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The Penalty
Savant Blu-ray
Special Edition Review

The Penalty
Kino Classics
1920 / B&W with color tints / 1:37 silent Aperture / 87 min. / Street Date October 23, 2012 / 29.99
Starring Lon Chaney, Ethel Grey Terry, Claire Adams, Charles Clary, Kenneth Harlan .
Donovan D. Short
New Music Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Written by Charles Kenyon, Gouverneur Morris from his novel
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Directed by Wallace Worsley

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

How often are we surprised to find how much some picture from the 1930s, '40s or even 1950s has deteriorated, or been dulled by the lack of good printing elements? It therefore is very pleasant to see that this Lon Chaney picture has survived in excellent shape, with no extraordinary restoration beyond a straight HD transfer to video. The Penalty was released in 1920, ten years after he started making films. Already an all-purpose actor, Chaney shot to star prominence through roles that required skilled pantomime aided by highly publicized makeup illusions and sometimes-shocking physical contortions. Audiences believed that Chaney's legs were twisted and paralyzed in 1919's The Miracle Man. In The Penalty, Chaney pulled off a masterstroke of theatrical illusion imitating a double amputee. I was as if he were able to twist his body into whatever shape he wished.

As documented by author David J. Skal, the years immediately post- WW1 publicized the mutilations of the war wounded, a theme that found its way into classic horror pictures and the illusion-makeup portfolio of actor Lon Chaney. Although the double amputation that motivates the main character is not a war injury, it surely reminded viewers of maimed war wounded living on pensions. A number of Chaney's perversely themed films would center on men scarred, paralyzed or mutilated, seemingly as an externalization of damaged aspects of their personalities.

The Penalty plays as if it were written by a social critic. In a rough section of San Francisco, petty racketeer Blizzard (Long Chaney) runs a sweatshop, and terrorizes the impoverished women who work for him. His assistants are a vicious thug and a dope addict, who are easy to control. The extraordinary thing about Blizzard is that both of his legs were amputated above the knee when he was a child. He conducts all of his business walking hobbling about on leather stumps, and is so feared that nobody considers his handicap to be a weakness.

Blizzard is finalizing a demented plan to loot a section of the city by diverting the attention of the police with snipers and terror bombs, followed by a major riot incited by his paid provocateurs. After Blizzard kills one spy sent to infiltrate his organization, a federal investigator assigns the brave Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) to the case. She poses as one of Blizzard's workers, and becomes his favorite assistant because she helps him play the piano so well. Against her better judgment, Rose finds herself falling in love with Blizzard, a sentiment that Blizzard reciprocates!

Blizzard is also working on another twisted scheme. He knows that the doctors Ferris and Allen (Charles Clary & Kenneth Harlan) made a mistake when they amputated his legs, and he's determined to exact a grotesque revenge. Ferris' grown daughter Barbara (Claire Adams), a struggling sculptress, advertises for a model to pose for a statue of the Devil. The scowling Blizzard easily gets the job. Once he has won Barbara's confidence, he plans to make use of the new surgery he's built at his secret hideout -- to cut off the legs of the men who maimed him.

The Penalty is quite a surprise -- Wallace Worsley's polished direction is better than some of Chaney's later, more famous pictures. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a fairly unengaging telling of the Hugo story that hasn't survived in a good print; we watch it for Chaney's performance alone. The Phantom of the Opera has classic scenes of terror but yet is just as unevenly directed. So it's a surprise to find that The Penalty, made five years earlier, is such a tightly knit, satisfyingly exciting thriller.

The story takes an understandably dated approach to the problems of the big city. Blizzard exploits human weaknesses, terrorizing his working slaves and controlling his dope-addicted assistant with drugs. Society is not badly organized; grotesque monsters like Blizzard are to blame. Legitimate political protest is hogwash: the "Reds" that Blizzard's henchman can organize to start riots are anarchistic malcontents, nothing more. At one point Blizzard explains his diabolical plan to tear San Francisco apart for his own gain, and we see his gleeful vision of bombs exploding and policemen being murdered. Revolution is just an excuse for Blizzard's thievery. Think of it: this movie was made in 1920, in the middle of the trumped-up anti-socialist anti-immigrant purges of "Reds" and the infamous Sacco & Vanzetti debacle. Outrageous exaggeration that supports the majority bias is not considered propaganda.

All this misanthropy is Blizzard's wish for revenge against a world that has done him wrong. It isn't enough that the well-meaning but blundering doctors should suffer; Blizzard wants to destroy the doctor's innocent daughter as well. An excellent actor, Chaney convinces us that he's totally committed to hate, while at the same time he exhibits strong emotions for both Rose and Barbara. Scenes of Rose on her hands and knees operating the foot pedals while Blizzard plays the piano, make their relationship seem strange indeed. Rose submits to indignities and Blizzard refrains from murdering her, even when he discovers that she is a federal agent. A bitter character with very human motivations, Blizzard generates Sympathy for the Devil.

The original author Governeur Morris received major billing on posters for The Penalty, so somebody was taking his philosophy very seriously. The ending (too big of a spoiler) carries the relationship between villainy and social responsibility a step further, reversing Blizzard's personality in a way that reminds us of A Clockwork Orange.  1

Chaney's amazing makeup jobs have become the stuff of legend, and we marvel at the way the leather harness-rig he wears in The Penalty binds his legs so convincingly. I think the illusion is helped by factors not immediately apparent, such as a suit that raises his apparent waistline so that his folded legs don't really fill the leather 'stumps' all the way to the knees. More disturbing is the idea that he'd have to twist his feet to make his toes turn in at his rump instead of stick out behind -- a carefully designed coat helps disguise that. No matter what 'cheats' Chaney may have devised, it must have been terribly painful for him to walk around, climb stairs, etc., on those stump legs. We're fascinated now, so audiences 92 years ago were surely flabbergasted. Chaney must have come off as some kind of Yogi, or even a shape-shifter.

Kino Classics' Blu-ray of The Penalty is a welcome surprise. The film has the expected minor damage here and there, mostly in the form of little wear marks. But it is remarkably intact, stable, and photographically handsome -- a sharp image with original contrast values. Plenty of 1930 early talkies don't look nearly this good. The Mont Alto Picture Orchestra provides a lively, well-recorded music score... this release makes for a great silent movie viewing experience.

On a pleasing video extra, biographer Michael F. Blake conducts an examination of Lon Chaney's makeup cases and the actual amputee rig used in The Penalty, which are now part of a museum collection. Chaney appears as a villainous inside man in a gold robbery in the 1-reel Universal short western, By The Sun's Rays, another extra. Original MGM trailers for The Big City and While the City Sleeps make use of the copy line, "The Man of a Thousand Faces." And the only known existing footage from The Miracle Man shows part of Chaney's performance as a fake cripple, being cured in a faith healing scam. His mime performance creates the illusion that his bones are straightening themselves inside his body -- it's genuinely impressive.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Penalty Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio: Mont Alto Moving Picture Orchestra track
Subtitles: none
Supplements: 'Video tour' of Chaney's makeup case and double amputee costume; footage from The Miracle Man: trailers from two other Chaney silents; one reel 1914 Chaney western By the Sun's Rays
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 28, 2012


1. (This is a real spoiler, so consider yourself warned:) The last reel effects a complete change of Blizzard's character. He thinks he is forcing the doctor to graft another man's legs to replace his own (nice trick, in 1920). But the doctor remembers that Blizzard also suffered an injury to the head when his legs were damaged. He instead removes a bone placing pressure on the brain. When Blizzard awakes, his personality has changed: he's a gentle, spiritual soul who only wants to spread peace and goodwill. Chaney makes this potentially silly development seem utterly natural - I think because, deep down, we like Chaney's character and want to see him cured. Blizzard's cronies fear his change of heart worse than anything and take steps to eliminate him. The movie promotes the idea that criminal or antisocial tendencies can be remedied through brain surgery... which reminds us of the many 'convenient' lobotomies performed on unlucky people whose behaviors and politics shocked their conservative relatives.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

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