Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Alloy Orchestra: HE Who Gets Slapped

Is it just me, or is the Alloy Orchestra's visit coming earlier every year? I can go back and check, but it seems like they used to arrive in February or March, but I'm probably wrong about that. Still, they're always welcome, even if I must admit that I kind of miss when they performed right on the stage, sometimes even casting a sight shadow on the edge of the screen. They've had their orchestra pit in working order for (I think) a bit more than a year now, which means the band is hidden:

(OK, they're not actually there.)

As usual, it was a fun show, even if they're projecting video rather than their own restored prints nowadays and the couple behind me seemed to think that the characters not talking meant it was fine to talk amongst themselves juuuust enough to be a distraction but not quite enough to compel shushing.

The combination of movie choice and band was kind of interesting, too. The program noted that it was MGM's first production, but you won't find it on the list of films being offered on DVD as part of their 90th anniversary, and not just because there's not a huge market for silent films these days; MGM is a shell of its former self, with most of its library in the hands of Warner Brothers and the present-day studio surviving by remaking material from the United Artists catalogs and that of other groups they've absorbed. The brand should honestly be allowed to retire with dignity as a going concern with the trademarks winding up with the films at Warner Home Video, but that won't happen.

The funny thing is that despite the remains of MGM being scattered to the four winds, their logo still pops up at the beginning of their movies on video, and the audience got a kick out of how Leo the Lion just sort of looked around rather than actually roaring, what with this being a silent.

I did find Alloy doing this film a bit odd, though, if only because there's another local group, Cirkestra, that occasionally accompanies silents around here, especially if they're as circus-themed as this movie. It was tough not to think of them at times, especially when the musicians were going full circus on the soundtrack. I'm kind of curious to hear what they would do with this movie.

Neither will be at the Somerville this weekend, when Jeff Rapsis takes up residence for a weekend of silent films kicking off the 100 days leading to the 100th anniversary, with a Mary Pickford program on Friday, Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's Way Down East on Saturday, and Wings on Sunday. Genuine 35mm on each one, most (I believe) from the Library of Congress collection. It's going to be a good few days for those of us that like the silents.

HE Who Gets Slapped

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2014 in Somerville Theatre #6 (World Music/CrashArts, digital with live accompaniment)

What remains of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, although it's spent so much of recent decades in and out of bankruptcy, selling its library off, replacing it with other acquisitions, and partnering up with other studios that it's almost impossible to think of today's MGM as the same entity that produced HE Who Gets Slapped as its first project. That's a genuine shame, because HE is a bold, entertaining silent with a fine cast and style to spare.

It starts with scientist Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) announcing his tremendous discovery on the origins of human life to his beloved wife Maria (Ruth King) and patron Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott), the latter of whom will arrange for him to present it to the Paris Academy. Base treachery soon leaves him with nothing, and he reinvents himself as the clown "HE Who Gets Slapped" at a circus outside the city. Years later, someone new joins the troupe, Consuelo Mancini (Norma Shearer), a skilled horsewoman who attracts the attention of both HE and Bezano (John Gilbert), the show's other equestrian daredevil. Of course, her father, the bankrupt Count Mancini (Tully Marshall), would rather a marriage be arranged to a wealthy aristocrat.

The story that director Victor Sjöström (credited as "Victor Seastrom") is telling here is fairly elemental; were it to be adapted again today, it would likely be dressed up with subplots, twists, and layers of ambiguity. And that would be fine - times change - but a huge part of what makes Sjöström's film so effective is its almost shocking directness. Beaumont is torn down nearly as quickly as he was built up, and his nameless position in the circus is an obvious but effective reminder of what put him there. From there, let's just say that Sjöström and company are not particularly wishy-washy where the climax of the film is concerned.

That pulling-no-punches style doesn't mean that Sjöström made the sort of film that is grounded in modern realism; it's very much a product of the silent era, fading the circus audience to that of the Academy and back to show that HE is not beyond that moment, snickering descriptions of new characters in the intertitles, and a gigantic neon sign perhaps meant to give an ironic indication of how the fame HE earns as a slapstick clown dwarfs what he might have achieved as a scientist (even as characters wonder why they laugh at violence being done to one who does not really deserve it). The five-year jump is accompanied by a bit of effects work that is now quaint, but also perfectly implies that the whole world is a circus. It ties into a repeated bit of nightmare fuel - HE grinning for no reason, spinning a ball against a plain background - that never ties into the story around it but emphasizes that HE may not just be wronged, but mad.

It's a great part for legend Lon Chaney, who doesn't undergo the sort of physical transformation he is famous for but does certainly do a few things to earn his nickname of "The Man with 1,000 Faces". There is a remarkable feeling of transformation between the sweet, bearded Paul and the later clown, just as Chaney can make HE shift from a sad, forlorn character to a grinning terror when the chance for revenge comes. The film was also a star-making picture for two of his co-stars: Norma Shearer is certainly magnetic as the girl that all the men in the movie desire (and she gives Consuelo a bit of upper-class attitude without making her feel snooty), while John Gilbert is impressively handsome and physical without seeming a block of wood. Ruth King and Marc McDermott give the sort of silent performances that let the audience hear their words without crazy gesticulations, while Tully Marshall goes all-in as Count Mancini.

Unlike the performances, the soundtrack can change every time one sees a silent, and the one composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra is likely quite different from the one on the Warner Brothers DVD. The Alloy score's a good one; somewhat conventional in the early reels but shifting to circus music as the action shifts there, and kicking the big-top sound into a more frantic gear to match the action when the time comes.

Whatever soundtrack one sees "HE" with, it was an auspicious start for MGM, even if it was not actually the studio's first film released (the film was held for a more prestigious end-of-year slot; that practice apparently goes way back). Today, it is certainly an artifact of its time, but that does little to diminish it; it's a terrific silent film, as noteworthy for its quality as its place in history.

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