Tell It To the Marines (1926)
Lon Chaney stars here as a gruff looking dog faced drill Sergeant proving he didn’t necessarily need monster make-up to prove he could be intimidating presence on screen.
This big scale production from MGM begins with William Haines as a young recruit on his way to boot camp. He’s the prototype of the cocky young man who doesn’t take things to seriously and would much rather be chasing camp nurse Eleanor Boardman than listening to what Chaney has to say during military exercises.
Haines quickly runs afoul of the no nonsense Chaney.
While Chaney runs Haines hard he has a soft side that only Nurse Eleanor will see. Chaney is smitten with the young lady who inevitably will fall for the rebellious Haines, breaking Chaney’s heart.
Once boot camp is through the platoon is called to active duty and Chaney leads the men to Tongo Island via a navy ship where Lon tries to break Haines’ ego in a comical boxing bout against the Navy’s heavyweight champ. It’s a wet, muddy existence on the island and Lon still continues to have issues with the younger man who breaks curfew to chase after a scantily clad island girl. This leads to a rousing donnybrook where Lon’s imposing presence takes on all comers letting his fists do the talking.
This military tale will culminate when a group of nurses including Miss Boardman are on a relief tour in the far east where a bandit leader played by the future Charlie Chan, Warner Oland is terrorizing the lands. Barricading themselves in a walled city they find Oland demanding to be let in. Frankly I was quite surprised at the card appearing on screen with the line “Tell him to go to hell!” in response to Oland’s demands. That’s something you won’t here to often in talking films till the 1960’s.
When Chaney’s platoon is called in to rescue the ladies and restore order we’re treated to a rousing action packed climax where Haines just might earn the respect of his hard nosed instructor.
Though much of Haines character (named George Burns!) is played lightly throughout this feature length silent it’s Chaney that keeps the film cemented with a more serious tone. Like many of his monster portrayals, he plays a tortured soul who longs for something he can’t have. In this case it’s lovely Eleanor and he’ll come to realize the military is his mistress. For fans of film history we are generally exposed to images of Lon under make up for his astounding portrayals. I would urge you to look for this title and see him as he is.
If anything it makes me realize what a force he may have become in talkies. Once you’ve seen this film it’s so easy to see him playing tough opposite the early gangsters that would populate the Warner Brothers studios. Not a stretch to imagine him tangling with anyone of Warner’s trio of stars, Bogie, Cagney or Eddie Robinson.
On the flip side, Haines’ character is such an ass early on that you really wish Eleanor would fall for Lon’s steady military man with a heart of gold below the tough façade and leave Haines to the island girl played by Carmel Myers. Admittedly, I am not familiar with Mr. Haines work though I know he was a top draw at the box office. After some research I found that he retired from the screen like many other silent stars shortly after the talkies took hold. His final film was another military outing from 1934 titled The Marines Are Coming. He passed away in 1973.
Adding to the production values of this George Hill directed feature is the fact that portions of it were filmed aboard the USS California and the cast of “thousands” that turned out for the final battle between Oland’s clan and Chaney’s platoon. Director Hill would go on to helm another daring military feature with Gable and Beery in 1931 titled Hill Divers before committing suicide in 1934.
While I could do without some of the romantic froth that Haines subjects us to (though I am sure at the time it was well received) I loved the rip roaring action that Chaney and company treat us to at the climax featuring the fiery Oland on the warpath.
Thankfully this silent has not been lost like many of the other features of the era and can be seen occasionally on TCM if your hoping to get a look at Chaney sans make up in a top notch performance.