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More than 70 years after his death, Lon Chaney is one of the few actors of the silent screen to continue to attract an audience of younger viewers. His ferocious performance style and the outrageous plots of his films set him apart from his relatively sedate peers.
Produced and released in 1920, The Penalty was a key film in Chaney's career. By that time he had spent years stealing scenes from top-billed actors with his elaborate makeup effects and quirky behavioral flourishes, but he was always relegated to supporting roles. Chaney had played his share of criminals (in films such as The Wicked Darling, 1919) and exploited the malleability of his limbs (The Miracle Man, 1919). But Wallace Worsley's The Penalty was the first film to truly plumb the depths of his diabolism and establish the formula of misshapen anti-heroes that was to define his career, in such classic silents as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Unknown (1927). In The Penalty he is not simply cruel, greedy, or violent. He is a demon who seeks creative ways to release his evil impulses. Even though he is the villain, he is by far the most fascinating and three-dimensional character, according to Variety, "in the midst of a purely mechanistic arrangement of incidents, and surrounded by puppets." Allowed dominion over an entire feature, Chaney made the full transition from versatile character actor into larger-than-life leading man and began his ascent to become the most popular male star in Hollywood in the latter years of the decade.
Set in the underworld of San Francisco's Barbary Coast, The Penalty follows the criminal reign of Blizzard (Chaney), an urban warlord who is engineering nothing less than a complete takeover of the city. His megalomania seems to stem from his physical malformation. As a child, Blizzard was the victim of an auto accident, and subsequently of an irresponsible doctor (Charles Clary), who amputated both of the boy's legs in an unnecessary operation. Nurturing an anti-social grudge through adulthood, Blizzard's plans for world domination include a particular vengeance upon the reckless surgeon: forcing him to perform a leg-grafting operation, using the fiancé of the doctor's naive daughter (Claire Adams) as an involuntary leg donor. Added to the mix is a daring woman detective (Ethel Grey Terry) who infiltrates Blizzard's evil empire, and glancing references to prostitution, drug abuse and the threat of anarchy.
As might be perceived, the narrative structure of The Penalty is wildly melodramatic. In the hands of an ordinary actor, the results would have been farcical, but Lon Chaney possessed the rare, possibly unique ability to make even the most ludicrous plot somehow believable (case in point: the transvestite ventriloquist crime boss of The Unholy Three, 1925). In the Chaney formula of success, the more outrageous the plot, the more compelling the character. He played hunchbacks, phantoms, clowns, amputees and madmen too numerous to list, pushed them to a variety of dramatic extremes, yet managed to endow each of them with a sense of humanity, so that they remain engaging characters... not merely caricatures. Even the maniacal Blizzard is allowed the occasional tender moment, finding release from his mental torment by playing the piano (while one of his female slaves works the pedals he is unable to reach).
Described by Photoplay as "a picture that is about as cheerful as a hanging," The Penalty began production at the Goldwyn Studios on February 7, 1920 and wrapped eight weeks later, at a modest cost of just less than $89,000. Chaney was paid $500 per week for his role, a considerable raise over the paychecks he'd received for his varied supporting roles, but far less than the actor was truly worth. After signing the contract, Chaney reportedly overheard studio manager Abe Lehr tell the casting director they had been prepared to go as high as $1,500 per week. This was one of the earliest indications to Chaney that he was, in fact, star material.
The physical challenges Chaney endured to portray Blizzard are legend in the annals of silent film history. He strapped his ankles to his hips and inserted his knees into specially designed leather stumps, which were then strapped to his body. His bound feet were further concealed by his jacket, which was tailored to hang loose in the rear. Chaney could only wear the stumps for limited amounts of time, and between takes had to quickly have them removed in order to restore circulation in his legs.
For years, it was believed Chaney suffered permanent spinal damage from wearing the apparatus, but this Hollywood myth is unfounded, for Chaney was a very clever illusionist who knew the limitations of his body. Not having to resort to trick props or optical effects, Worsley was free to shoot Chaney from almost any angle, and thus we see unobstructed views of the legless Chaney performing seemingly impossible tasks (walking freely on a tabletop, climbing up a chain ladder using only his arms). The illusion was so convincing that the studio believed the audience would simply assume Chaney the actor had no legs. Upon its original release, the Goldwyn Studio added to the film a brief epilogue (which no longer exists): a shot of Chaney walking down a flight of stairs and smiling at the camera, proving to the audience that he was, in fact, not a double-amputee, but an accomplished contortionist in addition to being a remarkably compelling actor.
Director: Wallace Worsley
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn and Rex Beach
Screenplay: Charles Kenyon and Philip Lonergan Based on the novel by Gouverneur Morris
Cinematography: Don Short
Cast: Lon Chaney (Blizzard), Ethel Grey Terry (Rose), Charles Clary (Dr. Ferris), Claire Adams (Barbara Ferris), Cesare Gravina (Art Instructor).
by Bret Wood