From the archives: He Who Gets Slapped

July 14, 2012

As its closing film, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will show He Who Gets Slapped (1924). It is, in my mind, the finest “sad clown” movie you’ll ever see.

He Who Gets Slapped tells the story of “HE,” a disgraced intellectual forced to find work as a circus clown. His popular act consists of being repeatedly slapped by the other clowns whenever he attempts to speak even a simple truth. The crowd, which likes to laugh at the misfortunes of others, loves this bizarre and rather pathetic act.

This singular American film was directed by the legendary Victor Seastrom, a Swede best remembered today for his performance as the elderly professor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). The film stars Lon Chaney as HE. This time, Chaney does not play a misshapen, criminally ugly, or apparently sinister individual – but rather their opposite. HE is a broken man. His wounds, his disfigurement, are internal. Dashing John Gilbert and pretty Norma Shearer are the supporting players in this, the first ever film from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

“This story is declared one of the most tragic and dramatic ever screened.”

He Who Gets Slapped is based on a 1914 play by the great Russian writer Leonid Andreyev (1871 – 1919). Acclaimed in Europe, the play had its American premiere in 1922 at New York’s Garrick Theater, where it enjoyed a six-month run and was widely reviewed. Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, wrote, “It has things in it that belong to the theater of all the world.”

Then, Andreyev’s reputation was large. He was considered the “Russian Poe.” In 1910, the New York Times described Andreyev as the most popular living Russian writer, and after Tolstoy, the most gifted. At home, his books were bestsellers while his plays were staged at the Moscow Art Theater (where Stanislavsky had once worked with Chekhov) and in St. Petersburg, by no less a figure than Meyerhold.

Here in the United States in the early years of the 20th century, Andreyev’s opinions on current issues both artistic and political were widely reported, while his short fiction was printed in the Sunday newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle.

Leonid Andreyev, the “Russian Poe,” stands before one of his large scale drawings in this 1909 newspaper photo.

Everything changed with the coming of the First World War and the outbreak of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Andreyev died in exile in Finland, and his books and plays were banned in the Soviet Union for decades to come. In his homeland, only the memory of his friendship with Gorki saved Andreyev from historical oblivion.

Today, Andreyev’s literary champion is his granddaughter, Olga Andreyev Carlisle, a writer and painter living in San Francisco. Olga grew up in 1930′s Paris, where her parents – socialists once imprisoned by the Bolsheviks, eventually resettled. In various books and articles, Olga recounts her remarkable literary heritage, including the time the Russian writer Isaac Babel once came to visit her parents in Paris. Olga remembered that Babel had a daughter about her age.

The Andreyev name has certainly opened doors, though Olga has established her own reputation as a writer. In the late 1950′s, she travelled to the Soviet Union to interview Boris Pasternak (author ofDr. Zhivago) for the Paris Review. She has also known and befriended just about every other Russian writer of note, from Anna Akhmatov to Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky. Famously, it was Olga and her family which helped smuggle Solzhenitsyn’s manuscripts out of the U.S.S.R. and arrange for their publication in the West. It is not an overstatement to say that The Gulag Archipelago helped change history.

I first encountered Olga’s work as a poetry-curious high school kid in Harper Woods, Michigan when in my local library I came across her 1968 book of contemporary Russian poetry, Poets on Street Corners. It was unlike anything else I had read. This was not Robert Frost. This was Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Voznesensky, Yesenin, Yevtushenko – I was enthralled.

Through the good graces of a mutual friend, Dwight Cocke, I recently had the chance to renew my acquaintance with Olga. We spent a few hours together in her San Francisco apartment talking about “Andreyev,” He Who Gets Slapped, literature, art and other things.

Olga was pleased to learn about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screening. She has seen the film before, which she thinks is “marvelous, if somewhat mysterious” and would have delighted Andreyev. However, she had not seen the movie posters and newspaper advertisements from the time (like the one from the Warfield, where He Who Gets Slapped first showed in The City) which boasted of the film’s association with the famous play.

Though she never met her famous grandfather, Olga knew through her Father that Andreyev wasinterested in the movies. (At least six Russian-language films would be made from his stories and plays by the time of his death.) Olga told me of the time that Andreyev visited Tolstoy and they spoke at length about the then emergent cinema and its story telling possibilities. According to Olga, Andreyev convinced Tolstoy to write for the movies!

The play is the thing, of course. After its debut in New York City in 1922, He Who Gets Slappedwas performed around the country. In early 1923, the play had its West Coast premiere here in the Bay Area as a student production at Stanford University.

In 1925, local papers reported that Mrs. Edith Adams Stewart, an “interpreter of plays,” made her own debut when she gave a recital of the Andreyev drama. Other stage productions followed. The Little Theater in Stockton staged it in 1934; it was performed at the Stanford Memorial auditorium in Palo Alto in 1958; and in 1963, the San Mateo Times reported that local high school students – members of the Ad Lib club – had attended a performance. There is even record of the silent film having been shown on television in 1974, as part of the KQED series “Films of the Gatsby Age.”

“Visions,” a collection of stories and photographs, was edited by Olga Andreyev Carlisle.

Over the years, Olga has seen He Who Gets Slapped on the stage a number of times, including once at the Berkeley Repertory in the 1980s. The continuing local interest in Andreyev – whether it is in his plays or the films made from them – pleases her.

In 1987, Olga edited and largely translated into English a collection of her grandfather’s stories, including “The Red Laugh,” “The Abyss” and “The Seven Who Were Hanged.” The book is called Visions.

In her introduction, she writes “The stories collected here I read as tales of our own times as well as Andreyev’s. In addition to the ‘live Andreyev’ of my father’s and Chukovsky’s recollections, I have heard him resound on the stage, in He’s speech about immortal love in He Who Gets Slapped and, in Paris in 1962, when . . . . I hear his voice in the tales of terrorism as experienced by both the perpetrators and the victims, in the words of those who are about to be put to death lawfully, and in the tales of the dark side of sex. And especially I hear it in that solemn refusal to accept the inevitability of death that distinguishes Russian writers from all others.”

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation of He Who Gets Slapped (1924) takes place on Sunday, July 17th, on the big screen of the Castro Theater. The Matti Bye Ensemble will provide live musical accompaniment while performing their original score. All together, it is an extra-ordinary opportunity to see an extra-ordinary silent film. Don’t miss it.


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