|Lon Chaney as Blizzard.|
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.|
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.|
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.|