I first came across Lon Chaney‘s The Penalty (1920) shortly after my youngest, Lorna, was born. Lorna was roughly a week old and still sleeping in a bassinet in our bedroom. Lorna’s two older brothers had already fallen asleep, but my wife and I wanted to watch some television, ever so quietly, in our room as we fed Lorna and put her down for the evening (or the few hours that newborns actually sleep at any one time). I flipped over to Turner Classic Movies and saw Robert Osborne, TCM’s ubiquitous host, introduce The Penalty. Osborne’s account of how Chaney strapped his legs behind his back and endured intense physical pain to portray Blizzard, a villainous double amputee who runs a massive criminal enterprise in the San Francisco underworld, was enticing enough to make me watch.
Of course, as soon as Lorna went down, I, despite my intentions to watch the film, went down as well. (Since the births of my children, such a sequence of events has become rather commonplace.) I was able to recall a few of the opening scenes, but what stuck with me the most was the gorgeous, haunting, and semi-experimental music, composed and performed by Michael Polher, that accompanied the film. TCM occasionally shows the film, yet I am never able to align my schedule with the programmers at TCM. Finally, after four years of remembering the sound and snippets of the footage, I ordered the DVD. My dreamy remembrances finally came to life, and I was able to watch the film without falling asleep next to a newborn.
Above, I referred to The Penalty as Chaney’s even though Wallace Worsley, an accomplished silent film director, was at the helm of this film. Worsley and Chaney collaborated a number of times, most notably in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), with Chaney using his skill to portray Quasimodo. Yet it is Chaney’s commanding physical presence and gift of expression that defines the film. Think of how Clint Eastwood’s presence defines Dirty Harry (1971) even though he did not direct it. Everyone knows it as an Eastwood film rather than a Don Siegel film (except, possibly, for Siegel’s immediate family).
Playing a double amputee who had his legs needlessly removed by an inexperienced doctor as a boy, Chaney utilizes every ounce of his physical ability. Both his own dynamic presence and the costuming, which enlarged his chest and shoulders, makes him the dominant physical presence in every scene. Even as he walks on his knees with crutches, he appears vicious and brimming with vitality. Chaney is not reduced by having his legs literally taken out from under him. Instead, his energy is compacted, like dynamite, and he projects like a pit bull, an animal that inspires dread even though it may not reach one’s knees. The broad, devilish grin that Chaney displays is eerily reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s The Joker, if Nicholson were capable of projecting more physical menace.
Chaney, as the criminal mastermind Blizzard, becomes involved in three simultaneous plots. First, he plans to import “immigrants” and used them as an army to ransack San Francisco, draw away the police and military, and thus leave the city ripe for looting by his gang. Secondly, Blizzard becomes entwined in a relationship with Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), an undercover police officer who has gone to work for Blizzard in hopes of uncovering his secrets. Rose becomes emotionally confused; she finds herself attracted to Blizzard, as does the audience, yet knows that his actions are evil. Finally, Blizzard seeks out Barbara Ferris (Claire Adams), the daughter of the doctor whose mistake turned him into an amputee. Blizzard sits for Barbara, an artist who is sculpting a statue of Satan. As she uses Chaney’s visage to craft her masterpiece, Blizzard beguiles and woos her in an attempt to exact revenge on Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary). Yet Blizzard almost loses sense of his original goal as he sits with Barbara and tells her that he wants to serve as her inspiration as she achieves artistic greatness.
Worsley does a fine job of balancing all three plots and resolving them. He does not need to resort to “twists” and “turns” and “surprises” to keep the viewers’ interest. Telling the stories with the camera and letting the actors do their jobs are more than sufficient. Also of note, I thought that Worsley did an excellent job of capturing and filming the city of San Francisco as a maze that dwarfed its inhabitants and was ripe for a chaotic and criminal explosion.
The Penalty turns 91 years old this year, so the surviving footage does not prove to be of the greatest quality. Some shots and sequences in the film obviously aged better than others, yet at no point does the wear and tear on the film prohibit the viewer from seeing what was initially intended.
The DVD also bears other gifts for the Lon Chaney fan club. Its extras include the only remaining footage from The Miracle Man (1919), in which Chaney’s physical talents are again on display, and a one reel Western starring Chaney, By the Sun’s Rays (1914).
The one thing that anyone who purchases and watches the DVD will experience will be the sensation of remembering Polher’s score, which proves to be both cacophonic and gorgeous. Just a few minutes of it resonated within my brain for four years, haunting me. And that was not a bad thing.
(Note: I believe that the entire film is available on Youtube.com. I cannot vouch for the quality, but if you want to preview The Penalty free of charge on the internet, check it out. If you like what you see, you can purchase the DVD through tcm.com’s shop.)