The Penalty (1920 film)

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The Penalty
Re-issue poster for The Penalty in the late 1920s by MGM. The Penalty was originally a sole Goldwyn production in 1920.
Directed by Wallace Worsley
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Rex Beach
Written by Charles Kenyon
Philip Lonergan
Gouverneur Morris
Claire Adams
Starring Lon Chaney, Sr.
Cinematography Donovan Short
Edited by Frank E. Hull
Distributed by Goldwyn Pictures
Release dates
  • August 1920 (1920-08)
Running time
90 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles
The Penalty

The Penalty is an American crime film starring Lon Chaney and originally released in 1920. The movie was directed by Wallace Worsley, and written by Philip Lonergan and Charles Kenyon, based upon the pulp novel by Gouverneur Morris. The supporting cast includes Charles Clary, Doris Pawn, Jim Mason, and Claire Adams.[1]




The film follows gangster Blizzard (Lon Chaney), whose legs were mistakenly amputated at a young age. Driven insane by a head injury and by having to walk with crutches on his stumps, Blizzard becomes a crime lord. He tracks down the doctor who performed his operation, and plots a twisted revenge: kidnap the doctor's daughter's fiance (Clary), and graft his legs onto Blizzard's stumps.


Ethel Grey Terry and Lon Chaney in The Penalty
Magazine advertisement

The apparatus worn by Chaney to simulate amputated legs, which consisted primarily of two wooden buckets and multiple leather straps, was complex and incredibly painful. Chaney's knees sat in the buckets, while his lower legs were tied back. Studio doctors asked that Chaney not wear the device, but he insisted on doing so, so that his costume would be authentic.

To assure audiences that Chaney was not an amputee, the original release of the film reportedly included a short epilogue clip showing Chaney out of character. This clip does not survive in the existing prints but in the movie itself, in the scene where Blizzard (Chaney) imagines his gang of anarchists carrying the loot from the Mint Building, Chaney is seen directing the heist unamputated.


The Penalty was one of Chaney's breakout roles, showcasing his taste for the macabre and talent for contortion and disguise. He had previously demonstrated similar qualities in the previous year's The Miracle Man, but The Penalty and Treasure Island, both of 1920, secured Chaney's place as one of America's most famous character actors, before moving on to his more famous roles in 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1925's The Phantom of the Opera.

In 2009 Empire Magazine named it #17 in a poll of the 20 Greatest Gangster Movies You've Never Seen* (*Probably).


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