Saturday, December 27, 2014

#197: The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920)

The Penalty, based on the novel by Gouverneur Morris, is a not-quite-obscure but not-quite-as-famous-as-it-should-be silent gem with a great cast, brisk storytelling, and one of the craziest plots I've had the pleasure to come across. This is a fantastically weird movie I can easily recommend to silent movie buffs and genre fans, and even as the ending veers toward moralizing and wrapping things up too neatly in a mild betrayal of what came before, another twist on top puts things back in the land of the weirdly dark. I really enjoyed this one.
The movie opens with a boy in a bed at the home practice of a young doctor. The boy has been hit by a car on a nearby street, and the doctor has amputated both of the boy's legs below the knees in an emergency decision to save the child's life. An older mentor doctor arrives and realizes the younger doctor has made a terrible mistake. The amputation was unnecessary. To save the young doc's reputation, the older man lies to the boy's parents. The boy, meanwhile, has overheard the whole thing and is understandably distraught.
The movie then jumps forward 27 years. Our young amputee is now known as Blizzard (Lon Chaney Sr.), and he's the evil kingpin of the San Francisco underworld. Despite moving around on crutches and wearing what appear to be pails on his stumps, he's an intimidating guy who runs the gambling, prostitution, burglary, and nightclub trade in SF's Barbary Coast neighborhood. He's not above murdering people to get what he wants, and he's got some big, big plans he's secretly putting into place.
The young doctor who mistakenly amputated his legs, Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), is now a big shot with a clinic of his own and a young doctor he's mentoring, Dr. Wilmot Allen (Kenneth Harlan), who is also engaged to his sculptor daughter Barbara (Claire Adams). The doctors both think Barbara should give up that art junk and become a housewife, like all respectable women, but she won't marry the boring Dr. Wilmot unless she fails as an artist. I don't think she should marry that twerp at all, but what can you do? Barbara is planning a sculpture about the fall of Satan and she needs a model who can capture some nice devilish scowls. Blizzard, in an attempt to get close to Dr. Ferris for part of his revenge plot, becomes the artist's model.
While the sculpture business is going on, things are also happening at police headquarters. The police chief needs an undercover operative. He's wanted to take down Blizzard's empire for years, but he knows the bust has to be big to end the whole shebang at once. For some reason, Blizzard has forced all his nightclub showgirls to move into his compound and make hats. Thousands and thousands of hats. What's Blizzard's angle? This hat thing is bananas. He asks his chief undercover agent Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) to get a job with Blizzard, get on the inside, make the hats, and find out what the hell is going on. He tells her he almost wishes she'll turn down the assignment because it's so dangerous, but Rose nonchalantly replies, "All in the day's work, chief." Rose has moxie.
Soon, we have nefarious plots involving secret underground lairs, leg transplantation, piano playing, the looting of San Francisco, disgruntled immigrants, murder, revenge, surprise declarations of love, and thousands of straw hats. There's even time for a little redemption, brain surgery, and the old double-cross, all in 90 minutes.
The wackiness and unpredictability of the plot go a long way, especially as Wallace Worsley is not a director who will awe you with beauty or stunning shot composition. He's a naturalistic director who emphasizes story and actors over personal style. Though my favorite directors are strong visual stylists, I can respect the honorable, modest craftsman, especially when the story and actors are as great as they are here. On the other hand, I don't want to imply that the visuals are clunky or perfunctory. Worsley is graceful in his own subtle way, and the film is a pleasure to look at.
Lon Chaney gets a meaty role as Blizzard, performing on his knees with his legs bound, in a physical performance that must have been extremely painful. His face captures the swirl of conflicting emotions and motivations behind his actions, and he makes it plausible for a guy on crutches with no legs to be the intimidating ruler of a criminal empire. The doctors are all stiff bores, but Claire Adams and Ethel Grey Terry get to bring interesting, complicated women to life, and Blizzard's criminal underlings are delightfully sleazy.
This is a strange film, capturing elements of horror, the gangster film, science fiction, comic book supervillainy, and melodrama without being dominated by any of these genres. The Penalty is its own weird thing, and I'm glad I saw it.

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