the penalty | wallace worsley | charles kenyon | philip lonergan | charles clay | doris pawn | jim mason | lon chaney | crime | drama | thriller | united states | milton ross | ethel grey terry | kenneth harlan | silent film | based on | novel | gouverneur morris
Film: The Penalty
Director: Wallace Worsley
Writer: Charles Kenyon and Philip Lonergan
Starring: Charles Clary, Doris Pawn and Jim Mason
This was another film that I never really heard of until I decided to do my Centennial Club episodes on my podcast, Journey with a Cinephile: A Horror Movie Podcast and this one of the few horror films from 1920. I was excited to see that Lon Chaney starred in it, as I’m a fan of him. That was about all I knew. The synopsis is a deformed criminal mastermind plans to loot the city of San Francisco as well as revenge himself on the doctor who mistakenly amputated his legs.
We start this off where Dr. Ferris (Charles Clay) elected to amputate the legs off a boy after an accident. His mentor comes in and tells him that he made a blunder. The mentor will lie for him so when the boy’s parents arrive, they state the amputation was needed to save his life. The boy points out that the doctors are lying and it is ignored with the reasoning being he is feeling the effects of ether from the surgery.
This boy grows to be known as Blizzard (Lon Chaney). He’s the head of the criminal underworld of the Barbary Coast. It is interesting though as he walks with crutches and has what I’m assuming is leather over the stubs where his legs used to be. Blizzard is also ruthless, which we see when a woman isn’t working up to his standards and he physically assaults her.
A detective Lichtenstein (Milton Ross) wants to get to the bottom of what Blizzard is planning. All they know is that he’s making a bunch of hats and he can’t put together what the reason is. Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) is a detective who is assigned to work for this criminal and get as close as she can.
Blizzard is also keeping an eye on the career of the doctor that disfigured him. He now has a doctor he is mentoring in Dr. Wilmot Allen (Kenneth Harlan) as well as a daughter Barbara (Claire Adams). The two are set to be married, but she is resisting. She wants to be an artist and this bothers both her father and fiancé.
Our villain has come up with a plan to pull off the biggest heist San Francisco has ever seen and make him a de facto ‘king’ as well as get his revenge for what happened to him as a boy. It is put into motion when Barbara wants to make a sculpture of Satan after the fall. Blizzard makes it that he’s the only model for it, but with the rage he harbors, this could be the masterpiece she needs.
Now I do have to say, much like a lot of films from this era, I’ve come to notice that we don’t see a lot of movies that are based off original ideas. Not to say that we don’t get their own takes on it, but there’s either mythology or books being the basis and this one is no different. This is from a pulp novel by Gouverneur Morris. I’m sure it would be pretty difficult to find, but now that I’ve seen this movie, I’m curious as how much of it taken from it and how much was the movie doing a bit of its own thing. Regardless, we do explore some interesting ideas here.
The first aspect I want to look at is the case of Blizzard. I don’t recall if it really says what the accident that happened to him as a child, but he is disfigured when the doctor takes his legs. This is medical malpractice, which we still see today, but what really bothers me is that the doctors lie and cover for each other. Not only that, the boy is told that he is lying so it is hard for me to fault him for being as resentful as he is and blaming them like he does. He has a legit point. It is also intriguing that this is the first movie I can remember actually seeing what Chaney looked like and he wasn’t a bad looking guy. He could do a lot with his facial expression to make himself look hideous like they needed for this role.
This movie also looks misogyny in an interesting light. I like that Rose is a detective here, pretty interesting thing for the 1920s. She infiltrates Blizzard’s gang. Lichtenstein doesn’t want to ask her to do it, knowing it is dangerous. What I don’t like though is that she immediately falls in love with him. I will give some leeway as she is seeing the man that he actually was underneath. The way he plays the piano softens her up. I also didn’t like that Dr. Allen telling Barbara she needs to give up her dream of being an artist to be a housewife. I get it is the times, but it is problematic to me in this modern time.
There’s also an intriguing look at malpractice and the ‘old boy’s club’. Dr. Ferris is scolded by his mentor, but instead of ruining his life as a promising new doctor he covers. This ruins the life and makes Blizzard into the man that he becomes. Losing his legs shouldn’t ruin his life, but in the era it did. I just don’t like that Dr. Ferris seems to get away with it and the covering it up bothered me.
Moving this to the pacing, I really didn’t have any issues there. I never really found myself bored and there are a few different times that it hooked me in to figure out what is going to happen next. The first bit is what Blizzard is planning with all of these hats. Then why does he have this secret room in the basement and what is it for? There’s an interesting duality with religion in that this amputating of his legs is the equivalent to the fall of Satan. I’ve laid out my issues, but the ending I didn’t necessarily expect and I liked that.
The acting in movies like this is over the top, but you need to expect that. These are probably all stage actors and without sound, it is hard to convey your feelings. Clary was fine as the doctor who really does get away with doing something really horrible and ruining this kid’s life. Chaney is amazing as the villain. I love that he plays it so tragic and can do so much with facial expressions. Ross is fine as well as Terry. I just didn’t like how she was written to fall in love as quickly as she did. Harlan and Adams were also fine, but there’s a bit of misogyny with him. I’d say the cast rounded this out for what was needed regardless of my slight issues.
Taking this next to the effects, the cut of the film I watched was on YouTube. I would like to see a much better restoration than this one as it was rough. This movie doesn’t do a lot in the way of effects aside from making Blizzard look like a double amputee. I love how dedicated Chaney was, but read that he would tie his legs and put on the harness to make this look like it did. It was extremely painful and caused some really horrible damage. It makes sense he looks as angry at times as he does. The cinematography is pretty basic and I expect that from early cinema.
The last thing to cover was I didn’t really care for the version I saw’s soundtrack. It was just one song played on loop. It did fit at times, but others it really didn’t. It is hard to fault the movie for this, so I would like to revisit this movie with a different soundtrack to see if that effects how it feels. I did think the one I saw worked, just not everywhere.
Now with that said, this movie does do some really interesting things with the story and the concept. I really like the character of Blizzard and what drop him to be the man that he is. I think it really does explore some interesting ideas like malpractice, nurture to development of a criminal as well as misogyny. I think the acting, especially from Chaney, was good. I never found myself bored. We don’t get a lot in the way of effects, but we also don’t need them. The soundtrack was too repetitive so I would like to seek a different one out. I would rate this as above average overall and could go up with another viewing.
My Rating: 7.5 out of 10