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Thousand Faces, Two Legs

August 07, 1994

Gary Sinise is a lucky fellow ("More 'Gump' Effects--The Gary Sinise Illusion," Film Clips, July 10). He had all the advantages of special effects and computer graphics to help him appear as an amputee. He's very fortunate compared to what Lon Chaney went through when he played a double amputee.

In "The Penalty" (1920, Goldwyn Pictures), Chaney played Blizzard, the legless ruler of San Francisco's underworld. Without the aid of computers or even trick photography, Chaney devised a set of leather stumps that allowed him to actually walk on his knees. He first strapped his legs behind him, then donned an oversized pair of pants, which looked more like a large pair of shorts. He then placed his legs into the leather stumps, which had a strap running lengthwise up the legs and attaching to a belt around his waist. A padded chest piece (to give a fuller appearance to the upper torso) and an oversized jacket completed the effect.

Chaney was able to wear this device for only 10 minutes at a time and then would require his legs to be massaged. His grandson, Lon Ralph Chaney, told me that Chaney would wear this device around the house for weeks before filming, practicing the things he would do in the film. Hazel Chaney, the actor's widow, said the producers added a scene at the end of the picture when it was originally released to prove that Chaney was not an amputee nor was he doubled by one.

Yet the effect of Chaney as an amputee is still very startling when the film is viewed 74 years later. And, like Sinise's performance, Chaney's work is still riveting. Despite the physical effect, his performance still dominates the picture.

MICHAEL F. BLAKE

Studio City

Blake is the author of "Lon Chaney--The Man Behind the Thousand Faces" (Vestal Press, 1993).

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