Cinema from Kino: THE PENALTY (1920)

Lon Chaney, you guys.  Lon.  Chaney.  I mean…I just…WOW.  THE PENALTY from Kino Lorber is my first experience with The Man of a Thousand Faces and I am ready for my fan girl kit.

Spoiler Warning Ahoy!  In order to have a discussion about this film I will be talking about some major plot points but not the ending.  It goes without saying, spoilers ahead!

A young and relatively inexperienced new surgeon by the name of Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), has just completed his first big operation.  Unfortunately, he has not done as well as he would have liked.  His patient, a young boy who had been run over, was suffering from badly injured legs and a contusion to the back of his head. Ferris has hastily amputated both of his legs.  When his more seasoned colleague arrives, Ferris learns that he has made a terrible mistake and never should have cut off the boy’s legs.  The two doctors are discussing what they should do when the boy’s parents come in.  They rush to comfort their son while the doctors inform them that the boy’s legs had to go in order to save his life.  At this moment their patient speaks up, unbeknownst to the doctors he was awake and overheard their entire conversation.  He knows perfectly well that he did not need to lose his legs.  The doctors tell the parents that the child is hallucinating because of the ether and prepare to move on with their lives.

Twenty-seven years later and the boy has grown into a man, a terrible man driven by anger and a thirst for revenge.  Blizzard (Lon Chaney) is the kingpin of the underworld and he rules with an iron fist.  He has sent out one of his junkie underlings to a dance hall where a prostitute is stealing a drunken man’s wallet.  When she rounds the corner the junkie grabs her, a brief look of terror and recognition crosses her face before the knife pierces her side.  She falls, hanging limply from the balcony as the patrons below scream in horror before taking off after the assailant.  The junkie manages to elude his captors and finds his way back to Blizzard where he receives drugs in payment for his services.

The Secret Service is concerned with Blizzard and his criminal operations, but they are even more concerned lately as all Blizzard’s dancing girls have been recalled and are hard at work day and night making straw hats.  The only girls who escape the work room are the ones who are used as Blizzard’s mistresses and pedal pushers.  Blizzard is a man of contrasts and has a passion for the piano.  He plays the keys while the women work the pedals for as long as they please him with both their pedal work and other things.  The head of the Secret Service, Lichtenstein (Milton Ross), has decided to send an agent into Blizzard’s workshop to discover the truth of what he is planning.  His most daring agent is Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) and she has agreed to undertake this dangerous mission.  When warned that this job will be the most dangerous one yet, one that might actually lead to her death, Rose replies that it is just another day in the office.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ferris is still practicing medicine.  He now has a younger colleague named Dr. Wilmot Allen and a daughter named Barbara (Claire Adams).  Wilmot is in love with Barbara but frustrated because she has decided to pursue her career as an artist rather than settle down immediately and marry him.  When he comes to visit her at her studio one day, he starts the conversation that they must have three times a week.  Barbara doesn’t want to marry him until she feels that she has finally done something worthwhile and valuable.  In fact her latest sculpture is going to be entitled “Satan After The Fall” and she hopes it will be a great success, just as soon as she finds models who look like the devil.  She places an advertisement in the paper that literally says “If you look like the devil come to this address”.

Blizzard sees that his chance to take revenge has finally arrived and he presents himself to Barbara.  Barbara, though initially shocked at Blizzard’s appearance, welcomes him into her studio.  Her boy assistant, named Bubbles, warns her that the man sitting before her is one of the most dangerous people in the city.  She dismisses his concerns and begins sculpting.

While Blizzard is away the mice will play.  Rose has become quite a fixture in Blizzard’s factory.  She not only works with the girls but Blizzard has taken her on as his newest mistress as her musical experience makes her a pedal pusher extraordinaire.  When Blizzard is off modeling for Barbara, Rose takes to exploring Blizzard’s private rooms in the hopes of discovering what he is planning.  One day she finds a secret passage in the fireplace and climbing down discovers an armory with guns and straw hats at the ready, and a fully functional operating room.

Blizzard returns from his latest modeling session and finds a hairpin in his office.  Blizzard is no fool and knows that someone has been snooping, and the only woman with access to these rooms is…  “Rose?  Can you come in here?”  Rose enters with trepidation and Blizzard commands her to come and pedal for him while he plays “a death song”.  As the music builds he tells her that they are playing a song to murder by but then the music takes him and when the song is over, Rose is still alive and Blizzard’s anger is spent.  He could never have played that way without her help.  He lets her live and return to work but now with a watchful eye ever on her.  Rose’s cover is blown and all her messages back to the home office are being intercepted.  But something has changed and Rose is having thoughts she never had before.

One evening Blizzard decides to let his second in command in on his master plan.  He intends to take over the city with straw hatted anarchists.  On a chosen date and time an explosion will rock the area and act as the signal for the chaos to begin.  While his men murder and pillage, Blizzard will be taking his personal revenge.

THE PENALTY took me completely by surprise.  I started watching with no idea what to expect and found myself sucked in and loving every dark, twisted moment.  This is due mostly to the magnetic performance of Lon Chaney.  I had heard that Lon Chaney was a master of makeup, seeming to disappear inside the various characters he portrayed.  There was a joke that went around during his career.  “Don’t step on that cockroach!”, people would say, “It might be Lon Chaney!”  Well, I believe it.  Let’s just take a moment and recognize that the man portrays a double amputee.  This is before the time of green screen and CGI, mind you.  As I watched the first scene I figured that Lon Chaney, who was standing facing the camera, was wearing the braces up to his knees but had his legs sticking out behind him but hidden from the camera.  Then he turned around.  WHERE WERE HIS LEGS?!  Chaney famously wore the leg braces by putting his knees into the bottom cups and then tying his legs up behind him.  It was so painful that he could only tolerate it for ten minutes at a time and even suffered permanent muscle damage as a result.  Chaney then bulked up his frame to hide the extra bulge (which you cannot see at all) of his legs and when he was done the illusion was so convincing that the original film was released with a clip showing Lon Chaney walking on his own two legs.  This clip has since been lost.

Not only is Chaney stunning in his use of makeup and effects, he is stunning in his acting.  All the makeup in the world wouldn’t matter if the actor couldn’t use it to affect the audience and Chaney more than delivers.  Blizzard is utterly terrifying and twisted, we feel the danger and unpredictability radiating off of him.  But Chaney manages to keep it just short of cartoonish, allowing there to be an emotional core to Blizzard’s evil.  There is a method to his madness and while we recoil from Blizzard and his evil deeds, we are still drawn to him.  In the scene when Blizzard makes Rose play “a song to murder by” we see the entire range of emotions played out in Chaney’s features.  At the beginning we know, with complete certainty, that Rose is dead and that Blizzard is going to kill her with his own hands.  As the song progresses Blizzard relaxes and we can see the music taking over and soothing his anger.  In the end, Blizzard has lost his angry passion and we see what is left.  Hurt, exhaustion, and resignation.  Chaney does all of this with his face and all in the span of a few minutes.  The final few scenes also offer Chaney a chance to dazzle.  There is a moment where something happens to Blizzard that alters him completely and Chaney’s entire face changes.  He still looks like Blizzard but somehow he doesn’t.  He has changed without changing at all.

THE PENALTY  released by Kino Lorber comes with the options of two different scores if you buy the Blu-Ray.  The DVD, which is the copy that I own, only offers one and it is not the sort of score you are used to.  A modern scoring complete with synthesizers, techno beats, and some orchestration, this musical accompaniment for THE PENALTY is quite controversial.  Many people dislike it.  I liked it, I liked it a lot.  At first I had to get used to it, having gone in expecting the usual piano and violin music, but as the movie progressed I felt that the score was perfectly suited to the story that was being told.

To me the purpose of musical accompaniment for silent films is to enhance the story.  The music helps to give the audience more emotional reference for the images that they are seeing on the screen.  Like a soundtrack for a talkie, the scoring of a silent film helps to enrich the story being portrayed.  THE PENALTY is a dark, twisted, and weird movie.  It needs a dark, twisted, and weird score.  The usual piano and violin music would add a sense of melodrama to the proceedings.  It would diminish the sense of menace and unease, causing Blizzard to be considered more of an over the top villain that audiences might be tempted to laugh at rather than fear.

A great musical score creates a mood and helps audiences become more affected by a film then they might otherwise be.  This scoring of  THE PENALTY does just that.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still like a good, traditional silent film accompaniment when the story suits it.  But there are times when a modern musical accompaniment can be just as good, if not better.  When these films were being made there were no computers to create different effects, sounds, and scores.  There was only a woman or a man at a piano, sometimes a violin and a few more instruments.  Today there are more options and no reason why we shouldn’t take advantage of all the tools accessible to us in order to create a score that enhances the final product in a way that was not possible a hundred years ago.  Traditional scoring is important and should be preserved, but modern scoring is just as valid and should not be discounted simply because it is new.  Besides who’s to say that if the film makers of the silent films had modern tools at their disposal, they wouldn’t have used them?

THE PENALTY is a film that gets under your skin.  Days go by and I am still thinking about it, hearing the score in my head.  I am now a devoted Lon Chaney fan and cannot wait to see more of his work.  I think Fritzi of Movies Silently said it best.  When it comes to Chaney’s films, “you watch them and love them and feel a little sick about it”.