Wallace Worsley made five films with silent movie icon Lon Chaney. Lamentably, two of those, Voices of the City (1921) and The Blind Bargain (1922), are lost. The Ace of Hearts (1921) survives, but their most famous collaborations remain The Penalty (1920) and the epic Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). It is for these two films Worsley, an otherwise undistinguished commission director, will be remembered, if at all. The Penalty was Chaney’s first starring role, and the film justifiably made him a major star.
The plot of The Penalty is beautifully absurd, operatic, and addictive. An injured young boy has been unnecessarily mutilated by a young Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary). A seasoned colleague arrives and tells Dr. Ferris that amputating the boy’s legs was not at all necessary, but the veteran promises to remain silent about the malpractice. The bed-ridden boy hears the conversation and tells his parents what has transpired. However, the boy’s revelation is dismissed as delirium cause by a contusion.
Twenty seven years later, the boy has become Frisco’s criminal master-mind, nicknamed the Blizzard. Chaney’s performance as the Blizzard is a tour-de-force that was achieved through a painful pulleys, belts, leather stumps, and a harness which strapped his legs behind him. Because of the extreme contortion and discomfort to the actor, Chaney’s scenes were filmed in short takes. His performance is amazing. He swings, pulls, and climbs with such robust, Tex Avery-like vigor that the illusion is feverishly complete. Only Douglas Fairbanks could exude as much screen energy, but while Fairbanks grinned his way through elaborate stunts, Chaney invited you to see him sweat and even laugh with him through his pain.
The Blizzard runs a complex syndicate which local law enforcement cannot penetrate. Desperate, officials send an undercover agent, Rose (Ethel Gray Terry) into Chaney’s lair. The criminal is abusive, misogynist, seedy, and initially lacking in sympathy. There is a dark, latent sexual undercurrent between the Blizzard and Rose. Only music calms the Blizzard, and Rose serves as his feet, pushing the pedals of his piano while he plays.
The Blizzard is part Ahab and part Dr. Mabuse, plotting an elaborate (and far-fetched) revenge against the entire city (which involves utilizing the straw man communist menace. The fifties was not the first Red Scare era, and Worsley’s earlier Ace of Hearts projected a similar paranoia). Continue reading WALLACE WORSLEY’S THE PENALTY (1920) STARRING LON CHANEY