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February 16, 2010

The Penalty

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Wallace Worsley - 1920
Kino International Region 1 DVD

The following is the first of two entries for "For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon" hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Film and Farran Smith Nehme of Self Styled Siren.

Most people know Lon Chaney, if they know him at all, primarily from The Phantom of the Opera and possibly Hunchback of Notre Dame. In both films, Chaney is heavily disguised in make-up, in roles that helped secure his legend as "The Man of a Thousand Faces". Thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation and the George Eastman House, one can also see The Penalty, significant primarily as Chaney's first starring feature. But even beyond that historical marker, The Penalty is a pretty good film.

Chaney plays the role of a man who had both of his legs amputated as a boy, due to the misjudgment of young Doctor Ferris. The man, Blizzard, has become a crime lord based in the Barbary Coast section of San Francisco. In addition to keeping a pulse on the city, and keeping control of criminal activity, Blizzard has employed a group of young women to make straw hats of a specific design. A secret government agency employs their female agent, Rose, to seek employment with Blizzard's hat factory in order to get the goods on this as yet untouchable felon. The incompetent Ferris has become a respected surgeon, with a daughter, Barbara, who is an aspiring artist. Spotting an ad in a newspaper, Blizzard becomes the model for Satan, the proposed sculpture that Barbara is planning to create to make her professional reputation. Blizzard is hoping to extract revenge on Barbara and her father. Rose gets close to Blizzard, being the one to operate the piano pedals while Blizzard tickles the ivories. Even though she finds out more about Blizzard and his operation, she starts having feelings for the sometimes cruel man. Blizzard, though, is having feelings for Barbara.

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The Penalty does get a bit complicated in an hour and a half. There's more cross cutting than one might normally see with several simultaneous developments. Even when the film gets topical with mention of "Reds" and foreign workers, it's only the clothes that date the film, not the concerns of the characters. Without being lofty about it, there is the idea that artistic expression is the best means of expressing a person's humanity. The film also can be viewed as a companion piece to The Unknown, Tod Browning's film with Chaney as a circus performer who pretends to be armless. Made seven years later, there are similarities. In both films, the main character's relationship with women can be said to be peculiar, and the sexual component regarding missing arms or legs is hard to miss. Both The Penalty and The Unknown also have plots that hinge upon particularly horrific surgery.

Chaney made a name for himself here by strapping his legs together and walking on his knees. The procedure was so difficult that Chaney could only do his scenes in short takes. Even watching Chaney, perhaps more so with the knowledge of what he went through, is painful, though nothing short of amazing to witness his physical dexterity in handling stairs and even a chain ladder. What makes Lon Chaney great in this film is watching his creased faced, his curled lips, the way he arches his eye, his expressiveness. Even if Lon Chaney had tossed aside the make-up kit, he would still have been one of the great screen actors.

Also worth seeing is a character actor named James Mason as the drug addled thug, Frisco Pete. Along with Chaney, Mason feral, leering, criminal, has the kind of face that doesn't need dialogue to let us know what's on his mind. The film is notable for being transgressive for its time, with a drug addicted character, women who are clearly prostitutes, an on-screen murder, and nudity in the form of Barbara's female model. Part of the film was shot on location in San Francisco. The Penalty was one of four films Chaney made with director Worsley, The Hunchback of Notre Dame being the most famous. Ace of Hearts is available on DVD. One other collaboration of Worsley and Chaney, A Blind Bargain is considered permanently lost.

There are unimaginable penalties for losing more films. Click here to contribute to the National Film Preservation Foundation.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 16, 2010 12:21 AM


I haven't seen The Penalty, Peter, but I have seen more than my share of Chaney films. This one sounds of a piece with his other works as a baddie. I rather wish he had more chance to be wholly sympathetic as he is (more or less) in Ace of Hearts. Thanks for this great contribution.

Posted by: Marilyn at February 16, 2010 12:34 PM

Peter: Thank you for the comments on "The Penalty," a harsh but wonderful movie. I remember seeing stills in "Famous Monsters of Filmland" and one of Everson's books and thinking I'd have to see it. I finally did and I was not disappointed. I'm also a sucker for the San Francisco setting. There are far too many lost Chaney films.

Posted by: Joe Thompson at February 16, 2010 10:25 PM

I'll seek out this film! Your analysis makes it sound fascinating.

Posted by: Tinky Weisblat at February 18, 2010 12:01 PM