- The Penalty (movie 1920) review: Man of a Thousand Faces Lon Chaney delivers another great portrayal in Wallace Worsley’s top-notch silent thriller.
The Penalty (movie 1920) review: Lon Chaney unveils the meaning of the word while revealing himself a first-rate screen ‘magician’
The Penalty star Lon Chaney was more than just an actor. He was a magician. Like a chameleon, he could morph into a character.
Directed by the all-but-forgotten Wallace Worsley – who would also handle one of Chaney’s most famous movies, The Hunchback of Notre Dame – and adapted by (credited scenarist) Charles Kenyon from Gouverneur Morris’ 1913 novel, the gruesome shocker The Penalty stars Hollywood’s Man of a Thousand Faces as Blizzard, the victim of a botched operation that had left him, while still a kid, with two amputated legs.
Later in life, Blizzard becomes a professional criminal in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast district, where he attempts to take revenge on the man who had performed the surgery, Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary). His scheme involves seducing the doctor’s artist daughter, Barbary Nell (Claire Adams), while posing for a study of “the face of evil.”
When undercover agent Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) infiltrates Blizzard’s gang, the suspense mounts as she investigates his nefarious deeds. Eventually, however, even Rose falls under his spell.
Flawless star turn
Lon Chaney is flawless in his portrayal of Blizzard. In fact, as found in the Kino DVD edition, the only fault in The Penalty is the editing – there’s too much abrupt jumping from one scene to the next.
This DVD version, I should add, has a score by Michael Polher, whose cacophonous themes annoyed me the first time I saw the film. But with subsequent viewings, I’ve grown to appreciate how Polher’s music fit the characters’ volatility.
Finally, I particularly enjoyed the O. Henry-like ending, which features an ironic twist to Blizzard’s change of heart – one of the film’s numerous surprises. In other words, The Penalty is silent thriller at its best.
The Penalty (movie 1920) cast & crew
Director: Wallace Worsley.
Screenplay: Charles Kenyon.
From Gouverneur Morris’ 1913 novel.
Cast: Lon Chaney, Kenneth Harlan, Ethel Grey Terry, Claire Adams, Doris Pawn, Charles Clary, Jim Mason, Milton Ross.
Cinematography: Don Short (as Donovan D. Short).
Film Editing: J.G. Hawks & Frank E. Hull.
Art Direction: Gilbert White.
Production Company: Eminent Authors Pictures (headed by Samuel Goldwyn and Rex Beach).
Distributor: Goldwyn Distributing Corp.
Running Time: 90 min.
Country: United States.
“The Penalty (Movie 1920): Unforgettable Lon Chaney” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes © Alt Film Guide.
“The Penalty (Movie 1920): Unforgettable Lon Chaney” notes
Kino DVD extras
Kino’s The Penalty movie DVD also offers the following:
- The 1914 one-reel Western By the Sun’s Rays, featuring Lon Chaney in one of his earliest big-screen roles.
- Original theatrical trailers for two 1928 Lon Chaney star vehicles, both made at Metro-Golwyn-Mayer: Tod Browning’s The Big City, with Marceline Day and James Murray, and Jack Conway’s While the City Sleeps, with Anita Page and Carroll Nye.
- Surviving footage from George Loane Tucker’s 1919 box office hit The Miracle Man, featuring Chaney and fellow up-and-coming stars Thomas Meighan and Betty Compson (who a decade later would be considered for the Best Actress Academy Award for her work in George Fitzmaurice’s The Barker).
The Penalty movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Lon Chaney The Penalty movie image: Goldwyn Pictures | Kino Lorber.
“The Penalty (Movie 1920): Unforgettable Lon Chaney” last updated in April 2023.