Claire Adams and Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)


(director: Wallace Worsley; screenwriters: Charles Kenyon/Philip Lonergan/based on the novel by Gouverneur Morris; cinematographer: Don Short; editors: J.G. Hawks/Frank E. Hull; cast: Lon Chaney (Blizzard), Ethel Grey Terry (Rose), Charles Clary (Dr. Ferris), Claire Adams (Barbara Ferris), Cesare Gravina (Art Instructor), Claire Adams (Barbara Ferris), Milton Ross (O’Hagan), Doris Pawn (Barbary Nell), Jim Mason (Frisco Pete), Kenneth Harlan (Dr. Wilmot Allen), Milton Ross (Lichtenstein); Runtime: 72; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Samuel Goldwyn/Rex Beach; Kino Video; 1920-Silent)
“Somewhat interesting for historical reasons and for Chaney’s memorable performance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Wallace Worsley (“The Ace of Hearts”) directs this overly melodramatic crime thriller that is saddled with an outrageous plot and tosses in its Red Scare bit (historically there was a Red Scare in America in 1919 and the film takes advantage of the paranoia it caused among the public). But the film almost overcomes all that nonsense by the powerful performance of Lon Chaney. It’s the coming out party for Lon Chaney, as he proves he can be a star in this business and is willing to go to extremes by playing deformed characters and making them bizarre. This is the film where he caught the public’s attention and showed the studio he’s not a supporting actor but someone who can carry a picture. He played the role of a double amputee and to make it look convincing had both of his lower legs tied back and used crutches cut in half to walk on his kneecaps. He said it was so painful that he could only have his legs tied back for a few minutes at a time, but still ended up with permanent back problems.

The man who was to become San Francisco’s boss of the underworld and took the name Blizzard (Lon Chaney), was hit as a youngster by an auto and a young inexperienced Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary) unnecessarily amputated both legs at his knee leaving him as a cripple. He heard the doctor’s boss chew him out for his mistake then lie to his parents, saying it was necessary to amputate to save his life (you know, the old story of professional coverup). This left him embittered, and he dedicated his life to serving his dark side and getting revenge on the doctor. He gets a chance when he poses for a statue of Satan that Ferris’s sculptress daughter Barbara (Claire Adams) is making, and lures her arrogant and insensitive fianc√© Dr. Wilmont Allen (Kenneth Harlan), an assistant surgeon to her father, now recognized as the best surgeon in the city, to his apartment in the Barbary Coast. Blizzard then lures Ferris to the apartment to amputate Wilmont’s legs and graft them onto him. Wouldn’t you know, during the surgery Ferris doesn’t follow Blizzard’s insane request but operates on his head where he takes out a contusion and this removes what was making Blizzard do evil all these years. Meanwhile Blizzard’s gang is in the middle of a madcap scheme to flood the outskirts of the city with 10,000 disgruntled foreigners, armed and wearing the same kind of straw hat, whom the lawmen describe as Reds. After setting off a bomb blast to draw all the police away from the heart of the city, the real aim of the plan goes into action. That’s where Blizzard’s boys loot the city. The police have assigned their best operative Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) to work inside Blizzard’s house making hats and report to them what he’s up to. But her accomplice, who waits in the street under her barred window, is killed by one of the gang after she passes him a note about Blizzard’s plans. The only thing is that Rose actually fell in love with the way Blizzard can play a classical piano, as she got to know his creative artistic side when she had to push down the pedals for him since he couldn’t reach that far and heard how in touch with the music he was when he played. Since the operation leaves him as a good guy, no longer with evil impulses, they marry. But bliss doesn’t last long, as Blizzard’s former gang figures they can’t trust him anymore and come after him.

The film is somewhat interesting for historical reasons and for Chaney’s memorable performance, but even though it follows along the Fritz Lang set-up for Dr. Mabuse it soon disintegrates into the realm of the absurd and brings almost everything down with such an unbelievable and risible last act. Lang would have never let the film turn into such hogwash.


REVIEWED ON 10/17/2006 GRADE: C+