Monday, April 25, 2011

The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney as Blizzard.
Before there was Tom Savini, there was "The Man of a Thousand Faces," Lon Chaney, the great silent horror actor who quite literally wrote the book on movie make up techniques--among other contributions, Chaney wrote the first edition on film make up for the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1929. In addition to the usual array of powder and grease paint, Chaney used most anything he could find to achieve the results he wanted, and never shied away from possibilities that would be too dangerous or uncomfortable for most anyone else. In The Phantom of the Opera alone, he put a film of egg white over his eyeballs to make them appear cloudy, and stretched a piece of fish skin over his face in order to reshape its basic contours. While the claim that an inhaled grain of artificial snow from a film set caused the throat cancer that killed him is likely false, he did cause irreparable damage to his health through make up and effects used in at least two films, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Penalty.

Born to a family of deaf-mutes, the forms of communication essential for silent film came naturally to Chaney. More than that, though, the experience of living among the disabled engendered in Chaney a deeply felt sympathy for the misfortunes of others. Although he did not direct his own films, Chaney was very deliberate in his choice of roles and in the way his characters were depicted. "I hope I shall never be accused of striving merely for horrible effects," he said of his own work. He was a master of the art of recreating the human face so as to cause disgust and loathing in audiences, but his ultimate goal was always to make his audience overcome their own revulsion and sympathize with his horrible creations. This process is fundamental to the story of his two most famous roles, Quasimodo and the Phantom, but even outside of this his roles almost all seem to point to a sort of moral tale: characters who are brutalized by society through no fault of their own who must learn, through the aid of one or more sympathetic persons, how to reintegrate themselves into a world that does nothing to welcome them. 

Wallace Worsley's The Penalty (1920) was an early role for Chaney, several years before any of his most famous roles, yet in it is already present the basic sketch of the sort of character to which Chaney always returned. In The Penalty Chaney plays Blizzard, a man who had both legs amputated following a tragic accident when he was a boy. Based on a conversation he overheard among the doctors, Blizzard believes that the amputation was unnecessary, the result of an inexperienced doctor's error in judgment. Thus he has grown up consumed by blinding hatred, for the doctor who mutilated his body and the world in which that doctor exists. Fueled by his hatred, Blizzard has risen to become the leader of the San Francisco underworld, and is feared and mistrusted by all. They have reason for their fear--he treats his friends and enemies alike with careless, mocking sadism, and has no sympathy for any but his own misfortunes.

Ultimately it is Chaney's acting, not his costume, that makes this portrayal so intense.
In order to create the character of the double amputee, Chaney strapped both legs back at the knee, fitting his legs into a leather harness that allowed him to walk on his knees. It was excruciatingly painful, even causing permanent damage to his leg muscles. He could only tolerate it for a few minutes at a time, so all filming had to be done in short bursts. It has been claimed that it was through channeling the physical pain caused by the costume that he created the remarkable intensity of his characterization of Blizzard. Although he does not use any extensive make up techniques as he would become known for later, it was his portrayal of Blizzard that established Chaney as a master of the macabre. When offering himself for a position as an artist's model, Blizzard asks the artist if she thinks he looks like Satan. There can be no doubt as to her answer, but the effect is created purely through Chaney's expressions, not through any disfigurement of the face.

Like the Phantom, the chink in Blizzard's armor is his love of music. Playing the piano provides Blizzard with his only release from his all-consuming hatred, and he is a gifted performer. Without legs, he must have an assistant to work the pedals, for which he recruits a series of girls to serve as his mistresses and musical assistants. The most recent of these girls, Rose, is in fact a spy, seeking information about his criminal activities to give to the police. The pair find a peculiar sort of harmony in their playing together; Rose is so awed by his music that she feels there must be good in him that can be saved, and Blizzard values her partnership too much to want to do without her, even when he knows she has betrayed him to the police.

Blizzard's love of music humanizes his character and thus becomes the key to his salvation, but only in terms of the audiences's response to him. The relationship with Rose that is created by their shared love of music allows the audience to sympathize with a character who is in all other respects about as likable as a rattlesnake, but this relationship has no real impact on the events that shape Blizzard's fate in the story itself. This story, like most of Chaney's films, will ultimately reassert the goodness of humankind, but this is a goodness that is often overshadowed by greed and self interest.

Blizzard climbing a ladder to spy on his girls.
In spite of its context in the world of organized crime, this is no proto-noir thriller, and Blizzard's evil plans for the city are of little importance. Rather, the film anticipates the work Chaney would later do with Tod Browning in its emphasis on the grotesque, although the emotional thrust of the story makes it clear that it is Blizzard's mind that is gruesome, not his physical deformity. When he hires himself out for an artist's model for a portrait of Satan, it is only his torso and head used in the portrait. It is his face that is truly horrifying, insofar as it is a reflection of his deranged mind. His legs alone would elicit only pity. Blizzard's physical disfigurement is not nearly so disturbing as the plan he has concocted to manipulate the doctor who operated on him as a boy to graft onto him the legs of another (living) man. It is a wild and crazy scheme, meant to be completed in a hidden underground surgical room accessed through a trapdoor in Blizzard's fireplace.

The world of the film is dense and atmospheric, with the mazes and hidden chambers of Blizzard's lair mirroring both the hills and dark alleys of the San Francisco streets and the uncomfortable psychological space the story inhabits. In defiance to his deformity, he moves about his lair effortlessly, sliding down poles, climbing up peg ladders, and clambering up and down ropes and pulleys. Blizzard himself is just as problematic; through Rose's love the audience wants to sympathize with him, but even the most forgiving viewer could find little to like. In spite of his obvious connection with Rose, he is actively pursuing the attentions of another woman, the daughter of the doctor who is at the center of his hatred, and intends to force her to marry him, if only because doing so will cut her father the deepest.

Blizzard posing as Satan.
Although The Penalty is at heart a morality tale, the road it takes is as twisted and deformed as the mind of the man it purports to save. There is no good and evil, only the actions of humans who are struggling along, trying to do the best they can by each other. Eventually this description must apply even to Blizzard, as much as his own self-loathing resists any such sense of community. Chaney's portrayal is mesmerizing, creating a character who is simultaneously repulsive, sexy, terrifying and, if you look hard enough, worth saving.

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