Sunday, November 5, 2017

#2,456. The Penalty (1920)

Directed By: William Worsley

Starring: Lon Chaney, Charles Clary, Doris Pawn

Line from thuis film: "Laughter burns a cripple like acid"

Trivia: Lon Chaney could wear the harness for only ten minutes before the pain became intolerable

Lon Chaney was freakin’ amazing!

Aside from his prowess as a make-up artist (on display in both The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), he often put himself through hell for a role, yet always delivered a solid performance. 

Take, for example, 1920’s The Penalty, in which he played a double-amputee. In order to make it look as if he had no legs, Chaney created a harness that attached to his knees, and with the help of a few belts and some oversized clothing he managed to conceal the bottom half of his legs. It must have been uncomfortable for him to act under such conditions, but the effect worked perfectly, and from start to finish Chaney was positively charismatic.

His character, a criminal mastermind known as Mr. Blizzard, wasn’t always handicapped; when he was a boy, a surgeon named Dr. Farris (Charles Clary), barely out of medical school, unnecessarily amputated his legs (Dr. Farris believed he was saving Blizzard’s life, only to realize later that he made a terrible mistake). 

Though 27 years have passed since that unfortunate operation, Blizzard has not forgotten, and is as determined as ever to make Dr. Ferris pay for his error.To this end, he volunteers to model for Ferris’ daughter Barbara (Claire Adams), a struggling artist who is attempting to sculpt a bust of Satan. It’s Blizzard’s hope that, through Barbara, he’ll gain access to the good doctor and force him to perform a second operation, to correct the one he botched all those years ago.

In the meantime, Blizzard continues to prepare for his next criminal undertaking, but what he doesn’t know is that Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), a new girl working in his sweat shop, is actually an undercover cop sent in by her superior to gather information on Blizzard’s future plans. Yet neither she nor anyone else could have guessed just how ambitious his upcoming scheme would be, and if they don’t act quickly, Blizzard will likely bring the entire city of San Francisco to its knees.

In films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Laugh Clown, Laugh, Lon Chaney portrayed characters that, though capable of violence, remained sympathetic throughout. Mr. Blizzard, on the other hand, is a vicious crook, a murderer and thief who doesn’t care about anyone or anything (he’s especially harsh to any poor woman who dares to show him a little kindness). We do feel sorry for his character early on, when Dr. Farris’s mistake costs him his legs. But at that point in the film Blizzard was a child (portrayed by a young actor whose name is not listed in the credits). By the time Chaney takes over the role, all traces of humanity have been stripped away, leaving nothing but a hardened psychopath whose goal is to cause as much chaos as he possibly can. As mentioned above, Chaney is The Penalty’s most charismatic performer, but the character he plays is as loathsome as they come.

Alas, The Penalty falls apart right at the end, with a twist (concerning Blizzard) that takes the story in a most unfortunate (and highly improbable) direction. Yet as cringe-inducing as the finale is, it doesn’t detract from what went before it, and the movie stands as yet another example of why Lon Chaney is considered the greatest actor of the silent era.

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