The film was important in the careers of Chaney, Shearer, Gilbert, and Sjöström.
Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) is a scientist who labored for years alone to prove his radical theories on the origin of mankind. Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott) becomes his patron, enabling him to do research while living in his mansion. One day, Beaumont announces to his beloved wife Marie and the Baron that he has proved all his theories and is ready to present them before the Academy of the Sciences. He leaves the arrangements to the Baron. However, after Beaumont goes to sleep, Marie steals his key, opens the safe containing his papers, and gives them to the baron.
On the appointed day, Paul travels to the Academy with the Baron. He is aghast when the Baron, instead of introducing him, takes credit for Paul's work himself. After he recovers from the shock, Paul confronts him in front of everyone, but the Baron tells them that Paul is merely his assistant and slaps him. All of the academicians laugh at his humiliation. Paul later seeks comfort from his wife, but she brazenly admits she and the baron are having an affair and calls him a clown. Paul leaves them.
Five years pass by. Paul is now a clown calling himself "HE who gets slapped", the star attraction of a small circus near Paris. His act consists of his getting slapped every evening by other clowns, and includes Paul pretending to present in front of the Academy of Science.
Another of the performers is Bezano (John Gilbert), a daredevil horseback rider. Consuelo (Norma Shearer), the daughter of the impoverished Count Mancini, applies to join his act. Bezano falls in love with Consuelo, as does Paul. Consuelo and her father, however, are planning to restore the family's fortunes with a marriage to her father's wealthy friend.
One night, during HE's performance, he spots the baron in the audience. The baron goes backstage and begins flirting with Consuelo, which she does not like. The next day, the baron sends Consuelo jewelry, but she rejects it.
When her father leaves for a meeting with the baron, Bezano takes Consuelo out to the countryside for a romantic meeting, where they declare their love for each other. Meanwhile, Count Mancini convinces the reluctant baron that the only way he can have Consuelo is by marrying her. The baron discards the heartbroken Marie, leaving her with a check.
Later, HE admits to Consuelo he, too, is in love with her. She thinks he is kidding and laughingly slaps him. They are interrupted by the baron and the count, who inform Consuelo she will marry the baron after the night's performance. When HE tries to interfere, he is locked in an adjoining room, where an angry lion is kept in a cage. He moves the cage so that, when he carefully opens it, only the door to the next room prevents the lion from escaping. HE re-enters the other room through the only other entrance (making sure to lock it behind him) and reveals his identity to the baron. HE threatens the baron, but the count stabs him with a sword.
The baron and the count try to leave but, finding the main entrance locked, open the side door, releasing the lion. The animal kills the count, then the baron. However, the lion tamer shows up and saves HE from the same fate. HE goes on stage and collapses. He assures Consuelo he is happy and that she will be happy, before dying in her arms.
The film made a profit of $349,000.
Film critic Leonard Maltin gave the film 3 out of a possible 4 stars. Hans J. Wollstein from Allmovie gave the film a positive review, praising Chaney's and McDermott's performances.
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
He Who Gets Slapped was released on DVD by Warner Brothers Digital Distribution on November 30, 1999. Warner has re-released the film several times as a part of its 6-disk Warner Archive Collection, first on November 22, 2011 and later on June 23, 2015.
The film was given a newly composed score by Will Gregory from the band Goldfrapp for use at live concert screenings of the film, initially in the Colston Hall in Bristol, UK on 1 December 2007. The score was later broadcast on BBC Radio 3 with linking narration by actor Timothy West to relay to listeners the plot of the film. The Alloy Orchestra has also composed a score for the film.