The Penalty (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
February 11, 2013 by Dennis Amith
Cheney’s performance in “The Penalty” is impressive even today, over 90-years-later, how one actor can perform a role with so much pain but yet give a commanding performance is a testament to how amazing an actor he was during that era. And it’s a gangster film that probably was dark and terrifying for its time. “The Penalty” on Blu-ray is recommended!
TITLE: The Penalty
FILM RELEASE: 1920
DURATION: 87 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:33:1, Color tinted, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 2.0 Stereo
COMPANY: Kino Classics/Kino Lorber
Release Date: October 23, 2012
Directed by Wallace Worsley
Adaptation of the novel by Gouverneur Morris
Scenario by Charles Kenyon
Cinematography by Don Short
Charles Clary as Dr. Ferris
Doris Pawn as Barbary Nell
Jim Mason as Frisco Pete
Lon Chaney as Blizzard
Milton Ross as Lichtenstein
Ethel Grey Terry as Rose
Kenneth Harlan as Dr. Wilmot Allen
Claire Adams as Barbara Ferris
In a role that established him as one of the most dynamically terrifying performers of the silent screen, Lon Chaney (The Phantom of the Opera) stars in The Penalty, a grotesque thriller form director Wallace Worsley (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). When an incompetent doctor amputates the legs of a young boy, he has no idea that the youth will grow up to be the immoral and embittered Blizzard, a criminal mastermind who orchestrates a bizarre and heinous plot to avenge himself upon his malefactor.
Lon Chaney, an actor known for taking on the roles of characters that were tortured or grotesque and known for horror silent films such as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Phantom of the Opera”, “The Unknown” and “Laugh, Clown, Laugh”.
Known as “The Master of Makeup”, Chaney has a long list of films in his oeuvre dating back to 1912, but it wasn’t until 1919 in which Chaney would receive acclaim as The Frog in “The Miracle Man” (unfortunately, the full version of this film is lost, only a few minute footage which is included on the Blu-ray release) but it was in 1920 in which Chaney would star in the crime drama, “The Penalty” and solidify his status as one of the most popular actors in America and not a one-hit wonder.
The film would also captivate audiences as Chaney, playing a double leg amputee, using a leather harness to strap his two lower legs behind his thigh to two buckets. While using crutches, he was able to take part in stunts without the use of his legs and feet. So painful for Lon Chaney to play this role, he could only do this for short periods of time.
Based on a pulp novel by Gouverneur Morris (which you can read online here), the film directed by Wallace Worsley and written by Philip Lonergan would be one of the few silent films starring Lon Chaney that many silent film fans have had watched on home video thanks to Kino (who released the original DVD back in 2001).
And in October 2012, Kino Lorber has released “The Penalty” on Blu-ray. Remastered in HD from the 35 mm restoration by the George Eastman House Motion Picture Department. The film is color tinted according to the surviving instructions and features a new musical score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra in 2.0 stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio.
“The Penalty” begins with a boy who was involved in an accident and we see a young doctor named Dr. Ferris (portrayed by Charles Clary) awaiting for a senior doctor to come by. Unfortunately, with the senior doctor, Dr. Wilmot Allen (portrayed by Kenneth Harlan) having not arrived, the young doctor decides to cut off the boys legs in hopes to save him. By the time the senior doctor arrives, he is shocked by what the young doctor has done and told him she shouldn’t have done that. Now the young boy’s life has been ruined.
The two doctors are unaware that the boy has awakened and is listening to their conversation. When the doctors bring the parents in to explain what has happened, the boy tries to tell his parents that he heard their discussion but the senior doctor tells the parents, the boy is dreaming things up and it’s the effects of the ether. The boy knows what he has heard but the parents believe the doctor’s explanation.
Fast forward years later and the film is now taking place in San Francisco. We see a young woman named Barbara Nell with a drunk, sleeping man and stealing his wallet. Meanwhile, another criminal named Frisco Pete watches. He approaches the woman, steals her necklace and kills her in front of all these people.
As the criminal leaves, he runs into a man without any legs or feet named Blizzard (portrayed by Lon Chaney) and Blizzard hides Frisco.
We learn that Blizzard has power in the city. An evil man who is so corrupt, he has corrupt police officers working alongside with him. He is a man that the police have been trying to nail down for murder, arson and many ther crimes but each time, Blizzard as alluded them.
Word has gotten to the police that Blizzard is up to something bad and it involves showgirls that he has them working as hat-makers for some unknown reason. They need to find a way in by using a spy and so, they look to one of their best agents, Rose (portrayed by Ethel Grey Terry) to infiltrate Blizzard’s business and disguise herself as a showgirl working for him.
Meanwhile, we see the cruelty of Blizzard as he goes to check on the girls and seeing how badly they are working on the hats, grabbing one woman by the hair and pulling it with all his might and screaming at them. Also, letting them know what happened to Barbara Nell, an escapee of Blizzard’s business and how she is dead.
We are then introduced to Barbara Ferris (portrayed by Claire Adams), daughter of Dr. Ferris (who amputated the legs of Blizzard), who is an artist/sculptor. Her next major sculpture is the fall of Satan and needs someone to be a model. So, she advertises in the newspaper and seeing the name of who is involved, Blizzard decides that he wants no one but himself to be the model. And so, he can exact his revenge on the Doctor and his daughter.
As for Rose, she becomes one of Blizzard’s top employees but as she is supposed to infiltrate and provide recon to the police, she finds herself being captivated by Blizzard’s charms.
As for Blizzard, what happens when he becomes captivated with Barbara Ferris?
“The Penalty” is presented in 1080p High Definition and remastered in HD from the 35 mm restoration print from the George Eastman House Motion Picture Department and is color tinted according to the surviving instructions. It’s important for people to know that Kino is not a company that cleans up their films but presents the film in high definition as provided to them. They choose films with the best print and so, you can expect prints to have some damage, tears and white specks and occasional hair or dirt that was made permanent during the restoration (at the time, many companies restored the nitrate print by converting it to 35 mm but with all defects included).
Fortunately for “The Penalty”, the film is not in bad shape at all. There are visible splicing, color tinting was a tad bit saturated at times and there are white specks but for the most part, I was quite pleased of watching this film in HD and seeing more detail as opposed to the 2001 DVD which had DNR but also a bit of blurring. But the contrast is good and I saw no major issues when it comes to artifacts or any significant errors. I’m confident that this Blu-ray release will be the definitive version of “The Penalty” to see for quite some time.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“The Penalty” features a new musical score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra in 2.0 Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. I’m always a fan of Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s work and I enjoyed their score for this Blu-ray release of “The Penalty”.
The music is fantastic and sounds amazing, crisp and clear via its lossless soundtrack. Rodney Sauer wrote on Nitrateville.com, “Mont Alto’s score for ‘The Penalty’ — after our previous score for ‘Les Vampires’ — has had us wallowing in melodrama for most of 2012. But we really like this kind of music, it gives us a great opportunity for emotional playing. This Blu-Ray is also our first recording with my newly acquired Kawai grand piano, though in most of these arrangements, the piano ends up pretty buried. When Lon plays his piano on-screen, you’ll hear it a little more to the front. Grand pianos are very inspiring to play, but can be difficult to record.”
“The Penalty” come with the following special features:
- Chaney’s Secrets Revealed – (9:33) Author Michael F. Blake gives a video tour of Chaney’s actual make-up case and the costume he wore in “The Penalty”.
- “By the Sun’s Rays” – (11:27) A Lon Cheney one-reel western.
- The Miracle Man– (2:37) The only surviving footage of Lon Chaney’s breakthrough 1919 feature “The Miracle Man”.
- Lon Chaney Trailers – Featuring a trailer for “The Big City” and “While the City Sleeps”.
“The Penalty” comes with a slipcase.
As I tried to put myself in the shoes of those who must have watched this film in 1920, I can certainly see how this film would be chilling to viewers. A dark and somewhat evil character, Lon Chaney’s Blizzard shows viewers the cruelty of the underworld.
Viewers get to see how Blizzard is feared as he rules with an iron fist, he has show girls forcibly working under him and how his temper can easily flare to the point of hurting another woman with not so care in the world and the fact that he has this power, he gives this evil grin that surely is a predecessor of the evil grin that Jack Nicholson is known for in his chilling films such as “The Shining”.
And while people die in this film, it also is quite interesting to see how police are featured in the film. The criminals are always a step ahead of the police, so their best chance is Rose, an agent sent to infiltrate Blizzard’s operations and manages to do it.
While some may see this as a positive role for a woman officer in an early silent film, unfortunately, while she is successful to infiltrate and do her own recon, she makes a key mistake which gives herself away. To make things worse, she falls for Blizzard’s charms and is torn between duty and love for him. So, much that when he plays the organ, Rose kneels down to play the piano’s pedals for him.
There are quite a few scenes that are implausible and personally, there are times that I wondered that if all these women do not like to be treated so badly, what stops dozens of them from getting revenge as he is a man with no feet and on crutches. Suffice to say, this is one of those films one shouldn’t think hard of why these people do not do things this way or that way, just think of Blizzard as this evil power that men and women fear, despite his physical disability.
But what makes this film so entertaining is to see Lon Cheney giving an amazing performance. A man who had to undergo tremendous pain just to walk on his knees and take part in many stunts, I was just amazed of how much he was able to accomplish. But it’s his performance that the film rides on his shoulders and he manages to succeed and making the film worth one’s time to watch. And the scene of Blizzard posing as satan is quite creepy.
As for the Blu-ray release, for silent film fans, to have a silent Lon Cheney film on Blu-ray is fantastic, considering his breakthrough film “The Miracle Man” is lost. But it’s great to see the surviving footage of the film included on this Blu-ray plus one of his earlier shorts from 1914, the western “By the Sun’s Rays” included as well. Especially a video tour of Chaneys’ actual makeup case and his costume used on “The Penalty”.
Picture quality on this Blu-ray release is much better in detail and contrast over its 2001 DVD counterpart and the new score in lossless audio by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is well-done.
Overall, Cheney’s performance in “The Penalty” is impressive even today, over 90-years-later, how one actor can perform a role with so much pain but yet give a commanding performance is a testament to how amazing an actor he was during that era. And it’s a gangster film that probably was dark and terrifying for its time.
“The Penalty” is another welcomed addition to the George Eastman House titles on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber. And to have a silent Lon Cheney film on Blu-ray is another win for silent film fans who have wanted to see more silent films featuring other notable talents in HD. And one can hope that Kino Lorber continues bringing more films with other silent film stars on Blu-ray!
As for this Blu-ray, “The Penalty” is recommended!
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