This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – The Penalty (1920)

The Great War (1914-1918) left countless scars, both apparent and hidden, among the Lost Generation. The conflict slaughtered men on an unprecedented scale. Yet as the weapons technology which dismembered young men had advanced, so too did the medicines used to treat the injured. Whereas gangrene would often finish the work that a bullet or bomb had begun, soldiers now stood a chance of surviving their injuries at the cost of their limbs, their teeth, or even their face. The U.S., which only entered the war after years of fighting had already claimed countless lives in Europe, could count more than 4,000 amputations. At first these returning amputees were viewed as heroes, yet as the costs of long term pensions and welfare assistance began to worry government officials, efforts were put forth to re-enter these so-called “war cripples” into the workforce as quickly as possible. The American Red Cross founded organizations such as the Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men in New York, which worked to get prosthetic limbs for these young men and to get them the necessary job training. For various reasons these efforts were largely unsuccessful, but nevertheless the public could not deny the presence of these disfigured men, and the horrific reminders of that tragic, senselessly violent conflict.

American Red Cross. Future Ship Workers—A One-Armed Welder, 1919. Halftone poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (182.01.00)
American Red Cross. Future Ship Workers—A One-Armed Welder, 1919. Library of Congress.

Whereas German Expressionism focused more upon the psychological costs of the war, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, American post-war cinema, which largely shunned the supernatural and leaned more towards Romantic realism, dealt more directly with the obvious physical costs of the conflict. There is no argument that the actor who most embodied these examinations of physical horror, both figuratively and literally, in the 1920s was Lon Chaney.

1920’s The Penalty is considered Chaney’s breakout role, and it is his first starring one. The plot, based on the 1913 novel of the same name by pulp writer Gouverneur Morris, revolves around a gangster named Blizzard, played by Chaney, who had his legs mistakenly amputated as a young boy and who now seeks revenge on the doctor, Ferris, who performed the surgery and lied to cover the error. This plan of retribution includes corrupting Ferris’s daughter, Barbara, and forcing the doctor to cut off the legs of Barbara’s fiancé, Wilmot, and graft them onto Blizzard. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that silent film plots are boring.

It’s easy to see how Chaney became a star after this role. His dedication and screen presence are incomparable. In order to create the illusion of being a double-amputee, Chaney devised a harness made of buckets and leather, where his knees sat in the buckets and the leather straps pulled his lower legs back. The actor was wiry, and to compensate for the thick legs he padded his chest and arms, making him look like a hulking bruiser. The effect is shockingly realistic and Chaney sells it completely. It was also extremely painful and he could only wear the harness for up to twenty minutes at a time before the pain became unbearable. The studio doctors cautioned him against it but the man was dedicated entirely to his craft, and he would suffer problems with his knee muscles afterward. It would not be the last time he was physically damaged in pursuit of his art, though it can be difficult at times to distinguish fact from Hollywood promotional fiction when it comes to the tortures it is said Chaney endured. The effect, however, is entirely convincing, and Chaney is even able to closely imitate the illustrations by Howard Chandler Christy of Blizzard which were found in the 1913 novel.

The Penalty 1913 illustration.
Illustration by Howard Chandler Christy, from the 1913 novel.

In addition to his impressive illusion, Chaney’s acting is filled with primal aggression. Even as an amputee he is intimidating, a dominant force of nature in every scene. Blizzard’s criminal hideout is filled with pegs, ropes, and various contraptions that allow him to move about independently, and Chaney uses them with the graceful ease of a man who has had to rely on such things for a lifetime. The other actors do a capable job but always pale in comparison when he is in the frame. This is wholly Chaney’s picture.

The Penalty 1920 still
Lon Chaney, force of nature.

The direction here by a talented Wallace Worsley, who had been wounded in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and who would go on to direct Chaney in A Blind Bargain (1922) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), is also quite good and the editing moves the pace along nicely. The film breaks away from the trappings of the stage and uses cut scenes to allow the viewer to be at two places at once. The cinematography and lighting are also beautiful, particularly in a sequence of scenes where a female undercover agent named Rose is searching Blizzard’s secret underground tunnels. The film also pushed the boundaries of acceptability at the time, featuring drug addicts knifing women and a nude model, things which would have not been allowed in the later years of the Hays Code.

The script is, for the most part, quite good, and improves upon the melodrama of the book. A motif of Satan’s fall from grace runs throughout and there are some choice lines uttered by the characters, such as when Blizzard states, as he plays the piano while a girl he wants to kill pushes the instrument’s pedals expertly, “I can murder anything but music.” Chaney’s acting is spotlighted in this scene as he goes from murderous rage to musical euphoria to contemplation and regret. And then there is this great line: “Don’t grieve for me, dear – death interests me.” The plot is often dark and makes one who loves the macabre excited to see where the story is heading.

The Penalty 1920 gif

And that’s when it falls apart. The tension and menacing story that builds for the first 80 minutes is suddenly, well, amputated in favor of a deus ex machina that leads to a sappy redemption story. The last ten minutes are unrealistic, hokey, and sour a lot of what had come before.

There are other elements that do not age well. Modern women will not appreciate Wilmot when he says to Barbara, as he tempts her away from her art, “True women need love, a home, children” – and they will certainly not appreciate the female character who then immediately concedes to marrying such a man. Barbara is a talented artist and both Wilmot and Dr. Ferris treat her as a miscreant for not giving it up to make babies. The more Wilmot was on screen the more I looked forward to seeing his legs sawed off. Blizzard is a villain, but he’s more sympathetic to a modern audience than these chauvinists. And before such criticism is dismissed due to the era in which it was made, it should be remembered that women were highly active in film throughout the 1910s (Mary Pickford co-founded United Artists in 1919) and many female characters were written as being strong and counter to the preceding Victorian mold, being independent and sometimes even saving the men. The Gibson Girls and the New Women were popular models for womanhood, emphasizing independence and education among females. This was also an era when film was more influenced by the sexually egalitarian world of the stage. After WWI, however, this began to change as movie budgets increased and the world of finance – a decidedly male world at that time – became more assertive. I can’t help but see a parallel between Barbara’s artistic impulse being suppressed and the time when women were beginning to be pushed out of the artistic realm of film. There was promise in the role of the undercover female agent, Rose, who at first is fearless and strong-willed before the character inexplicably becomes emotionally driven, swooning as a lovesick mess and bowing to the machismo of Chaney’s Blizzard.

And this is admittedly nitpicky to mention, but we also get an odd “sissy” archetype cameo that has no bearing on the plot. Such an archetype was already well known to audiences of 1920 even though it would not see its heyday until the 1930s. There isn’t much to say here other than that its inclusion solely provides an opportunity for Wilmot to bully one of Barbara’s artistic friends and solidify his alpha-male status. I’m not sure if we’re meant to dislike Wilmot for this or cheer him.

Attention should also be paid to the depiction of the handicapped in this film. Chaney’s Blizzard is clearly capable and self-reliant, but people react with distaste when they first see him as a cripple. In the pre-war novel, such sentiments are magnified and can say a lot about people’s sensibilities at the time, with lines such as, “Some pitied him because he was a cripple; others, upon suddenly discovering that he had no legs, were shocked with a sudden indecent hatred of him,” or “She forgot that he was a cripple, a thing soured and wicked.” Wilmot says of Blizzard that he “isn’t a man. He’s a gutter-dog, a gargoyle, half a man,” and after railing about his criminality goes on to add, “And at that – good God, you might stand it, if he was a whole man! But he isn’t. It’s horrible! He has no legs – and you want to stamp on him till he’s dead.” Such reactions to Blizzard are tempered in the film, though not entirely absent. To Chaney’s credit, though Blizzard is a killer, the actor manages to convey sympathy and understanding to the crime boss’s personal plight and his feelings of inadequacy. One can only imagine how Chaney’s depictions would have affected those veterans just returned from Europe only two years before, and would have “spoke suggestively of the impotent rage of maimed war veterans who were being assimilated back into society in unprecedented numbers” (Skal 65). It would not be the first amputee Chaney would effectively portray, and “although he never appeared in a movie in which his disfigurement was blamed on battle, his physical and mental victimization in story after story clearly struck a chord in this post-war audience” (Haberman 118). His later famous characters would also serve as ghostly reminders of the war, with Quasimodo and The Phantom both resembling the thousands of facially scarred veterans seen by bystanders in the Armistice Parades.

The Penalty 1920 advertisement
Advertisement for The Penalty (1920)

Finally, a few words must be said about Lon Chaney. He is without a doubt one of the greatest actors of all time and any fan of horror should be proud to count him among our disrespected pantheon. He was born to deaf and mute parents and learned from the start the importance of pantomime while cultivating an intense empathy for those who were different, which would no doubt affect the roles he chose and the way he chose to play them. He was considered a premier actor of his day and a pioneer in the field of make-up effects, even writing the 1929 entry for the subject in the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was very private, seldom giving interviews, and stayed out of Hollywood drama, preferring to entertain close friends at his home and spend time with his family. Unfortunately, he would pass away from cancer in 1930, perhaps from a flake of fake snow that lodged into his lungs while filming. Of course, most horror fans will know his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., who would play the title role in The Wolf Man in 1941 and in several sequels after.

Yet do a Google search for the best silent film actors and you’ll be unlikely to find him on a Top Ten” list. When people think of the silent era, they often think of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton’s stone-faced stoicism, men who finely crafted their personas and characters over many years, or a charismatic romantic like Rudolph Valentino. They were geniuses, absolutely, and what they achieved deserves reverence and remembrance. But Chaney took the opposite road, morphing himself into different characters continuously, becoming known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” unrecognizable behind makeup that still has the power to shock and awe. Perhaps because of this and his untimely passing at the dawn of “the talky” the general public has largely forgotten him. Of course, being an icon of horror means an artist will rarely receive the recognition they deserve from those outside the genre.

When I saw The Phantom of the Opera for the first time as a young man I was stunned by him, and in The Penalty Chaney gives all indication of the magic he would put to film in the decade to come. The final ten minutes of the film disappoint me, but Chaney never could.

Grade: C+

Works Cited

Haberman, Steve. Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Film. Midnight Marquee Press, 2003.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Faber and Faber, Inc., 1993.