Chaney is Paul Beaumont, a scientist with "radical theories on the origin of mankind". His patron is Baron Regnaud, who has sponsored Beaumont up until his breakthrough — but Regnaud has designs both on Beaumont's research and Beaumont's pretty wife Maria. At the Academy of the Sciences, Regnaud presents Beaumont's research as his own. When Beaumont protests, Regnaud slaps him, and the assembled scientists laugh. A crushed Beaumont goes home, only to find out that his wife has left him for Regnaud. She laughs at him and calls him a clown and a fool.
His psyche thus shattered, a bitter Beaumont turns his back on the world and gets a job as a clown called "HE". His act is "He Who Gets Slapped", and it is a slapstick recreation of his humiliation in front of the scientists, with the clowns slapping him as he proclaims great scientific theories. The crowds laugh at Beaumont, and he in turn loathes them, and he seems to have settled into a stable if empty existence. But his heart is stirred again by the new bareback rider in the circus, Consuelo (Shearer), even if she in turn has fallen in love with the old bareback rider, the handsome Bezano (Gilbert). And Regnaud turns up again...
He Who Gets Slapped was the first film ever made by the new MGM studios, created by the merger of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer's production company. It was also the first MGM film to feature the Leo the Lion logo, which had originated with Goldwyn.
He Who Gets Troped:
- All Part of the Show: When Beaumont staggers out into the ring bleeding to death from a stab wound, the audience thinks it's his act. They don't figure it out until his final collapse.
- Anguished Declaration of Love: A particularly agonizing one as Beaumont spills out his heart to Consuelo, telling him he'll save her from Regnaud, only for her to think he's kidding. The shot where Beaumont's shock and horror twist into a laugh is a highlight for Chaney.
- Arranged Marriage: A pretty grubby one, as Count Mancini basically sells Consuelo to Baron Regnaud for cash.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: The Baron is a pretty bad guy, stealing Beaumont's theories, stealing his wife, and then dumping his wife like a hot potato when Consuelo comes along. And Consuelo's father, Count Mancini, who sells her like a horse.
- Comedic Sociopathy: Deconstructed. Laughing at a guy as he's slapped over and over again is pretty sick. The people in the audience are grotesque, and "HE" has nothing but contempt for them.
- Death Glare: Beaumont shoots a pretty scary one at Regnaud after seeing him in the audience.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Part of Beaumont's escape from the world. Everyone at the circus knows him only as "HE".
- Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Beaumont traps Regnaud and Mancini in a room and looses a hungry lion, who proceeds to eat both of them.
- Go Out with a Smile: "HE" smiles while dying in the arms of a woman he loves.
- Impoverished Patrician: Apparently the Mancinis were a distinguished family but are now broke, which is why the Count sets Consuelo up as a circus performer and is willing to sell her to the Baron.
- Love Dodecahedron: Three different men have eyes for Consuelo.
- Match Cut: From a string of pearls that Regnaud is fondling to the garland of flowers that Bezano has tied for Consuelo.
- Oblivious to Love: Consuelo, who is a bit slow on the uptake, doesn't pick up on all of Beaumont's longing glances and doesn't get it even after he tells her.
- Sad Clown: Beaumont becomes a clown after his patron stole his work and wife. As a clown, Beaumont falls in love with another performer who is in love with someone else.
- Sword Cane: Mancini has a sword walking stick, which he uses to deal Beaumont a mortal wound.
- Your Cheating Heart: Beaumont's wife is having an affair with Regnaud.