The Penalty (1920)
(Goldwyn) 70mins. (7 reels) BW. Silent. US. Re-released by
MGM in 1926.
Credits: Dir: Wallace Worsley; Prod: Samuel Goldwyn; Sc: Charles Kenyon & Philip
Lonergan; Ph: Dan Short; Ed: Frank S. Hall & J.G. Hawks. From a novel by Gouverneur
Cast: Lon Chaney (Blizzard), Claire
Adams (Barbara), Kenneth Harlan (Dr. Wilmont), Charles Clary (Dr. Ferris), Ethel Grey
Terry (Rose), James Mason (Frisco Pete), Edouard Trebaol (bubbles), Milton Ross
(Lichtenstein), Wilson Hummel, Cesare Gravina.
It is still worth stressing that throughout Lon Chaney's screen career of over 150 films,
only a handful of these can be classified as "pure" horror movies. The others
usually cast the star as a profoundly macabre character in an otherwise routine melodrama.
Needless to say that during the pinnacle of his success Chaney's characterisations became
the focal point of his films and were measured by the critics and the public alike solely
upon Chaney's performances. In THE PENALTY Chaney creates one of his most vile
characterisations, but in modern appraisals of his work it counts as one of his most
A young boy is injured in a tragic accident and Dr. Ferris,
(Charles Clary), an inexperienced surgeon, unnecessarily amputates the childs' legs.
Twenty years later, the boy has grown up to be known as "Blizzard", the
merciless ruler of the San Francisco underworld. Federal Secret Service Agent Lichtenstein
believes that Blizzard and his assortment of thugs and dope fiends are hatching a plot so
insidious that it will endanger the entire city, so he plants an undercover agent named
Rose, (Ethel Grey Terry) into Blizzard's fold to try and discover the criminal
Meanwhile Dr. Ferris has become a highly respected
surgeon and his daughter, Barbara, (Claire Adams), is trying to establish her reputation
as a sculptor. Blizzard realises his opportunity to have revenge on the doctor when
Barbara advertises for a sculptor's model to pose for a work titled "Satan After
the Fall", the ad continues,"... if you think you look like Satan, apply
at the studio of Barbara Ferris".
Blizzard exclaims "Before I'm through, they'll think I'm the Devil himself!"
Over the next few weeks Blizzard builds up a rapport with Barbara, much to the
annoyance of her suitor Dr. Wilmont, (Kenneth Harlan), her father's assistant.
While Federal Agent Rose is hunting for clues, she overhears Blizzard briefing his cohorts
on a plan to arrange for 10 000 criminals to filter through the city and begin a reign of
terror. This will force the police into the suburbs and leave the city free for Blizzard
and his men to loot. However, Blizzard's more immediate plan is to kidnap Barbara Ferris
and force Dr. Ferris to graft Dr. Wilmot's "superb" legs onto Blizzard's stumps.
Ferris agrees to Blizzard's demands, but instead operates on a contusion at the base of
the mastercriminal's skull that has been applying pressure to his brain. After the
surgery, Blizzard declares his repentance:- "In my madness I was ruled by evil.
Now I intend to do good". Unfortunately, soon afterward one of Blizzard's
ruthless henchmen shoots him, and as the film title conveys, his death is the penalty for
his life of crime.
Although the plot remains melodramatic, Blizzard's condition and
his plethora of ropes, pulleys and trap doors through which he travels about his lair
lends the story a macabre edge. Lon Chaney had to act on his knees as the
role demanded a harness that strapped both the actor's legs behind him. This led to severe
back strain and could only be used for short periods at a time, but even under this
physical pain Chaney could still clamber up the ropes with amazing agility.
Director Wallace Worsley would again direct Chaney in a
painful harness for his role as Quasimodo in The
Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), however, THE PENALTY remains as one of the
stars' career milestones. .
There are very few actors who would endure so much suffering for the sake of realism, but
Lon Chaney was a unique man and THE PENALTY remains one of his finest hours.
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