Chaney's character, as they did so often, sacrifices himself for the normalcy of romance.
One of the legends that has grown up around Chaney's body-twisting performances is that the actor tortured himself to get just the right look. Certainly the legless Blizzard in The Penalty required some painful contortions, but stories about the weight of Quasimodo's hump and the hooks that were used to flare Erik the Phantom's nostrils are exaggerated or false. Perhaps these yarns were originated by studio publicity men, but I suspect they have been so readily believed because of the connection made by audiences between their entertainment and the masochism endured by Chaney's characters. He Who Gets Slapped is a clear statement that someone else's pain can be our pleasure, and that we are fascinated by the misfortune of others. To a large degree, isn't that the appeal of many movies?