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May 20, 2007

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Silent Reflections – The Penalty (1920)

by HELEN GEIB

The Penalty 052007

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.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. James
    May 22 2007

    Speaking of silent era films having subject matter more lurid than most people would think, have you ever seen “The Man Who Laughs,” Helen?

    Also, is the majority of your silent film collection compilation DVDs or individual films? I’d suspect that most of these have lapsed into the public domain and are available in a variety of forms. But then again I’m no expert on the subject.

  2. Helen
    May 22 2007

    I have seen The Man Who Laughs and it is an amazing and powerful movie. Unfortunately it has the absolute worst soundtrack I have ever suffered through (it was made in the window between when it became technically feasible to release a film with a pre-recorded soundtrack and before synchronization was perfected to allow dialogue sequences). It is painfully obvious that the studio and everyone personally involved in creating that soundtrack neither understood nor respected this incredible film. Someday I will watch it again, but in silence this time. Better no music at all than that discordant and obnoxious soundtrack.

    I actually don’t have many silents in my collection; most of what I’ve seen has been at festivals or borrowed from the library. I’ve picked up a few of my favorites, all as individual films. The cut-off year for copyright protection is somewhere in the early ’20s now. I’m a strong advocate for holding out for good quality releases (good, preferably restored prints and sympathetic music performed well). There’re a lot of bad quality old video releases floating around that personally I don’t think are even worth watching. Fortunately there are also a few companies that consistently put out high quality dvd releases. Still, too many wonderful movies are locked up in the archives.

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