Man of a Thousand Faces
Lon Chaney is raised by parents who cannot hear and becomes an entertainer. His first wife and he quarrel over taking care of their son and divorce. Lon becomes an extra in movies and works his way into starring roles with his ability to play various characters, and he marries Hazel who cares for his son.
On August 27, 1930 a car arrives at Universal Pictures, and Irving Thalberg (Robert Evans) gets out. On a stage he describes how the actor Lon Chaney portrayed a thousand faces and the human spirit. He tells his story.
In Colorado Springs the boy Lon Chaney comes home from school and tells a girl to go play with her doll. He goes in the house and goes upstairs. His mother Mrs. Chaney (Celia Lovsky) signs to a man and goes up and comforts Lon, who hugs her happily. He washes his hands in the bathroom.
On a rainy night Lon Chaney (James Cagney) in makeup as a clown gets out of a truck and goes into a theater. A stage manager tells him that they need one song from Cleva Creighton Chaney (Dorothy Malone), and he tries to get her on stage. After she falls into water, Lon goes on stage himself again and dances with a broom. He takes off white gloves, and one is very long. He makes flowers appear an dances with a mannequin. He goes offstage and hands the broom to the stage manager. He tells Cleva that they both quit. She suggests they could go to San Francisco, and she says she is going to have a baby. She wants him to take her to meet his family, and he agrees.
On a snowy night Lon and Cleva arrive in a carriage and are welcomed by his brother and sister. They go upstairs to a bedroom. He promises her things will be better now and asks her if she has ever gone fishing. His parents come in, and Lon dances with his mother who signs with Lon who introduces his mother and father to Cleva who is afraid. Lon tells her not to let them see that look. They all sit down at the dinner table and pray with signs before they start eating turkey. Cleva gets up and runs upstairs. Lon goes up to their room, and she asks him why he did not tell her. He says he tried, but he was scared. He thought it would be the end of them. He hoped that she would see they are like any other family. She is afraid her baby is going to be like them and says she does not want to have it. He goes out the front door, and his mother comes and signs to him on the porch. He converses with her by signs and kisses her. They go back inside, and he goes upstairs. Cleva is lying on the bed, and he apologizes to her and says he should have told her. His says it has been like this his whole life. He says he never talked in the street until he was eight. He asks if she will forgive him, and she says it doesn’t matter. He says it did not affect him or his sister or brother. He wants the baby, but she says she does not but will have it.
Lon gets out of a taxi and goes into a theater. He meets the press agent Clarence Locan (Jim Backus). On stage women are rehearsing dancing. Lon apologizes for being late and shows the director his book of press clippings. He says he learned from his mute parents who were in show business.
At his house in the country Lon is putting on makeup, and Cleva plays a music box. She says she does not want to hear it because she would rather talk. She does not like being isolated in the country, and she asks if he is trying to get her used to silence. He says the doctor says there is nothing to worry about. She says she is very scared.
Later in bed Lon talks in his sleep and wakes up. Cleva has turned on the light, and he tells her to go back to sleep.
The baby is born and cries loudly. Later Cleva tells Lon that she heard him cry. Lon and the doctor explain that they don’t know yet whether the boy will learn to speak. She cries.
At home Lon answers the door and signs for a telegram. He says it is from his folks who are worried because they have not heard from them since the baby was born. Cleva says the sound woke her, but the child did not hear it. Lon prays with signs, and Cleva complains. Lon claps his hands, and the baby cries. He and Cleva are happy, and he apologizes and says that will be the last time anyone will ever scare the baby.
At a theater the small boy arrives and meets chorus girls.
Lon puts his son Creighton to bed at home. The boy asks him to show him a story that his grandmother liked. Lon puts on a lady’s hat, a long nose, a shawl, and spectacles. He pretends to thread a needle and sew, making the boy laugh. He tells him to go to sleep and kisses him.
Lon is waiting up and sees Cleva get out of a car driven by a man. She comes in and asks him to say it. She says she took a job and is working. He asks about the boy, and she says she found a woman who will take care of him except on Thursdays when he can take him to the theater. She talks to the baby and gives him a gold nugget. Lon asks where she got it, and she says a drunk customer gave it to her. He gives her the nugget back and tells her that her working days are over. He wants her to take care of her son. She says she work. He says maybe when the boy is older. She is tired of being alone, and he says he is home whenever he can be. They quarrel, and she says she wants to make a life of her own. She says she does not want to talk about it anymore.
Lon performs on stage while his son Creighton watches from the wings with Hazel Bennet (Jane Greer). Locan shows Lon a picture in the newspaper of Cleva’s new show and asks if he is going to her opening. Lon says no. Hazel shows them the child, and Lon sends Locan to get medicine for the child.
Backstage in a dressing-room Lon tells Mr. Lake that he needs his wife to take care of their child, and Lake says he understands. Cleva comes in, and Mr. Darrow brings flowers to her. Cleva says she will see him later, and he goes out. She tells Lon that he is an important customer. Lon tells her that she is being replaced. He says their son was sick in a theater dressing-room. He says he needs her at home. She realizes that he had her fired and curses him. Darrow comes in and asks who Lon is. He says he came to collect his wife.
In the theater Lon sees a man abusing Hazel, and he hits him, knocking him down. He tells him to get up, and Hazel says he can’t. Lon sees that he has artificial legs, and he apologizes. Later she tells Lon that she was married to him years ago, but he has become bitter. Cleva comes in and asks Lon if this is why he wanted her at home. She says she did not go back to being a nursemaid so that he could play around with a chorus girl. She goes out. Lon picks up the boy and leaves. The man says that Hazel is in love with him.
Backstage Hazel and Lon learn from Locan that Cleva and the boy have been gone for three days. Lon goes on stage as a clown and dances with someone else acting for a shadow behind him. Cleva comes in backstage while Locan is on the phone. Lon dances and tells Cleva he will be right with her. She comes on stage and drinks something, collapsing. He tells them to bring the curtain down.
Later a doctor tells Lon that she damaged her vocal chords. He asks to see her, but the doctor advises him to give her a week. Lon tells Locan it is his fault. They learn that she was trying to reach Bill Darrow.
Lon comes home in a car, and reporters ask him why he did it. He hits one and goes into the house. Creighton asks him where Mommy is. Lon says she will be home in a few days. He thanks Hazel for taking care of the boy. Locan says he is going to straighten things out at the theater. Lon says no manager will have anything to do with him. He says he will take Creighton and make a fresh start somewhere else. Locan asks if he ever played in Los Angeles. Lon asks why go there, and Locan mentions moving pictures. Locan advises Hazel to find herself a banjo player.
At a hospital Lon tells Creighton that Mom is going to talk to them in whispers for a while, and they should make a game of it. Locan tells Lon that Cleva is not there, and no one knows where she went. Locan asks him to give her some time. Lon says she will never get near the boy again.
In court a judge grants Lon Chaney a divorce, but he says Lon cannot give the son a normal life. He declares the boy a ward of the court until he can establish gainful employment and a suitable home. Lon complains and asks his lawyer why he did not tell him this would happen.
At an orphanage Lon says goodbye to Creighton, and he promises he will visit him every week. He says it will not be for long and leaves.
Lon goes to Universal Pictures, and he is told he has to have a pass. Lon wants to show his press book. The guard asks Gert (Marjorie Rambeau) to urge him to be an extra, but Lon says he is an actor. She agrees to help him and tells him he is a plain ordinary guy and persuades him to be an extra. She takes him to an assistant director.
Lon in tails is hit by a pie in his face and is instructed to throw one at someone else. He tells Gert he always liked chocolate, and she apologizes. He says if he can be different things, he can keep working. They read a list of roles, and Lon prepares makeup for a role as a man with a scar. Gert asks him why he works so hard as an extra, and he says he needs the money to get his son back. He is picked for his scar, and a reporter asks his name.
Locan arrives in a car, and Lon uses a strange voice so that he will not be recognized at first. Locan says he has become a public relations manager. He asks if he knows an actor who can twist up his body. Locan says that Tucker wants to see him tomorrow, and Lon says he can come the day after.
Locan talks with Tucker about Chaney’s role and says he has made hundreds of pictures. In the scene Chaney uses a crutch to crawl on a sidewalk and in a gate. He throws down the crutches and struggles to his knees and to unwind his arms. He straightens one leg and then the other. He gets on his knees and slowly stands up and walks to the minister who has been praying for him, and he kisses his hand. The director calls cut, and Chaney tap dances. Locan introduces him to a free-lance writer who asks if he was married to Cleva Creighton and had a son. Chaney walks away and goes into his dressing-room. Locan comes in, and Chaney says he will not answer any more questions. A man tells him there is no room for a mystery man, but Locan suggests they could sell Chaney as the man of mystery.
At home Chaney asks Locan what the judge wants. He says he has been working steady and bought this nice house. He wants to get to know his son again. Locan says he asked a girl to stop by, and he lets in Hazel. Locan goes out to see a movie. Lon asks her to sit down, and she takes off her hat. They talk, and he says it has been three years. She says she is dancing at a theater, and she says he is doing well in the movies. She wrote a fan letter, but she did not send it. He says he could have used it. She asks about Creighton, and he says he is in the valley. He invites her to visit him. He wants to have a suitable home for the boy. She says maybe the judge wants a home with a father and a mother. Lon says he will put an ad for a mother under fifty. She says she qualifies, and he says Creighton was stuck on her. She admits she always has loved Lon, but he says he is hard to get along with. He tells her to ask Locan, and she says she did. He says he would have to add another room, and she asks if it would be difficult. He sees her look and goes toward her.
Lon and Creighton are fishing in a pond by a cabin. Hazel comes out and asks if they are coming. Lon says they will be there. Lon and Creighton sign, and Hazel asks what is going on. Creighton goes to clean the fish, and she sits down. Lon says the boy thinks his mother is dead. Locan arrives with Lon’s parents, and Creighton signs to them. Mrs. Chaney embraces him, and they all hug each other. Locan shows Lon a script, but he says he is on vacation.
In the house Creighton plays a game with his grandfather. Later Hazel asks to see what Lon was doing. He shows her his drawings for the script The Penalty. She urges him to do it and says the past can’t hurt them. He does drawings for Outside the Law, The Blind Bargain, Oliver Twist, The Hun, Treasure Island, and Bits of Life.
Chaney goes into a large office and meets with young Thalberg who asks if he read the book. Chaney says he could not put it down. Thalberg wants to make The Hunchback of Notre Dame into a major picture. He asks Chaney how he sees Quasimodo, and he shows him a book of sketches. He sees the heartbreak many miss, and Thalberg says that is what he wants the audience to see. Thalberg tells him that he thinks Chaney has a past that will help him in this role because of his childhood. He will help people understand someone who is different.
Chaney had made up his face for the role and asks a doctor to help him with his costume, but the doctor is perturbed he does not take his advice that it may hurt him. Chaney shows himself to Hazel, Locan, and the teenager Creighton who tosses the nugget in the air. Lon asks where he got that, and the boy says a lady gave it to him. He asks him to go out and get something for him. Lon tells Locan to bring Cleva to him.
On the set of The Hunchback of Notre Dame the actor Chaney is taken by soldiers to a platform where he is chained and whipped. He sees that Locan and Hazel have brought Cleva. The director calls cut, and Chaney goes to them. Cleva says his makeup is startling. He asks her what she wants, and she says he has done a good job with him. She would like to see him, and he asks how much she wants. She says it is no use and walks away with Locan. Hazel tells Lon that Creighton has a right to know that his mother is alive, but Lon says he is not to know.
At home Lon finds Creighton putting on makeup, and he says he would like to be an actor. He asks if he can be billed as Lon Chaney Junior. Lon says actors are not made but born. He says he is finishing his job tonight, and they will have a whole week at the cabin. Creighton says he does not want to go and goes into his room. Hazel asks Lon what is going on. She says his son loves him. Lon says he can go to the cabin or stay home.
Chaney acts in The Phantom of the Opera playing an organ in a mask. A beautiful woman pulls off his mask and sees his ugly face and collapses. After the take Locan says he did well. Hazel and Creighton are there, and the boy says the car is loaded for the trip. Lon says he has one more take. Creighton says he always has to apologize. Creighton says his father has a thousand faces, and Locan likes the idea. The slogan is used in the ads for Lon Chaney’s movies The Road to Mandalay, Tell It to the Marines, Mockery, West of Zanzibar, The Unknown, Mr. Wu, and London After Midnight.
Chaney in a clown costume is dancing. Then Thalberg tells him they are delaying the start of the picture for a week. He says Hazel called, and Lon says they are going to the cabin. Thalberg says they have to discuss his contract, and Lon tells him to draw it up and asks if they can just shake hands.
Lon talks to Hazel on the phone, and she opens the door and sees Cleva. Hazel hangs up and runs after her and invites her to come inside. Hazel says Lon won’t be home for an hour, and she comes in. Hazel says she saw her before, but she did not have the courage to do anything until today. Cleva says the house is beautiful, and they sit down. Cleva says she tries not to come there too much, but she has to see Creighton. She feels guilty about him and says she did not handle it. She says it seemed easier to run away. They hear a car horn, and Cleva goes out and sees Creighton get out of the car but walks by him. He asks Hazel if he knows that woman, and she says he did know her a long time ago. Lon comes home and finds them upstairs. Creighton says he is not going because something more important came up. Lon asks why. Creighton is packing, and Lon asks what is wrong. He says they have not had secrets before. Creighton says he saw his real mother and asks why he lied and told her that she was dead. Lon says she ran out on him when he was a baby. He was trying to protect him. Creighton understands that he lied to him. As he leaves, Lon tells him not to come back. Hazel tells Lon that she told him who she is. She says he is her son too, and he asks if she is satisfied. She asks if he is afraid that he would open his heart to her. He gets up and goes to his room.
A worker tells Locan that Chaney has been having them work hard for a month. Locan goes into the dressing-room and tells Lon that he found Cleva and the boy. Lon tells him not to interfere. He says if he wants to see him, he knows where he is. Locan says he will have to go to the boy. Lon tells him to get out, and Locan says he has not seen this face before. Thalberg tells Lon that he just saw The Jazz Singer and that now pictures are going to speak. He says some of the favorites will fall by the wayside but not Chaney. He says he will have a thousand voices, but Lon is skeptical. Thalberg tells him that The Unholy Three is his whenever he wants it.
Chaney is dressed as an old lady, and the director asks for another take. Lon says that will make seven takes. Chaney coughs, and Dr. J. Wilson Shields (Jack Albertson) examines him. He says he has to have his tonsils out. Chaney says he needs a rest anyway.
Locan comes to a front porch and tells Creighton and Cleva that Lon has terminal cancer; but they did not tell him.
Thalberg visits Lon at home and gives him a script on the French Foreign Legion. Lon says he and Hazel have never had a trip. He asks when they go, and Doctor Shields gives Lon medicine to take. Lon says he wants to go to the cabin, and Thalberg says he will ask the doctor. Downstairs Hazel thanks Thalberg, and the doctor says he can go to the cabin.
Lon drives his car to the cabin and gets out slowly. He sees Creighton on the porch, and they talk about catching fish. Lon sees Hazel and asks what she is doing there. He tells her that he loves her, and she hands him his fishing pole. Lon joins his son on the dock. Creighton says that he had to take care of his mother on a farm with thirty people. Lon says that he is learning to go easy. They take fish to Hazel who says lunch is ready. Lon feels pain, and his son helps him sit down.
Lon is in his bed while Creighton, Hazel, the doctor, and Locan stand by. Creighton reads his signs and gets his makeup case for him. On the front of the case after his name Lon writes “JR.” He signs his love to all of them, and he asks them all to forgive him. Then he closes his eyes, and the doctor checks his pulse. In a room nearby are sketches of many of his film roles.
This biopic portrays the actor behind so many film roles and the lessons he was learning from his life. His childhood made him feel different from other people, and as an actor he lived in his imaginary worlds.