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From the Vaults: 'The Penalty' (1920)

July 12, 2010 |  5:48 am

PenaltycheneyHere's an experiment for you long-suffering readers: Take your legs and fold them underneath you, so you're sitting on your feet. How's that feel?

Now, keeping your feet where they are, hop down on the floor and walk around on your knees. Hey, nicely done! See that fireman's pole over there? Just walk over there on your knees and slide down it, keeping your feet doubled back. Be sure to land on your knees: no cheating. Good work! How's everyone feeling?

It's hard to watch Lon Chaney in "The Penalty" without thinking along these lines. The man famous for playing grotesque, often mutilated characters here plays double amputee Blizzard, whose legs were mistakenly removed above the knee when he was a lad.

For the role Chaney had his legs bound and walked around on his knees in a pair of leather stumps, a long overcoat concealing his feet behind his back. This is about a 90-minute movie and he's in most of it, stumps and all; his performance is a major feat of endurance. It looks painful. It must have been agonizing.

Chaney's Blizzard is tortured in more ways than one: as a tyke, he wakes after surgery to overhear his amputator, Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), getting reamed by a boss-type doctor: "You should not have amputated! You've mangled this poor child for life... I shall lie for you." (Just imagine for a second being Dr. Ferris here. It's his first serious case, and he seems to feel dreadful. You'd think he'd need years of therapy! But Dr. Ferris pushes forward into a distinguished medical career, so -- go him, I guess.)

SatanGrowing up disabled, and knowing that his disability is entirely due to human error, sends Blizzard round the  twist a bit, and 20 years later he's an evil crime lord. He is, in fact, the terror of San Francisco, and he's planning a massive crime rampage that will devastate the city -- but in the process, he'd really like to get revenge on the doctor who screwed him up.

In the meantime, law enforcement is baffled by Blizzard's operation: a room full of dance hall girls, all making straw hats. Blizzard, who likes to play piano, occasionally blusters into the hall and beckons a girl out to help him pedal. The movie's full of such surrealist touches: a working fireplace disappears into a wall with the twist of a brick (that's a quality chimney there); a street urchin named Bubbles wanders through. And one of our heroines spontaneously decides to sculpt Satan, and places the above ad in the paper.

I don't know about you, but I know an alarming number of people who would be delighted to answer an ad that read, "If you think you look like Satan...." Blizzard, for one, is ecstatic to do so: Sculptress Barbara Ferris (Claire Adams) is none other than the daughter of Dr. Ferris. Soon Blizzard is established in her studio, charming her with his knowledge of the visual arts, and leering at her fiance, Dr. Allen (Kenneth Harlan): "What an admirable pair of legs." (This moment is right up there with "Is that your wife? What a lovely neck!" from Murnau's "Nosferatu.") What can Blizzard be up to?

Barbara is pretty good as heroines go. Dr. Allen, her dad's protege, views her interest in sculpture as a waste of time; but she's bored by him and seems genuinely passionate about her work. She wants to create "at least one thing that's worth doing. And if I fail, I'll marry you," she adds generously. Dr. Allen looks annoyed, as well he might.

PenaltydocMeanwhile, our other heroine is Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), a covert operative hired by the federal government to check up on Blizzard. Undeterred by the risks of the job, she joins his ranks of hat-making dance girls, and he's dazzled by her pedaling (leering at her with wonderful lines like "Under the piano, my darling -- we'll have some music." I mean, good heavens!). Her motives become cloudy as the story unfolds, but she remains fearless and independent, working incognito in Blizzard's lair while her bosses sit around their office smoking cigars and complaining that she hasn't gotten them any useful information.

But the star, of course, is Chaney, and he's magnificent. The role certainly foreshadows his starring work in "Phantom of the Opera," especially with all the piano-playing and damsel-menacing; not to mention his work as semi-sympathetic villain Alonzo the Armless in Tod Browning's "The Unknown" (costarring Joan Crawford). Whether he's lying to a police officer, charming Barbara with his knowledge of sculpture, terrorizing denizens of the underworld, playing piano with Rose or just stumping along the street on his crutches, he's hypnotic. You cannot take your eyes off the man. He's the villain, yeah, but you can't help but pull for him.

There's a wonderful moment when Blizzard appears at Barbara's studio, answering her Satan ad, and he tells her he'll take the modeling job "if there's enough of me." Chaney's expression then has just enough lasciviousness mixed with charm to be utterly devastating. Tiny urchin Bubbles is right to slam the door in his face, but what girl could resist? Chaney and his makeup kit would be welcome in my studio any old day.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon