South West Silents
Lon Chaney and The Penalty (1920)
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
On Tuesday 30th October 2018 we will be screening classic Horror/Crime film The Penalty (1920) starring the multi-talented Lon Chaney at the Cube Cinema, Bristol with live music by Stephen Horne as part of Cube’s Halloween lineup. Happy to say that we will be screening a new digital restoration by our friends at Lobster Films, Paris.
As a run up to the screening we’ve been allowed to re-post this essay by Aimee Pavy from San Francisco Silent Film Festival about the film and its star. Enjoy and see you at the screening!
The Penalty (1920), directed by Wallace Worsley, is a prime example of Chaney’s physical and emotional characterizations. Chaney’s portrayal of Blizzard, kingpin of the San Francisco underworld, demonstrates the complexity and humanity he gives to even the most evil character. Blizzard is driven by the loss of his legs. Chaney displays all the emotional and physical awkwardness that challenge and enrage Blizzard. Playing the part of the outcast, as he frequently did, afforded Chaney a unique challenge. His skills produced horrifying characters that repelled audiences. Chaney would then use those same skills to win over audiences and change their repulsion into sympathy, and a more profound understanding of his characters. His intensity was the key. His immense popularity as one of the greatest stars of the silent era was proof of his success.
Lon Chaney was born in Colorado Springs to deaf parents in 1883. His mother’s parents founded the Colorado School for the Deaf in 1874, which still exists today. Many historians credit the influence of Colorado Springs’ deaf community and his interaction with deaf parents as the start of Chaney’s skills in pantomime, acting, and later his complex portrayals of the disabled.
By 1902, Chaney had landed a full-time job as a stagehand at the opera house. That same year, he debuted in an amateur play called The Little Tycoon and received a favorable review in the Colorado Springs Gazette. The review mentions talents that Chaney rarely showed off in films. “As a comedian he is irresistible, and it would be hard to find his equal in dancing among many first class vaudeville performers.” Within two years, Chaney was touring with the Columbia Opera Company as a jack-of-all-trades, doing everything from acting to arranging transportation to choreography. During this period, he met and married his first wife, Cleva Creighton, a singer in the theater. The marriage was unhappy, but did produce his only child Creighton Tull Chaney, later known as Lon Chaney Jr.
The year 1919 also marked the first collaboration between Chaney and director Tod Browning on The Wicked Darling, the first of ten films they made together. They were a well-matched pair, sparking off each other’s interest in the odd and macabre. The next year Chaney appeared in four features: Treasure Island; Nomads of the North, in which he played a rare romantic lead; The Gift Supreme; and The Penalty, his first film with director Wallace Worsley.
To play Blizzard, the leader of the notorious Barbary Coast underworld in The Penalty, Chaney designed an apparatus that produced the illusion of having no legs below the knee. It was an important tool for the development of the character (and for the film’s promotion). The device was constructed of leather stumps and straps that secured his lower legs behind his thighs. To complete the illusion, he wore enlarged pants and padded his upper body to match the size of his doubled-up legs. He could only wear the apparatus for a few minutes at a time, and he had to take frequent breaks to unbind his legs and restore circulation.
In recent years, some critics and historians have condemned Chaney’s portrayals as perpetuating negative stereotypes of the disabled. In fact, Chaney’s great gift was his ability to reveal the humanity within even the most disturbed and damaged character. His performances convey such a fascinating combination of intensity, wickedness, sadness, and emotion that even 80 years later, audiences are compelled to watch.