THE PENALTY (1920) – The Dungeon Review!

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I had seen a handful of Lon Chaney films before starting this feature and had four others I wanted to watch before I put together my list of top twenty favourite horror films from the 1920s. Two of these were re-watches that I had seen too long ago to remember details. Bizarrely they all showed up last Monday. The vast majority of the DVDs I watched for this feature came from The Vancouver Public Library which had a phenomenal selection of silent horror films. The only problem with the library is the films are often in abysmal condition. I guess some folks feel they don’t need to treat the property of others with the same respect they would their own. That really sucks for the rest of us and those people are douchebags. I had to re-rent a few of the damaged DVDs through Zip (our version of Netflix). So yeah, I pick up two Lon Chaney films from the library on the way home on Monday and when I checked my mailbox there were another two waiting for me! It is sort of freaky that four Chaney flicks should all enter my life the same day. Eerie. A Blind Bargain, While Paris Sleeps, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and today’s subject review The Penalty. What is even more peculiar is these are all directed by the same man; Wallace Worsley! When I did some homework however it wasn’t really all that peculiar at all; Worsley directed Chaney in at least six films that I could find (Voices of the City (1921) and The Ace of Hearts (1921) were the other two titles). I enjoyed all four of these films but I only intended on reviewing one so I chose my favourite of the quartet. Chances are you will see a couple of those other titles on my top twenty favourites list. The Penalty is adapted from the book by Gouverneur Morris who also wrote the screenplay for the film. Morris’ pop was a statesman and founding father of the United States! I wonder what dad thought of his son writing pulp fiction for a living? He should have been damn proud if you ask me because The Penalty is a rock solid bad-ass crime drama! IMDB lists the film as crime, drama, horror and while I am not really seeing the horror I enjoyed this film so damn much that I am sneaking it in as a genre film anyway.

the penalty

The vast majority of the 1920 horror films I watched have been from Germany and USA. There is no two ways about it, the Germans bitch-slapped the American’s visually speaking. The American’s however certainly know how to tell a story. The Penalty did not wow me with its beauty but it sure as hell impress me with its details! I can not believe the effort that was put in to making Lon Chaney’s character’s environment. Lon Chaney plays a character named Blizzard who is an amputee. Every aspect of his environment has been created to accommodate his legless stature. Pegs used for climbing walls, door knobs lowered, ramps, ladders; even a freaking fireman’s pole has been installed to take him from one floor to another! It is extremely admirable. Chaney goes to great lengths when he plays a character. In The Unknown he plays an armless knife thrower (wrap your head around that) and he not only throws knives with his feet, he plays the guitar and smokes a cigarette effortlessly; like he was actually born that way. In The Penalty he moves about with that same natural ease of a man who has actually been without legs from childhood. It is impossible not to admire an actor who goes to this sort of effort. Chaney’s Blizzard is “lord and master of the underworld” and he is a brutal sonofabitch who is not afraid to rough up the ladies or have someone snuffed out for the most minor of infractions. He isn’t only a mean sonofabitch, he’s an intelligent one. The Penalty focuses on Blizzard’s elaborate plans for revenge. Blizzard should not have been an amputee and he intends on making not only the doctor and his family pay but the entire city. All of San Francisco shall feel the wrath of Blizzard! Bloody Hell! I love how rotten and nasty Chaney is in The Penalty. I have watched several Lon Chaney films over the course of this year, including some outside of the genre and I think Blizzard is one of his best baddies; and the man has played a few. I was unfamiliar with The Penalty before embarking on this 1920s project and I am hugely pleased to have stumbled upon it. If you appreciate a good crime drama with some punch from the silent era you really need to check out Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty.

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The Penalty opens with a prologue. A boy is the victim of a traffic accident and a young Dr. Ferris makes a bad call. The boy has suffered a contusion at the base of his skull and his legs have been badly damaged. Dr. Ferris makes the call to amputate both of the child’s legs above the knee. His mentor is horrified by his decision.

“Good God! You should not have amputated!”
“You’ve mangled this poor child for life!”

The boy overhears this conversation.

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We jump ahead twenty-seven years to San Francisco; the richest city in the Western world.

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Barbary Nell is attacked and killed.

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Blizzard, “lord and master of the underworld” ain’t afraid of no copper.

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Lichtenstein of the Federal Secret Service with Rose one of his top operatives. Lichtenstein has asked Rose if she would be willing to go undercover as one of Blizzard’s employees. Rose accepts the detail. Lichtenstein believes Blizzard is hatching something huge that will put the entire city at risk.

“It means living in that devil’s house til you find out what he is up to.”

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One of Blizzard’s cronies.

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Blizzard has the gals from his dance hall working in his home making hats. Here he is checking in on their handiwork and finds some shoddy workmanship. Chaney roughs one of the dames up good as a lesson to them all. Her co-workers look on in horror.

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This is Blizzard’s flavor of the month. The gals in Blizzard’s favor get the opportunity to peddle while he plays the piano. Feeling bolstered by his plans for revenge and city wide domination he barks;

“And I shall walk as men walk! I shall be the master of a city! And for my mangled years the city shall pay me with the pleasures of a Nero and the powers of a Caesar. But you won’t live to see it if you don’t pedal better!”

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Barbara Ferris; daughter of the aforementioned surgeon Dr. Ferris. Barbara has dedicated her life to art. Here Barbara is pictured with her father’s assistant Dr. Wilmot Allen; who is also her intended.

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Lichtenstein is disappointed that Rose has yet to uncover anything about Blizzard’s plans.

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Blizzard uses a fireman’s pole to move from one floor to another.

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Rose finds Blizzard’s hidden underground lair below the fireplace.

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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.

Blizzard has the perfect “in” to begin enacting his revenge. Who better to pose as the devil than he?

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Blizzard aka “Satan after the fall” in clay form.

“Why do you live in the underworld?

“When Satan fell from Heaven he looked for power in Hell.”

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Rose attempts to send Lichtenstein a note about what she has found in Blizzard’s hidden underground lair. Unfortunately Blizzard intercepts the letter. Blizzard has a bit of a soft spot for Rose on account of her top-notch peddling.

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Blizzard and Dr. Ferris “the now famous surgeon” finally meet.

“I have followed every step of your career and you have indeed profited by your early mistakes.”

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Blizzard’s plan is hatched.

“Your ten thousand foreign malcontents will filter into the city in small detachments.
By fire and riots I shall draw the police and military into the suburbs.”

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Blizzard tells Rose he intercepted her letter. Instead of fearing for her life Rose is relieved as she has bizarrely fallen in love with this most unlovable of men.

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Blizzard has one of those nasty trap doors built-in the floor. He has found himself a nice pair of replacement legs.

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He prepares his “replacement legs” for surgery.

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He blackmails Dr. Ferris into conducting the surgery.

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Blizzard recovering with Rose at his side.

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No spoilers kids. The Penalty ends with the following:

“Fate chained me to evil – for that I must pay the penalty.”

Dungeon Rating: 4.5/5

Directed By: Wallace Worsley

Starring: Lon Chaney, Charles Clary, Doris Pawn, Jim Mason, Milton Ross, Ethel Grey Terry, Kenneth Harlan, Claire Adams

2 Responses to “THE PENALTY (1920) – The Dungeon Review!”

  1. Entertaining post about one of Chaney’s finest films! … And I must comment that your library has a much better selection of flicks than my library.

    You’ve been nominated for a Sunshine Award. Congrats! http://cinematiccatharsis.blogspot.com/2013/11/here-comes-sunshine.html

    • Thanks for the nomination Barry! I LOVE the soundtrack for Repo Man…but I prefer this version a little more… The Modern Lovers…

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