Friday, October 23, 2009

The Penalty (1920)

Another Lon Chaney film with anarchist or communist or socialist undertones!! What was going on in the 1920s? (quite a lot actually.) The Penalty stars Chaney as a double amputee who also happens to be king of the San Francisco Underworld (yeah San Francisco!) Blizzard, as he is known, has two goals: to get revenge on the Doctor who mistakenly amputated his legs as a child (oops!) and to foster an anarchist/communist/and-or socialist revolution in San Francisco by a bunch of immigrants wearing hats. This is very interesting because 14 years after this film was made, San Francisco almost had a revolution of sorts thanks to the Waterfront Strike of 1934. This history lesson brought to you by 7 years of college, thanks to which I know things about Strikes in San Francisco in the 1930s.
Back to this strange, melodramatic film. Blizzard runs a crime syndicate mostly made up of women who make hats. One woman, Rose, is a government agent trying to bring him down. The other femme fatale in this film is Barbara, an aspiring artist who happens to be the daughter of the Doc who maimed poor evil Blizzard. And Blizzard is EVIL! This is the first Chaney character I have seen who doesn't have any redeeming qualities at all! You are not rooting for him in the least. He is so evil he is chosen by Barbara to be the model for a sculpture of Satan.

Blizzard's plan, before the revolution happens, is to have the Doc "graft" new legs onto him. The legs will come from Barbara's jerky boyfriend (he deserves to lose them.) The Doc agrees, but instead of doing as Blizzard asks, he pulls the old leg graft/brain surgery switcharoo. See, Blizzard wasn't really evil. He had a brain contusion thanks to the accident that took his legs. The Doc fixes him all up and it is EVIL BE GONE!! Blizzard marries the agent Rose, who has fallen for him, and Barbara marries her jerky boyfriend. The End. Or so I thought. The movie continues so we are given the typical depressing Lon Chaney ending. Nothing ever works out for this guy!
The reason to see this flick is Chaney. Watch the special features and you will see how he played a double amputee with no camera tricks. Then try to walk around on your knees. Make sure there is someone home with you to pick you up off the floor.
One more cool thing about this flick: the musical accompaniment is really awesome. It as if Nine Inch Nails scored the thing. Very industrial but it works.

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