Archive for May 17, 2009

Intertitle of the Week: Slumdog Millinery

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 17, 2009 by dcairns

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 Worsley (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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