Produced by Eminent Authors Pictures, Inc.; Released 7/24/20 by Goldwyn Pictures Corp.; Director: Wallace Worsley; Screenplay: Charles Kenyon and Philip Lonergan, from a novel by Gouverneur Morris; Cinematography: Don Short; Film Editor: Frank E. Hull; 7 reels (6730'); Print Source: George Eastman House, Warner Brothers Classics
CAST: Lon Chaney (Blizzard), Ethel Grey Terry (Rose), Kenneth Harlan (Dr. Wilmont), Claire Adams (Barbara Ferris), Charles Clary (Dr. Ferris), Edouard Trebaol (Bubbles), James Mason (Frisco Pete), Milton Ross (Lichtenstein), Wilson Hummel (A Crook), J. Montgomery Carlyle
SYNOPSIS: Young Dr. Ferris has just handled his first serious case...a traffic accident in which he had to amputate a boys legs above the knees in order to save his life. A second doctor arrives and examines the boy, noticing that he has a contusion at the base of the skull. In shock, he declares that the amputation was unnecessary. The young boy hears and tells his parents, but the older doctor lies for Ferris and says the boy is delirious. Twenty-seven years pass, and San Francisco is a beautiful town with one blemish--the Barbary coast. Frisco Pete, a drug addict, has just stabbed Barbary Nell and is chased by the police when he encounters Blizzard, the legless leader of the underworld who hides the man. Blizzard is a demon who rules the underworld with an iron grip. Rose, an operative of the police is told to penetrate his fortress, where dozens of women are mysteriously working making hats. Rose gets a job as one of the women in the hat factory, and Blizzard takes a liking to her as she is musically inclined and works the pedals on the piano while he plays. Barbara Ferris, the daughter of the now eminent Dr. Ferris is a sculptor, and although Dr. Wilmont has proposed marriage many times, she says she must try one more work..."Satan After the Fall." Advertising for a model "who looks like Satan," Blizzard sees his chance for revenge, and with his grim face, he is easily hired by Barbara.
While he is posing, Rose searches his house, finding a secret passage through the fireplace that leads to both an arsenal, and a fully equipped operating room. On his return, Blizzard finds a hairpin in his papers, and while playing piano, compares it to one of Rose's, finding them a perfect match. He plans to kill the girl, but hesitates because of her beautiful "pedalling." Rose's note to a fellow agent is intercepted by Frisco Pete who gives it to Blizzard. Dr. Ferris has learned of Blizzard's visits to Barbara, and he arrives at the apartment, begging him to leave his daughter alone. Blizzard confers with O'Hagan, his lieutenant, and discloses his plan: In three months, O'Hagan's men, armed and identified by Blizzard's hats, will create disturbances that will draw the police and fire department out to the suburbs. They will then rob the entire city of San Francisco. O'Hagan, thinking Blizzard mad, leaves, whereupon Blizzard orders Rose from the closet where she is hiding. He tells her that her note was intercepted so she has done him no harm. She is glad, for she realizes that she is in love with Blizzard. Blizzard makes phone calls to Drs. Ferris and Wilmont to lure them to his house. Wilmont is captured on his arrival; Dr. Ferris is ordered to cut off Wilmont's legs and sew them onto his stumps. Rose can bear no more and flees to bring the police. When they arrive, Ferris has operated...not on Blizzard's legs, but to remove the contusion from his head that has caused his criminal actions. Having been cured, and given up his life of crime, Blizzard's old gang fears he will turn them in. One evening, after his marriage to Rose, Frisco Pete steals into the house and shoots Blizzard while he plays piano. He dies saying that he must pay the penalty for his crimes.
"It is needless to say that the picture is Chaney more than any one else...The continuity is not always smooth, the action not always sustained. Episodes are often too racy to suit the intelligence of the picture patron. But there is no denying that the feature is interesting." --- Variety
"Here is a picture that is about as cheerful as a hanging---and as interesting. You can't, being an average human and normal as to your emotional reactions, really like THE PENALTY, any more than you could enjoy a hanging. But for all its gruesome detail you are quite certain to be interested in it...It is a remarkably good performance this actor (Chaney) gives." ---Photoplay
"One of the striking things about the picture is the remarkable characterization given by Lon Chaney, who has the leading character...Rarely has the screen seen a better piece of acting." - --Moving Picture World
NOTES: Despite the contemporary reviews, which obviously did not know what to make of this bizarre Tod Browningesque gangster story, THE PENALTY today is considered by many critics to be one of Chaney's finest performance and certainly one of his best films. This was the first teaming of director Worsley and Chaney, who would go on to make a total of five features together over the next three years. Aside from his small but important role in THE MIRACLE MAN, this was the first time he played a truly gruesome role, a trait he would be identified with for most of his remaining career. This was also the first of four films Chaney would make for Samuel Goldwyn before beginning his long tenure at MGM.
Several sources list Milton Ross incorrectly as O'Hagan. Although produced by Eminent Authors Pictures, Inc. and released by Goldwyn Pictures Corp., the film was copyrighted by Gouverneur Morris, the author of the original novel.
Also, check out this lobby card in my Poster Gallery.
© 1998,2008 Jon C. Mirsalis
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