Lon Chaney! Well I don’t know what would have prompted us to watch a Lon Chaney film(!). All the US silents I’ve been watching for a long while have been falling into the category of average-good to my mind. I rate a film as average-good when it is an obviously well crafted film: good costumes, decent acting, some or a lot of cinematic flair etc but doesn’t grab my attention or affections. While not a blockbuster pic like ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’(1923) or ‘The Phantom of the Opera’(1925), ‘The Penalty’(1920) is hugely enjoyable. Easy to follow with a few sub-plots (Blizzard’s a busy man), a bum friendly running time & I wished it would hurry up to find out what was going to happen, rather than because I wanted it to end so I could go to bed. ‘The Penalty’ is a crime thriller like a more modest ‘Spione’ but more fun. I like ‘Spione’ it’s a good silent popcorn film & I would happily recommend it but I enjoyed ‘The Penalty’ slightly more. There’s alot to be said for an economical running time. ‘The Penalty’ may not be the most original film but as I’ve said this is the first american silent I’ve enjoyed in ages.
As ever the bare bones of the plot may be standard but ‘The Penalty’ wins by the original & different elements it brings to its mix. ‘The Penalty’ does have a few aces up its sleeve. Chaney’s crippled character, Blizzard, means there is interesting set dressing, with bars to help him climb the walls to oversee his minions and the double rope and links he and others use to get down in to his secret basement. And there’s the gimmick of Blizzard needing someone to manipulate the peddles of the piano he likes to play, music soothes the savage beast and all that. Blizzard also has a good motivation for why he acts why he does, he doesn’t want to take over the universe just because… As a child his legs were needlessly amputated & he overheard an experienced Dr. telling the Dr. who performed the operation that he had messed up. Then the senior doctor covers up for the young Dr Ferris! Unsurprisingly Blizzard wants revenge for the amputation that ruined his life, his father we are told by inter-title didn’t care for little boys with no legs and also wants to be able to walk with legs again. That’s the first two sub-plots the next two concern what happened after Blizzard’s childhood, as an adult he is now a criminal king-pin of San Francisco. Rose, a secret agent, is sent to discover why Blizzard has taken all his girls out of the dance halls to make hats. As the dance hall looks pretty empty I’d say there must be more money in hats. What will Rose find, will she get caught and what are all the straw hats for? As Rose investigates the plot focuses on Barbara, Dr Ferris’s daughter, who is an artist and won’t get married until she creates a great work of art as you do. To do this she decides she needs a model for a sculpture of Satan after the fall (has she never seen ‘Satan Triumphant’(1917)? clearly not!!!!) and Blizzard fixes it so he is the model and can set into motion his revenge on Dr Ferris. Plus as a bonus bogus medical science, I do like made up medical science in films, though it’s the only false note in the film.
Everyone acted well, Chaney being the most impressive due to his commitment to the role but I felt a bit melancholy watching him. Chaney had to be fit to clamber about using just his arms & take the pain of having his legs bound back & then he lost his fight against cancer. It seems wrong somehow, how arbitrary illness is.
To sum up: One to collapse on to the sofa to and one for silent newbies if anyone wants a recommendation, better than all the talkie films we’ve watched this month (sometimes I wonder why talkies weren’t a passing fad, zzz).
Screengrabs from jackpickfordisaluteyou.