Silent Masterpieces: The Penalty and the Passion of Joan of Arc

One evening at dinner, my friend Christopher J. Garcia asked me, “What’s your favorite silent film?”  More than a few came to mind, such as those by the German Expressionists, Pandora’s Box starring Louise Brooks, and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.  I replied, however, “The Passion of Joan of Arc . . . no, wait. The Penalty with Lon Chaney.”  In fact, both hold equal places in my heart, because both examine the human condition from different philosophical points of view.  When Chris then revealed that he was planning the special issue on silent films that you’re reading now, I leapt at the chance to explain why I’m so in love with these two films.  Let’s begin with The Penalty.

The Penalty

8c14f20df47a0157b6a389913720e580The world remembers Lon Chaney as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” and that reputation stems from more than just his role as a pioneer of cinematic makeup techniques.  Chaney not only used makeup and applications, but he effected body-transforming contortions using various contraptions to alter his physical appearance and stature.   His Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Erik from The Phantom of the Opera come to mind for most.  In 1920, however, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released The Penalty, a crime yarn which many consider to be his breakout performance, directed by Wallace Worsley, with whom Chaney would collaborate later on The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Charles Kenyon, Philip Lonergan, and Gueverneur Morris adapted the script from Morris’s novel of the same name.  The story involves Blizzard, played by Chaney, a crime boss and double-amputee who during childhood lost his legs when Dr. Ferris, a surgeon fresh out of medical school, removed them unnecessarily.  Ferris then lied to Blizzard and his parents in an attempt to hide his incompetence.  But Blizzard had overheard an earlier conversation between Ferris and a colleague who encouraged this deception. Blizzard became embittered, and years later would develop into the underworld chief of the Barbary Coast region of San Francisco.   It is at this juncture that Blizzard again encounters Dr. Ferris and his daughter, a sculptress, and plots his revenge while planning a citywide crime caper worthy of Dr. Mabuse, the evil mastermind from German cinema.

Of course, no computerized special effects existed to transform Chaney into a legless amputee, so he resorted to a system of belts and straps to pin his lower legs behind his body.  He then fitted his knees into leather cuffs and wore over-sized clothing to further mask these bodily manipulations.  Viewers are stunned as Chaney leaps, climbs, and walks with the aid of crutches.  How he endured having his legs tied in this manner for so long boggles, even if it has been reported widely that he suffered severe back strain while completing this project.  With cosmetics and facial distortions, he adds the finishing touch to his evil caricature.

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One watches The Penalty for Chaney’s performance, since several inconsistencies mar the plot.  Nonetheless, I’m attracted not only to Chaney’s mastery, but to how this film stands as an example of early twentieth-century naturalism.  Emile Zola first defined naturalism in literature as a philosophical attempt to study humankind and the laws that govern our behaviors.  These laws are observable in the physical environment, and the overall hypothesis dictates that our behaviors originate not from any spiritual agency, but from earthly antecedents.  Much literature of the era follows what became a movement of sorts, and novels in this vein are rife with under-educated or lower-class characters, pessimistic moods, and gritty settings, all concocted to “test” how we develop morally through our physical environments.  Indeed, Frank Norris or Theodore Dreiser could have written the script for The Penalty, which ends with an exploration on the origins of Blizzard’s evil nature that has nothing to do with the shock of losing his legs and overhearing two doctors scheme to deceive him.  In searching for revenge, Blizzard even maneuvers Barbara, Dr. Ferris’s daughter, into employing him as a model for what she hoped would stand as her most magnificent sculpture, “Satan after the Fall.”  This implied comparison between Blizzard and Satan might invite viewers to conclude that some spiritual agency is afoot in the universe, one that played on Blizzard’s anger and bitterness to tempt him to the dark side, but no.  The ending, even though easily perceived as Blizzard’s comeuppance, springs from nothing but earthly causes.

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The Passion of Joan of Arc

imagesI first encountered the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer through a friend madly in love with his work.   Vampyr and Ordet ranked high in his estimation, but he simply raved about the silent opus that many have deemed not only his masterpiece, but one of the greatest masterpieces of all cinematic history, The Passion of Joan of Arc.   “Unfortunately,” my friend informed me, “you can’t find a VHS or DVD copy of the version you should watch, Dreyer’s original, the one restored in 1985.”  Lo and behold, in 1999 Criterion released a DVD featuring this very version, found in a Norwegian mental institution, where it had rested unseen by human eyes since its premiere in 1928 — until 1981 when a worker stumbled on it in a closet!  I’d never seen my friend more ecstatic.  After purchasing my own copy and viewing it, I too immediately joined the hallelujah chorus.

Others have gone into great detail about the convoluted history of The Passion of Joan of Arc replete with angry French nationalists and Catholics looking to censor controversial materials, accidental fires at studios, Dreyer’s status as a non-Catholic, until finally there’s the gold at the end of a rainbow ending in a closet in a mental hospital in Oslo, Norway.  The Criterion DVD includes a nice summary of this sad progression of events leading to a final event somewhat akin to the falling of manna from Heaven, and yet another reason for you to obtain that DVD.  I dream that one day another like this Norwegian employee will come across a pristine copy of Lon Chaney’s London after Midnight.  I’m not accepting bets, however.

As for the plot, most are familiar with the Maid of Orleans, the fifteenth-century peasant girl who led the French into battle against the English during the Hundred Years’ War.  In 1430, English troops captured her and then turned her over for trial.  Dreyer begins his story here with a screenplay based on actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, conducted by French priests who were pro-English. Amazingly, Renee Jeanne Falconetti, the actress portraying the nineteen-year old Joan, was thirty-five at the time, but Falconetti’s performance compels us to easily overlook the difference.  The actions mirrors passion stories told about the trial and execution of Christ, and through her eventual martyrdom Joan ascends to Christ-like status.  Dreyer chooses to map this ascension through, of all elements, the faces of his actors.

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Honestly, I can’t recall any film that so successfully relies on portraits to relate thematic content.   Dreyer juxtaposes close-ups of Mlle. Falconetti, her eyes wide and filled with either fear or grace depending on the moment, with the venal scowls or derisive leers of the priests and jailers to emphasize the distinction between Joan’s true devotion and the corrupt nature of the Church.  The actors wear no makeup.  Often flies crawl across Joan’s face, or a tear falls along her cheek.  The faces of her inquisitors — caked with moles and carbuncles, crevices furrowed into their cheeks, and malicious light burning in their eyes — tell more about betrayal and false piety than any lengthy tract by Luther or Calvin.  Furthermore, Dreyer chose an austere setting that while convincingly medieval has minimal detail so as not to distract from the true center of this story, the faces of those experiencing it.

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When the Criterion DVD reaches your hands, view The Passion of Joan of Arc both with and without Richard Einhorn’s 1995 “Voices of Light” musical score.  Einhorn incorporates several medieval components that wonderfully accentuate to movement of the film.  However, watching without the score will allow you to focus more on the cinematography.  This film is a master class in cinematography from the facial angles to the chief interrogator entering the room and blotting out the shadow of a cross formed from the sun shining through the lattice of a window.  Although lost on few, the symbolism here strikes one as bold rather than blunt.

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Both The Penalty and The Passion of Joan of Arc present audiences with debauched worlds and individuals.  Both consist of plots and themes that investigate human nature.  The differences lie in philosophical focus and outcomes.  Both end in redemption, but the crafters of The Penalty envision this not so much as God’s grace, but as biologically determined through what eventually happens to Blizzard medically and how this changes his nature.  I won’t reveal more details.  You’ll have to watch to see what I mean.  The Passion of Joan of Arc, on the other hand, is all about spirituality, about how pure devotion to God can free us from the flesh.  If only those pro-English priests had listened to God’s message as told through Joan before it was too late!  But it’s not too late for you.  Both these films await your attention.

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