US Release Date: 08-16-1920
Directed by: Wallace Worsley
- Lon Chaney, as
- Charles Clary, as
- Dr. Ferris
- Doris Pawn, as
- Barbary Nell
- Jim Mason, as
- Frisco Pete
- Milton Ross, as
- Ethel Grey Terry, as
- Kenneth Harlan, as
- Dr. Wilmot Allen
- Claire Adams as
- Barbara Ferris
Lon Chaney in The Penalty.
His stunning physical performance as the double amputee in The Penalty put Lon Chaney on the map in Hollywood. For the role he harnessed his legs inside incredibly painful leather stumps and moved about on his knees using crutches. It is painful to watch but incredibly effective. The costume was completed using a long coat that hides his legs in the back. The searing discomfort Chaney endured surely added to his electrifying portrayal of the deranged criminal mastermind Blizzard. If the Academy Awards had been around in 1920 I’ve no doubt Chaney would have won for this role.
The story begins with Chaney’s character as a young boy. He gets his legs needlessly amputated by a young doctor. Years later the boy has become Blizzard, the ruthless leader of the San Francisco underworld. He’s a comic book villain before they existed. Not only does he have an elaborate plan to extort the city and put it under his control, but he’s also bent on revenge against the doctor that disfigured him (now a renowned surgeon).
When the opportunity arises for Blizzard to pose for the doctor’s unsuspecting daughter, he takes it with relish. She’s an aspiring artist who dreams of sculpting the likeness of Satan. What better model than the sinister Blizzard? Will his nefarious plans against both the man that ruined his life and the city he calls home be successful?
The direction by Wallace Worsley is quite good. He tells the story from several different perspectives, cutting from scenes of the police planning Blizzard’s downfall to scenes of Blizzard at his lair. The Penalty has a gritty look and is swiftly paced for a silent movie.
Blizzard likes to play the piano and uses his latest female plaything to work the foot petals while he tickles the ivories. It’s quite sexually suggestive the way the women kneel on the floor in front of him while he gloats, confident of his all-consuming power over them. One woman even calls him “master” before he takes her in his arms and kisses her. Although technically silent movies aren’t referred to as Pre-Code, The Penalty would definitely have been edited for content after 1934.
The bindings on Chaney’s legs were so tight they constricted his circulation. He could only wear them for about 10 minutes at a time and they caused permanent damage to his leg muscles. Although Lon Chaney would go on to greater fame as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, his role as Blizzard is, in some ways, the Man of a Thousand Faces’ most impressive work.
My only problem with the movie is the ending, which feels too pat and convenient. I won’t give it away but it wasn’t what I expected. It is also unbelievably fantastic (not in the good sense of the word) and lowers the overall impact of the story. The Penalty is still definitely worth watching for Chaney’s incredible performance alone. Although he is remembered today mostly for his work in Phantom, Lon Chaney was THE seminal actor of the American horror genre and he appeared in more than 150 movies. He made only one talkie however, The Unholy Three, before his untimely death from lung cancer at the age of 47 in 1930.
Lon Chaney and Claire Adams in The Penalty.
This pulp fiction, melodrama from 1920 is entertaining, even though, as Patrick said, the ending is a cop-out. Some of the material in it would indeed have been edited post-code, but the ending feels very much like an ending the Hays Office would enforce. It definitely dampens the overall effectiveness of the story.
Patrick compared the character of Blizzard to a comic book villain, but I was put more in mind of a Bond villain, of the novels rather than the films. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, often wrote his villains as having a physical deformity and megalomaniacal tendencies. They also often start out as mere criminals, but then turn out to have communist connections, which also turns out to be true of Blizzard, whose plans of looting San Francisco using foreign malcontents would have played strongly to audiences of the day during the Red Scare following the Russian Revolution. Even the scene where the secret service agent Rose gets her mission details from her boss reminded me of the scenes where M would brief Bond.
Chaney's performance as Blizzard is terrific. While at first it's easy to dismiss it as a gimmick or get distracted simply by the physical transformation, once you get over the idea that this is an actor with his legs strapped back, you can see that his performance is much more than that. It's definitely an award worthy acting job.
The studio heads were reportedly so impressed by Chaney's performance that they were worried audiences would simply think the part of Blizzard was played by an amputee. To prove that he wasn't, the original print of the film included an epilogue, which no longer exists, that showed Chaney out of character, standing up and walking down stairs while smiling to the camera.
If only the ending weren't so awful this would be a truly great silent film. Like Patrick, I won't give it away completely, but will say that it involves an operation. Just why this operation wasn't performed earlier is never explained. It's a silly ending to an otherwise entertaining melodrama.
Lon Chaney in The Penalty.
I agree with my brothers that Lon Chaney delivers a truly great performance. It is, without question, one of the most amazing acting feats ever put on film. The likes of which will likely never be seen again. Consider that when Gary Sinise played an amputee in Forrest Gump (1993), it was done through special effects.
As good as Chaney is, the story is what actually drew me in. It has characters from the criminal underworld, espionage, some romance and emotional intrigue. My brothers both mentioned the mature nature of the film. It features a brief nude scene, a murder and in one scene, Rose's boss clearly says, "Damn!" even though there is no title card to verify it.
Again agreeing with Patrick and Scott, the ending is an utter let down. Of all the directions the story could have gone in, it chose to include science fiction? Blizzard is bitter, vindictive and out for revenge. Considering how this film started, The Penalty should have ended on a much darker note.
Photos © Copyright Goldwyn Pictures Corporation (1920)