Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Handsome Lon Chaney… Tell it to the Marines (1926)

This is an unusual vehicle for Lon Chaney in that it allows him to play a sympathetic character with a straight face…his own.  In the process he shows what a skilled actor he was, moving those granite features with an unexpected deftness for those used to his more dramatic, made-up roles. And what a fascinating face it is…a likeable face, a funny face!

Tell it to the Marines was his most successful film for MGM and is a patriotic film extoling the virtues of steadfastness, honesty and true love.

Chaney maybe invents the tough drill sergeant role as Sergeant O'Hara – a man who seemingly gives no quarter and yet who secretly cares for all his greenhorns. Into his hands come the usual motley crew of raw recruits, each underestimating the task ahead. None are quite as couldn’t care less as “Skeet” Burns (William Haines) who see this is just a free ride to the horse races.

Haines plays really well against type by playing a (barely) lovable rogue who seems to have no respect for others (let alone authority) and to be driven purely by selfish motives.

Naturally enough, Skeet is singled out for straightening out early on by O’Hara who does his best in spite of Skeet’s incorrigibility.

Skeet very quickly spots Nurse Norma Dale (elegant Eleanor Boardman, who was a life-long time friend of Haines following their Goldwyn “New Faces”  selection back in 1921) and hits on her much to O’Hara’s dismay…seems like the there’s a beating heart underneath the rock hard exterior after all.

Skeet begins to romance Norma little suspecting that O’Hara is his competitor. When eventually the time comes to go the younger couple swear to be re-joined and it breaks O’Hara’s heart. There’s a wonderful scene in which the sergeant is talking to his bulldog about being the ugliest mug in the navy…he decides with a grin that maybe the dog just edges him. Chaney’s smile here is superb, such energy and so much conveyed through a simple act.

The unprecedented co-operation of the military means that there are some outstanding sequences of the men at sea, surrounded by American naval might as their battleships forge through the ocean and let lose their guns in a cloud of smoke with even the biggest ships recoiling from the force.

The men set off on their first posting to the Philippines. Little happens there besides continuous rain but one of the local women offers Skeet some welcome distraction. Unable to resist the lure of the candy store he goes with her only to think better of it after she scratches a flea or two on their date. This doesn’t go down well with her fellow islanders and an almighty scrap breaks out with the marines.

O’Hara comes to Skeet’s rescue but he barely appreciates it. Then word somehow gets back to Norma and Skeet is in no doubt that it is O’Hara who has ruined his chances only to improve his own…he begins to hate his Sergeant even though he has entirely miss-judged him.

The marines move onto China where they are reunited with the Nurse Norma but she wants nothing more to do with Skeet, even though in her eyes you can tell she love shim still. She talks with O’Hara who is man enough to tell her that she’s walking away form Skeet “just when he needs her most “ (if there was any doubt who the real hero of the film is…it is hereby removed!).

Will the two lovers discover the truth in time or will they be deprived forever by the local rebels who kidnap Norma and the rest of her contingent. Can the Marines come to the rescue and will our heroes finally find respect for each other?

The storyline is perhaps a bit deeper than some given the possibility that Chaney may end up with the girl. Even though Haines is handsome he’s certainly a rogue and needs to find his moral direction fast.

Directed by George W Hill, Tell it to the Marines is very well assembled, quick changes in pace and excellent composition. There is some superb camera mobility, including hand-held action during the fight on the island and also dolly shots tracking the actors as they march. There are also some stirring shots of the navy at sea – huge battleships rolling with the waves.

It’s a meaty role for William Haines as he gets to play the shallow raw recruit who’s only in it for himself. He falls for Eleanor Boardman’s nurse mainly as she’s the prettiest thing in sight and it’s only later that he learns how much he really meant it. An excellent performer, it’s no surprise he was so popular: he has an easy way and always seems to throw in the odd realistic gesture like…picking his nose!

Boardman does her usual top-notch job with not a lot to play with. It’s good to see her in a decent quality print (there follows the usual lamentation about the lack of proper DVD release for The Crowd…) and she is as ethereal as ever even if she never has to get out of second gear…you know she has the extras anyway!

But it’s Chaney’s film with his Pete Postlethwaite complexion, iron jaw and smiling eyes. I’ve heard that he gained such expressiveness as the son of deaf and mute parents. This may have been the case but he’s also emotionally intelligent and able to submerge himself completely in character. So much so that his character continues to surprise you throughout the film… he only reveals the disguised decent hearted softy when he wants… “He’s the hero!” exclaimed my wife with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for Ewan McGregor… and she’s right.

Married to the navy, loyal to all his charges, Chaney’s portrayal struck so true with the marines themselves that he became the first actor to be awarded an honorary membership in the Corps.

Tell it to the Marines is now available in an excellent print from the Warner’s Archives series either direct or from Amazon. It comes with the original score composed by Robert Israel that serves the action well if a little formally for an action-orientated, romantic comedy. A film with many moods but overwhelmingly good fun.


  1. I love Chaney. This sounds like a real departure for him from the films I am more familiar with. Really like the detail in your review (particularly pointing out Chaney receiving the honorary Marine Corps membership). I'll definitely be checking this out!

  2. He's been associated so much with the horror roles it's easy to overlook his considerable ability! One of the best actors full stop and "genuine" too. At a time when the US was begining to get more involved internationally - less than a decade after WWI - you can see why the military loved this film.