A still frame of Lon Chaney as Blizzard in the 1920 film The Penalty, holding the hair of a factory worker

The Penalty (1920)

The Best Actors in History Have Been Overshadowed by the Sands of Time

The Penalty, directed by Wallace Worsley and staring the infamous Lon Chaney, is about a corrupt man who wishes to enact revenge on the doctor who mistakenly amputated his legs. In his scheme, this deformed criminal mastermind plans to loot the city of San Francisco. His plan is to steel the legs of another man.

The main villain, Blizzard played by Lon Chaney, is a cunning criminal mind running the Barbary Coast underworld. His ambitions in life: to get revenge upon Dr. Ferris played by Charles Clary, who butchered Blizzard’s childhood operation resulting in his legs being mistakenly amputated; the other is to rally the Reds in his organization and loot the city of San Francisco. Blizzard poses for the bust of Satan which is expected to be the masterpiece of Barbara Ferris, played by  Claire Adams, the daughter of the doctor. He gains her sympathy and eventually threatens to force her to marry him. In his other efforts, he organizes the dance hall girls to work at his hat factory. The hats are the symbol of the lawbreaking hordes that will be unleashed on the city. Detective Rose, played by Ethel Grey Terry, finds her way into facility, being hired as the director of the factory. Betrayed by her own emotions, she falls in love with Blizzard as she learns about his passion for music. Blizzard gets the idea that the sculptor’s legs should be grafted onto his stumps, and he forces the doctor into doing the operation.

This was one of the first films that demonstrates the role reversal of an undercover agent falling in love with the very person they are trying to take down. While filming, Chaney refused to use camera tricks and instead wore a brace to simulate his amputated legs. The device was made of two wooden buckets and multiple leather straps. Chaney’s knees sat in these buckets, with his lower legs tied back. This caused him tremendous pain and the Studio doctors asked that Chaney not wear the device. Chaney insisted on doing so, wanting his costume to be authentic. Chaney was truly dedicated to his art, even before he was a big actor. The Penalty would be one of Lon Chaney’s career launching roles.

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To assure the audience that Lon Chaney was not an actual amputee, the original release of the film reportedly included a short epilogue clip showing Chaney out of character. The clip did not survive as an existing print. However, in the film itself, the scene where Blizzard imagines his gang of anarchists carrying out the money from the Mint Building, Lon Chaney is seen directing the heist with his full legs.

Watch the film for yourself and witness the birth of Lon Chaney’s brilliance.

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