Intertitle of the Week: Slumdog Millinery

Blizzard, underworld emperor of the Barbary Coast (Lon Chaney), attempts to conquer San Francisco — with headgear:

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Such is the demented plot of THE PENALTY, directed by underrated Hollywood hack Wallace Worseley (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME). This is the one where Chaney, as Blizzard, is famously truncated at the knees, stumping about in leather stump-boots, an impressive bit of costume and performance trickery. Gasp! as Chaney climbs a wall without benefit of legs! Wince! as he jumps off a table!

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Too many good intertitles in this to number. I could take an intertitle a week from this film for a year, without running out of fresh delights, but I might run out of things to say. A few choice ones ~

“Hats and men — what’s the devil up to?”

“That monster ought to be chloroformed and put out of the way.”

“Listen, my baffled hero — if you wish the lady to go free –“

“–you must hand over to me your superb legs.”

“Don’t grieve, dear — death interests me.”

The movie’s chief strategy is to hurl surprise in the audience’s face with the hysterical frenzy of a Japanese schoolgirl in a water balloon fight. And the censor seems to have gotten into the spirit of the thing too, with bizarre decisions which flip conventional morality on its head. When Blizzard is eventually cured of his evil by an experimental brain operation (it wasn’t the loss of his legs that embittered him, it was the “contusion at the base of the skull” which drove him to psychopathy) and allowed to lead an evil life, the moral guardians of the day objected, even though the film clearly states that the character was not legally or morally responsible for his early crimes. So the studio shot an ending where a former criminal associate assassinates Blizzard and flees into the night. Justice is satisfied — in an ending where a good man is murdered and the guy who did it escapes scot-free to continue his criminal empire.

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Even after the end title, we get the thrill of seeing the Goldwyn lion (MGM as yet but a twinkle), who does not bestir himself to roar, but merely sits, flyblown and depressed, wondering when is lunch. Based on this experience, I’m starting to think director Wallace Worseley may be a competitor for Tod Browning’s crown, as king of silent insanity. A fresh viewing of HUNCHBACK seems like a possibility.

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19 Responses to “Intertitle of the Week: Slumdog Millinery”

  1. My copy of this, picked up in Paris, has only French intertitles so I seem to have missed an entire layer of madness. And you didn’t even get around to Lon modelling for a controversial statue of Mephistopheles as part of his wild and crazy plan….

  2. And I barely even talk about the amazing legwork — the DVD extras show how his costume worked, and go into the tortuous process of adapting the sensational potboiler by Governeur Morris (great name!).

    Lon reads the news ad looking for someone to pose for a Satan statue, and gets to say to a henchman “Do you think I look like Satan?” before pulling a suitably satanic expression. He then arranges for all the other applicants to be sent away unseen, which I think was actually unnecessary: you have the part, Mr Chaney.

  3. Christopher Says:

    If you haven’t already,I hope you get around to seeing Worsley and Chaney’s The Ace of Hearts…Its a quiet gem,quick and suspenseful and due to the nature of the underground society in which Chaney belongs,you’ll love the title cards!
    I sometimes get The Penalty mixed up with a similar crippled criminal Chaney opus,the Shock..Wilse Dilling???..where do they get these names??..Blizzard..lol..the Shock is another little jewel..but The Penalty is expetional!..I just watched it a month or so ago myself(the Kino dvd)..and its a beaut!..Great title cards and great moments..Theres a scene near the beginning that strikes me as being morbidly sensual,where a (and I hope this isn’t in The Shock…or even The Blackbird)an Assassin is getting ready to OFF a young lady in a Den of iniquity by stabbing her with a knife.In his eagernes to be getting at it,or maybe a way to hide his deed ,hes cut thru his own pocket with the Dagger..big blade poking out!
    Then of course theres the piano peddle pushing scenes!…snicker snicker

  4. All this sounds like tremendously entertaining stuff… Not only Pre-Code but silent film awesomeness!

    I recall, ages ago, perusing through the pages of the local edition of “Famous Monsters”… Chaney Sr’s characterizations were always the most creatively bizarre… And the best of it is that he was responsible for his own make-up. All other hooror film icons had an actor on the side and a make-up specialist (Westmore, Pierce)… in the other

    Looks like I’ll have to get myself a good batch of Kino silents when I have the funds.

  5. Christopher Says:

    aside from the Make-up,I think the REAL horror of the Chaney “character”..is the Horror of rejection..the horror of being outcast..The Horror of of always being in love- alone..from afar..

  6. Chaney’s monster-villain comes so close to getting the girl in this one — it’s just not fair!

    The dagger bursting through the coat lining (which does indeed feature here) gets recycled in Night of the Hunter, and it seems possible that Laughton might have deliberately borrowed it, given that film’s debt to silent cinema, and given that Laughton reprised Chaney’s role as hunchback in another Worseley film.

    Yeah, Chaney getting his girlfriend to crouch on the floor and work the pedals of his piano as he plays is indeed a perverse and remarkable idea.

    Ace of Hearts is duly noted — I’ll watch out for it.

  7. So glad you liked it.

  8. What is it with Chaney and human vivisection? Or was it a more common trope in those days and we only recall the Chaney films? Between the arm-fixated The Unknown and the leg-amputations that litter this film, the ’20s looks like a pretty chop-crazy era. Nurse! The screens!

  9. Lon: big fan!

    Paul: The way I imagine it, Chaney as specialist in the grotesque was led naturally to try playing an amputee. When the first film was a hit, it made him ponder which other limbs he could afford to lose.

    The most vivisectional one is maybe The Monster, a weird comedy-thriller in which he’s a mad scientist who engineers car wrecks and experiments on the victims. Like Horror Hospital but not as interesting, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that the mix of humour and grisliness might be… off-putting.

    I imagine publicity for The Unknown taking a slant like, “You loved him legless! Now Lon Chaney is armless, charmless, but far from harmless!”

    The slogan for The Penalty could be “Tremble at the tread of his approaching knees!”

  10. “The dagger bursting through the coat lining”

    Well… now you got me definitely enticed! Is there a screencap available of that moment? I’d like to be able to compare it to the Night of the Hunter scene.

    I’d like to know if the scene from “The Penalty” has the same implications as the one in NOTH. There, Mitchum watches a stripteuse/burlesque girl, then we see his face showing disgust, but also the blade ripping off his pocket.

    in NOTH the scene suggests repressed/violent sexuality on Mitchum’s side: is there that implication in The Penalty?

  11. The Penalty isn’t as loaded with meaning. The heavy is preparing to off a girl who’s trying to leave the racket. As he approaches her, the dagger in his pocket rips through the lining of his coat. He stabs her, and she falls partway through a curtained balcony so her upper half dangles over the dance hall in a spectacular fashion.

    There’s a sexual connotation to it, but it’s certainly not as overt as in NOTH, since the knife in this case is about to be used for murder, and nobody’s stripteasing.

    Afraid I neglected to frame grab it, but I could do so and send you a copy.

  12. Christopher Says:

    Gloria ..heres a video from The Penalty with that scene.It starts at about 6mins.20seconds in…..lol..I forgot the Frisco Pete guy was the “old”James Mason..I always think of him as the guy who tries to kick his Ma out of her house and steal her Gold Bonds in the 1931 Our Gang-Fly My Kite..

  13. Christopher Says:

    woops..here the video

  14. Good work, Christopher!

  15. Who said that Alonzo is “charmless”? There are plenty of members of the fairer sex who find him quite appealing, even today, as they are drawn to his mystique, aura of danger and uniqueness. Also, you must remember that the handicapped were viewed much differently in the 1910s through 1920s than they are now.

    For many people, the sight of an amputee evoked a great sense of fear and, quite often, repulsion. I chose to play cripples because many of the heroic veterans of World World I returned home from military service looking just like my characters. These brave soldiers needed to be seen and recognized as human beings, not outcasts, atrocities and/or monsters. Even the most vile of my characters was played as 3-dimensional, giving the audience understanding, sensitivity and, most importantly, sympathy for the type of man who would otherwise be judged immediately and condemned.

    Regardless of their appearance, my characters were judged, liked and/or disliked for their actions and intentions. The real story was that which took place between the lines, in the subtext and subplot — in the look of an eye, turn of a head, gesture of a hand, and in the profoundly moving arias and crescendos of silence. That was the challenging departure from the norm, and that is what makes my characters memorable.

  16. Alonzo may not be charmless, but with his double thumb and his propensity for murder, he’s not the most attractive character essayed by Chaney. However, what makes the Chaney films as alive as they certainly are today is his refusal to portray these characters based on their externals. Alonzo’s helplessness in the face of love is mirrored in the extraordinarily vulnerable characters he played in West of Zanzibar and He Who Gets Slapped – men whose masculinity has been compromised in ways that go far beyond physical disability. His openness of countenance is something that always burns through the screen, making his villains as much kin to us as his heroes (I still haven’t seen his one truly overt heroic role, as the archetypal Marine Sergeant in Tell It to the Marines!, but in stills from it he looks like nobody so much as Warren Oates, his modernity something we’re still playing catch-up with).

  17. He Who Gets Slapped is mu all-time favourite movie.

    Bizarrely, I’ve had West of Zanzibar lined up to watch for YEARS and it keeps not happening. Perhaps proof that I have too many movies.

    There’s a double-edge to Chaney’s disabled characters, because they’re certainly human, but they tend to be bitter and twisted and evil. In a way that doesn’t matter as much as their humanity, but if the object was to overcome the audience’s horror, making what are in effect monster movies is either a perverse or a really cunning way to do it.

  18. Christopher Says:

    He Who Gets Slapped is probably my favorite too between The Unknown and the Phantom..I wonder how much Chaney injected his own personal experiances with his parents,into his films..People really were unkind to handicaps in those days..and Chinese too..Interesting that someone would want to continuely champion these things in a function where Image is everything.

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