The Penalty, released in August 1920, was one of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s early stardom roles, after his breakthrough performance in 1919’s lost film The Miracle Man. Though it’s properly billed as a crime film, it just has the feel of a horror film given the atmosphere and the double-amputee villain. It’s also interesting to note how, in spite of Lon being known as a horror actor in the modern era, he starred in plenty of regular roles, without any makeup.
Regardless of the types of films he made, many of Lon’s characters were haunted or disfigured in some way. As he put it, “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, HE Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.”
Based on a Gouverneur Morris novel, The Penalty is the story of the awesomely-named Blizzard, a gangster whose legs were amputated by mistake when he was just a little boy. Ever since, Blizzard has been obsessed with getting revenge on the doctor, and turned to a life of crime in response to his disabled state. He’s grown up to be lord and master of San Francisco’s criminal underworld, and has recently begun a baffling scheme involving the making of thousands of hats in an underground factory.
Into this sordid situation steps Rose, an experienced mole sent by the authorities to try to figure out just what’s going on. This mission entails living in Blizzard’s house and being exposed to all manner of danger, but it’s a risk Rose willingly accepts. She serves as Blizzard’s piano-pedaler, and quickly becomes his favorite pedaler not only because she’s so skilled, but also because she’s not afraid of looking him in the eyes. Rose sees beyond his disfigured exterior, and starts to fall for him. Rose even starts having second thoughts about ratting him out.
Until the late 1960s, it was standard practice, and completely legal, to have separate male and female classifieds.
Blizzard is elated to learn about the opening for a statue model, since the young lady in question, Barbara Ferris, is none other than the daughter of the doctor who destroyed his life. Blizzard plans to use Barbara to get revenge on Dr. Ferris, and plans to use Barbara’s beyond-old-fashioned fiancé, Dr. Wilmot Allen, as part of this revenge. Wilmot is so old-fashioned, he doesn’t just want Barbara to devote herself 24/7 to homemaking and childrearing, but he also wants her to completely give up her art upon marriage. Even by 1920 standards, that seems ridiculous and like an unhealthy, unequal relationship.
Blizzard proves an exemplary model, and Barbara’s statue unfolds swimmingly well. During the sculpting sessions, Blizzard is nothing but kind and well-behaved, and begins falling for Barbara. Dr. Ferris and Wilmot think it’s madness for Barbara to not only keep pursuing her art instead of marrying, but also for her to have chosen Blizzard as a model and be spending so much time alone with him.
However, Blizzard hasn’t truly gone straight, as he schemes to lure Wilmot to his home and take him by force to an underground operating suite. Once Wilmot’s in Blizzard’s hands, Dr. Ferris is pulled into the scheme as well. Blizzard wants Dr. Ferris to cut off Wilmot’s legs and graft them onto him.
There are several twists at this point, but I won’t ruin the surprise by revealing just what they are. Suffice it to say, someone’s going to end up paying the penalty.
Lon plays a double-amputee so well, without any hint of the painful lengths he went to in order to achieve this appearance. His lower legs were tied back by numerous leather straps, and his knees rested on wooden buckets, all under a long coat. The studio’s doctors didn’t want him to do this to himself, but he insisted, so his appearance would be believable. Supposedly, the original release included a brief epilogue showing Lon as his true self, to reassure audiences it was just a costume. This alleged clip hasn’t survived.