The film depicts Chaney's life and career — including his relationships with his neurotic first wife Cleva Creighton (Dorothy Malone), his second wife Hazel Hastings (Jane Greer), and his son Lon Chaney Jr. (Roger Smith) — and his premature death.
This film features examples of:
- Bungled Suicide: A deranged Cleva walks on stage when Lon is performing a dance routine at a matinee and swallows a bottle of acid in front of the audience in an attempt to kill herself. She survives, but she permanently damages her vocal cords, ending her singing career. Chillingly, for all of the movie's liberties with Chaney's life, this incident actually happened in real life.
- Passing the Torch: On his deathbed, the dying Lon has Creighton bring him his makeup box, and ads a "Jr." to his own name on the box, signaling to his son his desire for him to carry on his life's work. Creighton leaves with box in hand, ready to start his film career as Lon Chaney, Jr.
- Reality Has No Subtitles: Cagney, Rickie Sorenson as Lon Jr., and Celia Lovsky (yes that Celia Lovsky) and Nolan Leary as Lon's parents Emma and Frank communicate in Sign. None of it is subtitled, but it's pretty clear what everybody's saying. Lovsky as Emma gives Lon a What the Hell, Hero? about not informing his new wife that his parents are Deaf.note
- Really Dead Montage: The film ends with the camera panning over the walls of Chaney's house showing posters for all his movie roles, for an overall effect like a death montage, before focusing out the window.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: As with most biographical films, the script is a combination of fact and screenwriters' fiction. To give some examples:
- In the film, Cleva pressures Lon to visit his parents (whom she has never met), to which Lon is reluctant because his parents are both deaf mutes, a fact Lon has never shared, and when Cleva realizes this, she reacts with disgust and does not want to give birth to their then-unborn son, fearing that the child will also be a deaf mute and she doesn't want to be the mother of a "dumb thing." In reality, Cleva was well aware, before her marriage to Lon, that his parents were hearing-impaired, and had already met them on several occasions.
- Lon Chaney, Jr. was not born in a hospital, as the film depicts. He was born in his parent's then-home in Oklahoma City, as it was common at the time.
- The film depicts Lon Chaney, Jr. as barely having come to age by the time of his father's death, when in reality he had by then been married for two years, had two children, attended business college, and worked for his father-in-law's L.A. water heater company.
- Lon Chaney had stated in interviews at the time that he was very much against Creighton entering into the film business; he most certainly did not present Creighton with his makeup case on his death bed. Likewise, his Passing the Torch moment of writing a "Jr." to his own name on the box and thus coming up with his son's Stage Name of Lon Chaney, Jr. is a fabrication. When Creighton's aforementioned company failed and financial problems became overwhelming for him, he started to accept film work and was billed under his birth name. It was only at the insistence of film producers that he allowed himself to be billed as "Lon Chaney, Jr.", an action he often said in later life was an Old Shame for him.
- Lon Chaney did not die at home surrounded by loved ones. He died very suddenly in the hospital after suffering a throat hemorrhage.