The real question, no more easy for Browning or Chaney to answer, may be "why do we imagine it?" Maybe show people can't help themselves. Maybe Browning was onto something when his subconscious told him that the mask of benevolence too often was just that. Maybe he saw deformity and grotesquerie slightly differently from his peers. The typical view was that ugliness indicated bad character, that you could tell a criminal by his hard or brutish features. Yet the Bishop is more grotesque than the Blackbird, but is intended by the latter as a false embodiment of good. For Browning, I suspect, Chaney's contortions reflect the ongoing contortions of his character's soul -- not degeneracy but the constant struggle of contradictory impulses. For Chaney himself, they seemed like a necessary ordeal to elicit the right interpretation of each role. Browning would raise these questions of bodies and souls most alarmingly in Freaks, but the tone is necessarily different when your star only pretends -- physically, at least -- to be a freak
As in The Unknown, Chaney's imposture eventually becomes reality. Dan has pulled off a quick change and is hobbling out to receive investigators when one of the latter pushes his way into the Bishop's room, whacking the poor unfortunate with the door. The impact knocks Dan on his back, and that impact, given his weird posture, fractures his back. "Now I'm a real cripple!" he moans in agony to his last confidant, his former flame Limehouse Polly. At this point, O. Henry or Al Feldstein would pause, their point having been made. Browning goes further. To a point, The Blackbird has been a parody of Chaney's own attempts to milk his contortions for pathos, to make his antiheroes misunderstood misfits. The Bishop would be an object of pathos if he saintliness wasn't just the Blackbird's cynical disguise. Yet I'll be damned if they don't play for pathos at the very end after all, as Dan lies literally broken. It's nothing so hokey as Dan acquiring his alter ego's holiness, but as Polly tries to quiet his agony our hardened criminal becomes something like a pathetic child. He knows that if the coppers see the Bishop howling in pain they'll know that he ain't been crippled before. She comes up with the obvious solution: go to sleep. Easier said than done given his pain, but she exerts a kind of hypnotic power on him, calming him as he murmurs proudly about fooling the law one more time. He never wakes up. It could almost pass for a martyrdom, if only because that was Chaney's specialty. He got to play plain old tough guys sometimes, but as we remember him today the ordeal was his performance art, his method. Browning's probably weren't the only fantasies inspired by his cinematic suffering; a generation of pulp fiction, for starters, tells the tale. It's the dark side of the pathos silent cinema audiences craved so much, and sometimes more horrible than the movie horrors that followed. Chaney's films often remain disturbing because retain that incomprehensible element -- not just why he does such strange things, but why they were even imagined, much less embraced by the public. He and Browning are emissaries from a past that is our own yet may as well be an alien world in some respects. That's a little scary in its own right.