Sunday, January 10, 2010


What would you do if some bumbling young doctor amputated your legs when you were a child? You know he screwed up because his mentor says so in your delirious presence. The old man could tell from a contusion on the base of your skull that you didn't need to lose your legs. It probably sounds to you like a profound misdiagnosis, but what if the elder doctor decides to cover up for his protege and tells your parents that the amputations were necessary, and that they should stop listening to your raving to the contrary?

Apparently the novelist Gouverneur Morris would have become a master criminal, because that's what he had his victim do in his book The Penalty. One hopes that Morris went into more detail (i.e., any) about this rise to power than directors Wallace Worsley and his writers did in the film version, given the automatic, er, handicap a legless young man must have in such a venture. Sure, he may develop the upper body and arm strength of a rabid chimpanzee, but most folks are still going to be able to run away from him after pausing long enough to taunt him for his nom de crime -- "Blizzard." But we haven't yet reckoned about Blizzard's trump card, for Morris has imagined him as a master mind, a charismatic big thinker who just has a power over people. Worsley at least helps us suspend disbelief by casting Lon Chaney as Morris's crippled master.

Chaney was just coming off his breakthrough performance in The Miracle Man, in which his big scene was to contort himself into the shape of a fake cripple and pantomime a miraculous cure. If that film made him a star, The Penalty established his basic persona for the rest of his too-short career. It anticipates Hunchback of Notre Dame (also directed by Worsley) by making Chaney a physical grotesque who becomes a spiritual grotesque due to his rejection by society. It anticipates Phantom of the Opera by giving the grotesque something of the soul of an artist. Blizzard is a brute who controls San Francisco's dance halls and sweatshops and can have people killed at will, but he enjoys playing the piano -- with help from a woman working the foot pedals -- and jumps, metaphorically speaking, at the opportunity to serve as an artist's model for a bust of Satan, showing what we're meant to see as genuine art appreciation in the process. He's a man of gigantic mirths and melancholies, allowing Chaney to run his emotive gamut, and a man of gigantic madness, also, in an all too literal, clinical sense.

This is the kind of boss we all dread, pulling our hair and dropping people who gripe down a trap door. Or is that the kind of boss we all want to be?

The story of the film is that Blizzard's up to something and the police don't know what, except that he's suddenly put his dance-hall girls to work making hats. The force's "most daring operative," a woman named Rose, goes undercover despite her boss's reservations, becoming Blizzard's pedal-pushing paramour while hoping to find out his master plan. She discovers that he's got an arsenal of weapons stored in underground tunnels before he figures out her ruse. But when he calls her in for a piano session, intending to confront her with the evidence of her treachery, her skill on the pedals moves the artist in him to spare her. "I can murder anything but music," he sighs. These two make some kind of music together, because Rose in turn grows reluctant to rat him out, finally embracing him as her Master. Lon Chaney, mind you. Legless. Gangster and potential mass murderer. Apparently an irresistible charisma comes with the master mind toolkit.

Blizzard can't kill Rose because she's doing such a good job servicing his instrument down there.

So what is Blizzard planning? The hats, you see, are going to be the uniform for a small army of "disgruntled foreigners" ("Reds," in fact) that his minions have been forming. On December 2, if I remember his calendar correctly, he's going to set off a bomb in San Francisco. That will signal his men to start shooting cops wherever they find them. This done, they're to converge in the suburbs to draw out the remaining police force. They are only a distraction from the main plan. Anticipating the plot of Die Hard With a Vengeance by 75 years, Blizzard means to sow chaos throughout the city so the central business district (Wall Street in the novel) will be wide open for his men to loot it. As anticipatory flashforwards reveal, he means to lead his army in person, on foot.

Blizzard's apocalypse

What is Blizzard planning? Ever since childhood, he's nursed a grudge against Dr. Ferris, the idiot who took his legs. He's seen Ferris rise to the top of his profession. In the present he sees an opportunity for vengeance when Ferris's daughter Barbara proves to be the sculptor of the Satan bust. Blizzard has the hots for her (that artistic soul of his, again), so she won't be the object of his revenge. Instead, it'll be her boyfriend, Dr. Allen, Ferris's protege and a bit of an ass who's impatient for Barbara to quit this silly art business and be his wife. Before the uprising, Blizzard intends to trap Ferris and force him to perform a legs transplant, removing Allen's limbs for Blizzard's own use. The master criminal is sure it'll work because he's studied Ferris's leg-transplant experiments on apes. And that takes care of how The Penalty anticipates all of Chaney's future work with Todd Browning.

Did I mention that Blizzard is just a little bit insane? Naturally, Ferris figures that out as well. He also realizes that the master criminal is shockingly lacking in survival skills. Blizzard does realize that Ferris is going to have to put him under for this operation, right? Sure, no problem, and you see an expression on Ferris's face that tells you that Blizzard is a dead man.

But I hadn't reckoned upon the Hippocratic Oath, and Blizzard wakes up in bed, still legless but with a bandage on his head. It turns out that Ferris's snap diagnosis of insanity reminded him of that contusion at the base of Li'l Blizzard's skull way back when. With the intuitive genius that cost Blizzard his legs in the first case, Ferris realizes that this contusion is the cause of Blizzard's madness. A little snip, snip, and Blizzard wakes as if from a terrible dream in which he was a demon guilty of hideous crimes. Spiritually guilty, that is, for Ferris assures us that the contusion means that no court will hold poor Blizzard responsible for any of his criminal acts. He is free to go straight, marry Rose (despite her finally ratting him out when she heard of his plan to marry Barbara), improve his wardrobe and play the piano to his heart's content. Very nice -- but isn't this film called The Penalty? Well,...

(Book note: In his new biography of Irving Thalberg Mark A. Viera credits his subject with evolving a star-making formula for Chaney in which the actor is "redeemed in the last reel (p.71). Since Thalberg wasn't at Goldwyn when The Penalty was made, I guess that's yet another way in which this picture anticipates the rest of Chaney's career.)

The supplemental materials on the Kino DVD are designed to prove that the original novel was probably more insane than the finished film. I'll take their word for it, but in all fairness the utter lunacy of this story is what makes it entertaining. Worsley directs in a stark, efficient fashion and knows enough to stand back and let Chaney work.

Lon Sr. is arguably the first cult movie actor and should be the patron saint of them all. Exaggeration is the measure of his absolute commitment to any role. He strives to be an object of terror and an object of pathos simultaneously in his most famous films. Since he's meant to be grotesque, there's no point to subtlety, so Chaney usually wears his (often black) heart on his sleeve, or on one of his many faces. What I sometimes say about later over-the-top actors is literally true of him: he is the special effect of his movies. In The Penalty that means harnessing his legs and fitting his knees into stumps and using his arm strength to climb up a bookshelf in his lair to spy on his hatmakers. It means being both ugly enough and charismatic enough to make himself believable as a model for Satan. It means turning on a dime from cold, killing rage to aesthetic melancholy to the tune of a pantomime piano. Neither now nor in 1920 does anyone watch this movie for a true portrait of crime or a plausible scenario for mass terror. You watch to see Chaney do his thing, and he makes it worth your while. And because he isn't under makeup here, The Penalty, rather than Hunchback or Phantom or the chimerical London After Midnight, may be Chaney's definitive film.


Sam Juliano said...

Actually, Samuel, for me Chaney's greatest performance was in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924; Victor Sjostrom) but I can't argue with your summary judgement here at the conclusion of yet another silent review gem, where you have the performance here in THE PENALTY as the equal or even superior of that he delivered in PANTON, HUNCHBACK or LONDON. It's a persuasive position, bolstered by an excellent appraisal of an underappreciated film.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Sounds like this would make a great double feature with my personal favorite Chaney flick, Tod Browning's THE UNKNOWN. Talk about your special effects--there's a scene in that one where Chaney is acting so hard and so beautifully that I swear to god I can HEAR him; and this in a silent film! Haven't got round to THE PENALTY yet, but I'm definitely going to snag this dvd.

Excellent essay as always! Three thumbs up for Samuel! ;)

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I wouldn't necessarily say that Chaney in The Penalty surpasses his work in Phantom, but I'd still argue for Penalty as a definitive Chaney film because there's no room, as there is in Phantom, to give credit to the makeup. I've only seen Slapped in clips but am inclined to give any Chaney a chance.

Vicar: The Unknown I have seen, and I can imagine Browning calculating that Chaney had already done legless, so the natural topper would be going armless. That and Penalty are two different kinds of weird, but they might well complement each other in tandem.