Lon Chaney’s breakout performance in “The Miracle Man” came in 1919, a year in which he made seven pictures, including his first one with Tod Browning, “The Wicked Darling.” He followed that up with six films in 1920, the first in which he was the top-billed star being “The Penalty.” The mutilated villain Blizzard would set the stage for a long line of deformed and defaced bad men to follow.
The movie opens with a traffic accident. A young is carried to his family’s tenement apartment and a rising young doctor named Ferris is called to attend him. Ferris is certain that the only way to save the boy’s life is to amputate both legs just above the knees. This he does quickly, with the best intentions, before an older and more experienced physician shows up to advise. The older man realizes that the amputations were unnecessary but tells Ferris that he will lie to support the younger man’s diagnosis. The now-legless boy overhears their conversation but when he tries to tell his parents that Ferris admitted to making a mistake, the older doctor says that due to the operation and a possible contusion, the boy merely imagines that he heard Ferris’ confession.
Twenty-seven years later.
The boy has grown into San Francisco’s master criminal, Blizzard. He moves around with the help of crutches, the stubs at the end of his legs covered by thick leather patches. Chaney strapped his legs up behind him, an excruciating contortion that allowed him to film just a few minutes at a time. He also wore an extra-long coat to cover his bent legs.
Law officials have been on Blizzard’s trail for years, but they’ve never been able to pin anything on him. They finally decide to send a female undercover agent named Rose (Ethel Gray Terry) to work for the criminal who, for some reason, has dozens of dance hall girls making straw hats. Rose, seated comfortably and smoking a cigarette in her superior’s office, agrees to accept the assignment.
We see Blizzard in his lair next to the hat-making shop. His current favorite girl is with him. He hops over to the piano to play. Having no legs, the young woman sits on the floor and manipulates the pedals with her hands. Director Wallace Worsley (“Ace of Hearts,” “A Blind Bargain,” “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” all with Chaney) gives us the perfect portrait of domestic sado-masochism.
Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary) is now a successful and high-priced surgeon with a daughter named Barbara (Claire Adams) who is a sculptress. Barbara’s boy friend Wilmot (Kenneth Harlan) wants her to abandon her artistic leanings and marry him. She wants to create a bust of Satan and promises Wilmot that if she cannot pull it off, she will quit.
Blizzard sees an ad in the newspaper inviting men who look satanic to drop by Barbara’s studio. Blizzard, plotting revenge against Ferris through his daughter, shows up and gets the modeling gig.
The idea of avenging an old wrong by visiting some form of torture on the daughter of the offending party will reappear in Chaney’s 1928 collaboration with Tod Browning, “West of Zanzibar.” Perhaps a nation that had recently emerged from The Great War—all wars being a form of taking vengeance on the younger generation for the sins of the older—felt a particular affinity for this plot device. Certainly undamaged survivors of the war could see in Chaney’s multiple prosthetic deformities mirror images of soldiers butchered in Europe before returning home to lives of bitterness and loss.
To complicate Blizzard’s woman problem, Rose, pretending to be a girl of the streets, moves in with him and becomes his new pedal pusher. It doesn’t take her long to discover a hidden basement to Blizzard’s house, one that contains well-stocked operating and recovery rooms.
As Blizzard poses for Barbara he tries to ingratiate himself into her affections. His naturally sardonic appearance and Wilmot’s instinctive distrust of him don’t help, but he finally works himself up to proposing to the young beauty. She recoils in repugnance, rushing to Wilmot for support, and Blizzard leaves the studio more determined than ever to seek revenge.
While this main part of the plot is unfolding, we cut to the police officials who are still trying to figure out what Blizzard is up to with the hat-making. They await a message from Rose, not knowing that one of the gang chief’s henchmen has intercepted it and taken it to his boss.
In a rage, Blizzard informs an underling that he has assembled 10,000 foreign agitators who are prepared to commit a rash of terrorist acts at his command. They will each be wearing identical straw hats so they can recognize each other. They will rampage through the outer streets of the city, breaking and entering, assaulting citizens and shooting policemen. Then, when the authorities have sent every available officer to the suburbs to quell the rioting, the central city will be deserted and Blizzard can loot it.
It is one of the most implausible ideas in the entire history of sinister plots, kin to Goldfinger’s plan to contaminate the gold in Fort Knox, but even goofier. Obviously, this mainstream criminal part of the story isn’t what made the film a success.
No, it was the strength of Chaney’s acting combined with the even more extravagant revenge plot. Blizzard now phones Wilmot and tells him to hurry to a certain address—Blizzard’s lair—if he wants to save Barbara from an evil fate. He then summons Dr. Ferris, telling him that Barbara needs his help as a physician.
His plan is to have Ferris amputate Wilmot’s legs and graft them on to his own stumps.
With this revelation, we are finally in Lon Chaney country, that place where psychological horror, physical deformity, elaborate revenge plots, and black humor meet. Nothing like this had been seen in the fledgling motion picture business before, and never has it been presented so consistently by one auteur performer since.
At this distance in time the real reason Chaney gave us so many of these twisted characters may remain a mystery. Was he drawn to these human monsters because he had the talent to represent them so well? Was he merely giving the audience what it wanted? (If so, it’s the audience we should be studying.) Or was he illuminating a part of his own being, creating a psychological autobiography in grease paint and prosthetics?
Incredibly enough, “The Penalty” works itself out to a relatively happy ending. The film’s conclusion is certainly its weakest link, but the commanding presence of Chaney more than makes up for it. As competent and/or attractive as the other players in the movie are, one’s eyes are glued to Chaney every second he is on screen. He is nothing short of magnificent.
“The Penalty” gives us Chaney’s first overwhelming lead character. For all the crudities of its overly-melodramatic plot and the implausibility of its romantic ending, it remains a strong film well worth seeking out. For fans of Lon Chaney, it is a must. For prospective fans, it’s a good place to start.