Silent Reflections – The Penalty (1920)
by HELEN GEIB
The Penalty is the story of Blizzard, double amputee and master of San Francisco’s criminal underworld. Blizzard lost his legs as a child in a case of horrifying medical malpractice, an unnecessary amputation after a traffic accident. His physical deformity symbolizes his warped psychology; the amputation coupled with the betrayal of the doctor’s cover-up destroys the mind with the body. Blizzard’s quest for revenge, in personal against the doctor and in general against the uncaring world, drives the plot of The Penalty.
As you might imagine from that plot description, this is a colorful, eventful and fast-paced movie. Blizzard is played by Lon Chaney in one of his best roles and best performances. Chaney’s legs are strapped back to create the illusion of amputation – and it is entirely convincing – but he otherwise plays the role straight, without makeup or prosthetics. His performance is forceful and direct, and dominates the film.
Last time I wrote about Daddy-Long-Legs and before that Snow White. The popular image of the 1910s makes those movies the kind of wholesome fare we expect from that era. The Penalty is the other side of the coin. Silent film historian Kevin Brownlow devotes several pages to The Penalty in his study of ‘teens social problem films, Behind the Mask of Innocence. He aptly characterizes the movie as exactly what we don’t expect from filmmaking in the Age of Innocence.
The protagonist is a vicious gangster. A female secret service agent on an undercover assignment shrugs her shoulders when warned she will be required to prostitute herself to maintain her cover. Murderers go unpunished. Background characters are drug addicts and petty criminals. Doctors cover up their colleagues’ malpractice. It comes as no surprise to learn The Penalty became one of the poster children for the pro-censorship movement.