Blizzard, deranged from a childhood operation in which both his legs were perhaps needlessly amputated after an accident, becomes a vicious criminal, and eventually mob leader of the San Francisco underworld. Out for revenge against the surgeon who performed his operation, he undergoes brain surgery which has a chance of altering his anti-social behavior. Written by
Doug Sederberg <email@example.com>
Lon Chaney (as Blizzard) is the underworld lord and master of San Francisco, despite a striking disability - he has no legs. Mr. Chaney's "Blizzard" was, as a boy, a "victim of San Francisco traffic", and had his legs amputated above the knees, after an accident. Moreover, the amputations were unnecessary; they were needlessly preformed by young, inexperienced Charles Clary (as Dr. Ferris); Mr. Clary also leaves a brain contusion untreated. As a boy, Chaney hears an older, experienced doctor scold Mr. Clary on the unnecessary procedure; but, they cover up the crime, and dismiss the young amputee's protests as delusions, caused by ether.
Twenty-seven years later, the powerful crime lord decides to enact his terrifying revenge on the doctor who cut off his legs. Cheney answers a newspaper ad posted by Clary's daughter Claire Adams (as Barbara Ferris); she is a sculptress, looking for someone to model Satan, for her bust:
"WANTED -- Model to pose for statue of 'Satan After the Fall.' If you think you look like Satan, apply at studio of Barbara Ferris, 32 Institute Place. 8284"
The Satanic-looking Chaney is the perfect candidate to sit for the young woman; and, Ms. Adams welcomes him into her art studio, unaware (yet) of his unfortunate association with her father. Meanwhile, Cheney's underworld operation is being infiltrated by a spy; lawman Milton Ross (as Lichtenstein) has sent his best undercover agent, Ethel Grey Terry (as Rose), to gets the goods on Chaney. He is especially interested in why Chaney has his "show girls" making thousands of hats
"The Penalty" has a noticeable degree of implausibility, as do many films; and, it does become make the film more than a little distracting, at times. Yet, Chaney's performance is so commanding, and so thoroughly enjoyable, it's really pointless to list faults. The film works on the strength of Lon Chaney's performance. Director Wallace Worsley, photographer Donovan D. Short, and art director Gilbert White contribute to the master, by giving the film a great, atmospheric look.
Among the supporting players, James Mason (as Frisco Pete) is easily the standout. Young Edouard Trebaol (as Bubbles) is also well-employed, and natural, alongside the high degree of emoting present amongst the adults. Trebaol memorably re-teamed with Chaney in "Oliver Twist" (they were "Fagin" and "The Artful Dodger"). Interestingly, in the original Gouveneur Morris novel, "Bubbles" had an expanded role, which eventually revealed him to be the son of "Blizzard". That subplot would have added greatly to this film, further contrasting cruelty and humanity; and, of course, recalling the boy "Blizzard", and his earlier loss. It would have also confirmed the adult Chaney's obvious sexual prowess (note how women kneel down to play Chaney's pedals has he tickles the ivories).
Whatever its faults, "The Penalty" set the standard for the expertly performed and extremely successful Lon Chaney role - grotesque, anguished, sympathetic, and/or deformed. It started here. Give yourself a penalty if you pass up this Chaney classic.
********** The Penalty (11/15/20) Wallace Worsley ~ Lon Chaney, Ethel Grey Terry, Claire Adams, Jim Mason
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