Friday 20 March 2020

A Centenary of Fantastic Films - 1920 #1 - The Penalty (USA: Dir Wallace Worsley)

The first of an intermittent series of posts about 'fantastic' films reaching their centenary. DEoL takes a look at The Penalty one hundred years after its original release. There's a link to the movie at the bottom of the page.

Born in 1878 in New York, Wallace Ashley Worsley was a stage turned screen actor, who after appearing in front of the camera in four movies turned his attention to directing. The Penalty was his sixth credit; sadly most of his preceding films, like so many silent movies, are now lost.

Based on a 1913 serialised novel by the US author Gouverneur Morris (the great grandson of the American Founding Father of the same name), The Penalty was adapted - and fundamentally changed - for the screen by Charles Kenyon.

A year previously Leonidis (Lon) Chaney, a former stage actor, had landed the role as a contortionist who passes himself off as a man with a disability, calling himself 'The Frog', in George Loane Tucker's The Miracle Man, a movie now lost save for a few fragments. This was the first time that Chaney had experimented with manipulations of his body for film roles, and was to be a hallmark of his on screen appearances from here on in, but one should not forget that he was an actor first; in fact The Miracle Man was designed as a showcase for its lead actor Thomas Meighan, but it was Chaney that audiences remembered.

Watching Chaney in The Penalty leaves you full of admiration for his sacrifice and astonishment at the depth of his very natural acting (not something many silent movie actors could be accused of). He plays Blizzard, king of the underworld (we later learn that this is a name he gave himself to obliterate the person who he used to be). As a boy, he suffered a terrible medical error when a surgeon, Dr Ferris (Charles Clary) amputated both of his legs following an accident, a mistake for which, shockingly, he was not struck off, because his colleague covered up for him; an interaction which the boy witnesses, and unsuccessfully tries to warn his parents about.

27 years later, Blizzard's home is San Francisco, and specifically the Barbary Coast area, a den of iniquity which sprung up during the Californian gold rush of 1849. A prostitute named Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) has been stabbed by Frisco Pete (James Mason), whom Blizzard protects, having given the order for her death. The police are in Blizzard's pay and therefore don't investigate the death.

Lon Chaney strapping himself in for his
role as 'Blizzard' in The Penalty
Lichtenstein of the Federal Secret Service (Milton Ross), who tracks Blizzard's every move, wants to know why he has pulled all of his working girls off the streets and got them making hats. He suggests that one of his operatives, Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) should go undercover and infiltrate Blizzard's setup. He warns her that she risks a fate worse than death in so doing but she says it's all in a day’s work.

Dr. Ferris now has a daughter, Barbara (Claire Adams) who wants to pursue a career as a sculptress, much to the annoyance of her father and Ferris's colleague Dr Wilmot Allen (Kenneth Harlan) who is in love with her. She is working on a piece called 'After the Fall of Satan' and places an ad in the paper for Satan lookie likies. Guess who applies? Yep, you're right. And guess who uses their henchmen to scare off all the other possibles so that Blizzard gets the gig? Right again. For this is part one of the plan: for Blizzard to seek revenge on Dr Ferris via his daughter whom he plans to marry!

Meanwhile Rose, trusted by Blizzard because she's really good at moving the pedals on his piano while he plays, is left to her own devices in his home while he's off standing in for Satan; she starts snooping around and discovers, behind a secret panel, steps leading down to a fully equipped operating room and a well stocked arsenal. And herein lies the second part of the plan: to mobilise his forces to attack and loot the City (having diverted all of the police to carefully arranged skirmishes in the suburbs) and, while getting rich quick, to con Dr Ferris into grafting Wilmot's legs on to him! "They will be very becoming!" he cackles.

Ultimately none of these things come to pass. Barbara does sort of fall for Blizzard (as does Rose, in a very bad example of Stockholm syndrome at work) - "You've made him what he is" Barbara accuses her father. Our legless fried does manage to blackmail Dr Ferris to operate on him, but the operation is not the expected one. It seems that Ferris finds a contusion on Blizzard's brain - the result of the accident all those years ago - and removes it: this has the effect of removing all traces of evil from him, and making him pledge to undo his evil handiwork. United in love, Rose and Blizzard sit at the piano, only to have one of Blizzard's henchmen shoot him through an open window for fear he will betray them. And the finished sculpture is observed to have a face which combines "an evil mask of a great soul."

Worsley uses different techniques to tell this story; there's flashbacks to Blizzard's past, future dreams (the looting of the City), cross cutting and tracking shots on vehicles. Kenyon's adaptation wisely discards many characters from the source material and concentrates on Blizzard.

There are some big themes at work in The Penalty, not least of which is the capacity for people to choose whether they direct all their energies into being a force for good or evil; the Satan sculpture represents this, and Blizzard's love of music, which at one point is the only thing that stops him killing with his bare hands - his playing is the only time in the film when he needs the assistance of another person. Blizzard's obsession with regaining his legs to restore his place as a fully functioning human is also fascinating, on one occasion referring to himself as a "cripple." His dialogue is littered with his need to be whole again: "And I shall walk a new walk," he declares at one point, "and for my mangled years the City shall pay me with the pleasures of a Nero and the powers of a Caesar!" Also; "What an adorable pair of legs. I gave mine to science!"

Chaney’s performance is nothing short of astonishing, combining nuance with physical abnormality and sometimes almost superhuman strength (as in the scene where he uses his hands to climb some rungs in the wall in order to spy on people unobserved). For the role Chaney's legs were bent completely back and tied in place: his knees were covered with buckets and leather straps, and adjustments were made to the size of his costume to compensate for the arrangement of his limbs. It's an amazing piece of acting, his intensity surely heightened by the pain endured - by all accounts he could only act for ten minutes at a time in the position, and sustained permanent injuries to his knees as a result.

Although now lost, the original release of the film included footage of Chaney without makeup, walking around, to remind the audience that Blizzard was not real. What a great testament to an actor, and what a great film, which would act as Chaney's calling card for bigger and better roles, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 (which Worsley also directed, and Rupert Julian's The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

You can watch The Penalty here!

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