The Penalty (1920)

After being in a car accident a young boy has his legs amputated when they didn’t need to be. Now known as Blizzard (Lon Chaney) has two motives for his life in crime. He wants to take over San Fransisco and wants revenge on Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), the doctor that amputated when he was a child.

Director: Wallace Worsley

Cast: Lon Chaney, Charles Clary, Jim Mason, Ethel Grey Terry, Claire Adams

MPAA Rating: N/A

Run Time: 1hr 30min

Fun Fact: A scene was shot to show at the ending of the film having Lon Chaney walking downstairs to prove that he wasn’t an amputee. This scene is now considered lost.

We have now arrived at the oldest film that I have reviewed so far. This film is over a century old, and my great grandparents might have gone to a theater and seen it. Imagine that. After viewing The Passion of Joan of Arc I was in the mood to watch another silent film. The Penalty is one of those films that I had wanted to watch for years after seeing a DVD cover of it from Kino Lorber. I just never got around to buying a copy of it and didn’t know that the film was in the public domain. The film is widely available on YouTube and the Plex streaming service has it available. I watched it via Plex and was surprised at the quality of it. Sometimes a film that old can have horrible restoration and sound. This version was crisp and clean and had a nice balance between picture and sound.

The wait paid off as I had a great time watching The Penalty. Directed by Wallace Worsley, the film is based off a novel of the same name written by Gouverneur Morris. Morris also wrote the screenplay for the film. I have never read the novel as I didn’t know it was a novel until doing research for this review. I’m now interested in reading the novel (it is also in the public domain) to compare the two. Anyways we get a brisk and well flowing film that always has something interesting going on. While there are two subplots going on, it is easy to follow because they both intertwine with each other nicely. Morris also gives us some great character development and we get to know the major players fairly well. The film is a very character driven film and the important part of getting to know the characters is done to keep the audience invested. We get everything from tense moments of suspense and subtle moments of interactions. This film also took a bit of a risk as well as there is a brief shot of a nude model. It’s brief but at that time it wasn’t something that was shown in films.

Now sometimes I have issues with twist endings. They’re either totally predictable or the film makers can pull it off and captivate the audience. The Penalty has a twist to it, and it caught me on the surprise. I didn’t really see that coming and I give it applause. There is quite a bit of detail throughout the film, and I had to go back and find the clues to the twist. To me that’s the right way to make a twist ending instead of focusing on one thing and making it the complete opposite.

Performance wise The Penalty made Lon Chaney a star. This was before he became the Man of 1000 Faces as this film doesn’t use make up heavily. That doesn’t mean Chaney can’t put on an intense performance. His range of emotion goes from zero to 100 hundred and he pulls it off convincingly. He can go from subtle to full on rage mode and its believable. He portrays Blizzard who as a boy had his legs amputated when they didn’t need to be which leads to his life of crime. In a way you have sympathy for him because he is in constant pain and in an era where someone like him with a disability wasn’t really viewed as a productive member of society, he is a total outcast. Speaking of pain Chaney went through quite a bit of it in a very physical performance. He had to place his knees in leather covered buckets that had his legs tied behind his back. He could only be in that position for ten minutes. He also used padding and an oversized jacket to hide the fact his legs were tied behind his back. Writing all that made my knees hurt. He also suffered from physical damage going against doctor’s advice just to entertain the audience. Talk about dedication to the craft because now we have the technology to use and back then there wasn’t computer imagery.

Like all silent films there are many soundtracks to it. The one used on the Plex version was great. It was piano focused and brought the scenes to life at the right times. When it needed to be softer tone it brought out the right emotion. When it had to be tense it brought those types of scenes to a higher level.

Overall, The Penalty was an entertaining film. There is a bit of everything for everyone and it flows well. I honestly didn’t want it to end and could’ve been even more satisfied if it were over two hours in length. We get moments of intensity and subtle that bend well with each other and we get quite a bit of investment on the characters. The film has many of them and we get a satisfying amount of time seeing events happen through their point of view. Lon Chaney puts on an absolute amazing performance that was very physical as well. This launched him into stardom, and it was only going to get bigger after this. His acting range was spot on, and he gives it his absolute all. There was a reason why Lon Chaney was a legend in the silent era, and I suggest if you haven’t seen his work that you go and check this film out.

Verdict: Hit

Unfortunately, there is no trailer to be found. Most films from that era don’t have one and there wasn’t a fan made one as well.

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