Director: George W. Hill
Cast: Lon Chaney, William Haines, Eleanor Boardman
Lon Chaney is largely recognized as one of the cinema's great actors. He is most remembered for his grotesque portrayals of villainy characters, which he gave life to, courtesy of his makeup box, which gave him the moniker, "Man of a Thousand Faces." Films like The Phantom of the Opera(1925), The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1923) and The Unholy Three(1925) are among his most memorable roles and all feature him buried under makeup. However, while Chaney's prowess as a makeup artist is unparalleled, and still enthralling, one of his thousand faces is almost always forgotten and that is his own.
Tell it to the Marines(1927) was a different sort of picture for Chaney. It did not deal with either the macabre or the gruesome and did not require heavy makeup. Instead, it offered Chaney a "normal" role as a Marine Drill Instructor and a plot that was to serve as the prototype for countless films through the decades. This was the plot that later inspired films such as Sands of Iwo Jima(1949) and To The Shores of Triploi(1942), which dealt with a tough sergeant who has to shape raw recruits into fighting soldiers. Everyone from Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood have played this role, but it was Lon Chaney that may have been the very best of the lot.
Tell it to the Marines concerns an overgrown brat named "Skeet" Barnes(William Haines) who chooses to sign up for the marines, so he can goof off and escape responsibility at home. Of course, he has a rude awakening when he encounters Sgt. O' Hara(Lon Chaney) who is determined to turn this snot-nosed kid into a fighting marine. He puts him through Hell, including having to use the "General's Car," which is really a wheelbarrow that carries heavy rocks and gets knocked about pretty good. However, Skeet also has a small romance brewing with Nurse Norma Dale(Eleanor Boardman) who also has the affections of O' Hara. This causes a further rift between the two and it takes Skeet a long time to get around to the sergeant.
As it turns out, O' Hara is a decent man, and a very lonely one, who is devoted to the service, but seemingly empty. Despite, his rough nature, he really believes in the kid and even helps him out of a very vicious scrap, when Skeet gets involved with a native girl at a base the marines are stationed at.
Skeet hates him and believes he has caused problems with Norma and him, but it's not true. It's not until they are deployed to China and asked to take on a group of bandits(led by future Charlie Chan, Warner Oland) that Skeet and O'Hara realize each other's worth and they fight side by side, heroically.
In the end, Skeet ends his tenure with the marines and goes off with Norma and O'Hara, his marines. There's a look of sadness on his face, maybe a tear, which in a nice final touch, the tough O'Hara glances up at the sky, thinking it's a raindrop.
For my money, this is one of the truly great films made about the United States Marines Corps. While at times it resembles something of an elaborate recruiting film, it works largely, due to solid direction and a gifted cast. The fight scene between the natives and Haines and Chaney is very gritty and exciting for the time, with close-up shots and frantic editing that seem very current. The ending action scene is not quite as impressive however, mainly due to a lack of proper build. If the film has any problems, it's with its climax, which never quite works. It probably would have been wiser had the film gone sooner to China and depicted the bandits and what was going on, rather than throwing in a last reel action scene. That build-up and the subsequent characterization, could have made this a Gunga Din(1939) type epic, rather than what is is. Not that this is a poor film, but there's room for improvement.
Haines is just right as the cocky, self-sure young soldier and you can't help but like him. He's a bit of a jerk, but the swagger and personality make him a likable sort and sets the ending up nicely. We know he will eventually come around to the right way of thinking and be responsible, but it's fun getting there.
Eleanor Boardman is hardly remembered today, which is a pity, considering the amount of classics she was in. The following year she appeared in what I consider to be one of the great movies, The Crowd. Here she is a well-rounded and sweet heroine, far better than many of her contemporaries and it's easy to see how Haines and Chaney fall for her.
Lon Chaney is perfection in this film, really acting as the hero of the story. His character is not the typical movie tough guy. He can get stuff done and fight better than anybody, but he's also a sensitive man and the scenes with him alone in his tent, having a solitary dinner are very well done. His moments with Boardman are also well handled and it's nice to see the real Lon Chaney for once, rather than another of his(admittedly wonderful) thousand faces. This is one of his best, and it proves that he was capable of doing more than be a menace. He is equally adept at comedy as he is action and it's a shame that these were not explored further into the sound era, which the great man barely was able to see, as he passed on in August of 1930.
I still think this was ideal for a sound remake and am confident that Chaney would have been great had they choose to redo it, which I wish had happened. Then again, I also with he lived to make The Phantom Returns, but that's what dreams are made of.
Tell it to the Marines is doubtfully ever going to be recognized as much as the actor's great chillers, but it should be. It's an enjoyable and fast-paced film with good characters and decent action, as well as containing one of Hollywood's greatest stars in one of his all-time best performances. I have heard that Chaney likened this as his favorite film and watching it again, I can well understand the sentiment. Chaney was the first civilian to be made an honorary Marine and when he passed away in 1930, he was even given a proper Marine funeral, such was his impact with this film.