From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…
My uncle is a Marine. Well, he’s not on active service, but they say a Marine is never really out, so he’s technically still a Marine. He’s also a Vietnam vet, and he always flies the Marine flag outside his house. So, I have a soft spot for Marines. How awesome is it that we’re all here to pay tribute to these folks?
Lon Chaney, the Man of A Thousand Faces, also wore the Devil Dog uniform in the 1926 film, Tell It To the Marines. This delightful howler follows the adventures of a gruff-but-charming sergeant and a cocky boot as they navigate Marine life. The inevitable happens when a pretty Navy nurse is thrown into the mix, and the proceedings are topped off by a battle with marauding bandits in East China during an epidemic. Whew.
The film starts with a train bound for San Diego and basic training. Among them is…George Burns. No, not that George Burns, but a green-as-grass Kansas City fellow nicknamed “Skeet” and played by William Haines. Skeet is used to a pretty easy life, and he’s only using the camp-bound train as a free ride until it gets to San Diego. Then he’s off to Tijuana to bet on racehorses.
Unbeknownst to Skeet, however, the Marines are there to meet him, including Sargeant O’Hara (Lon Chaney), who finds out about his plan to skip out and waylays him. And just like that, Skeet is in the Marines.
Well, sort of. After taking his oath and signing his enlistment papers, Skeet has to turn in his civvies and learn how to march, even though his pants keep falling down. He gets a rifle and a close-to-the-scalp Marine haircut, the latter of which makes him freak out. He also has to learn how to drag himself out of bed at five AM.
Even more culturally shocking, there are the requisite initiations to consider: O’Hara asks the new recruits if they want to go run the General’s car, and of course Skeet hops to it. What he doesn’t know is that the General’s car is really a wheelbarrow full of rocks. D’oh.
Skeet doesn’t feel he’s up to the challenge of being a Marine, so he complains of neuritis. His buddy, Corporal Madden (Eddie Gribbon) takes him to the infirmary, where he meets Norma Dale (Eleanor Boardman), the pretty nurse he’s seen around the training center. He puts on a good show of being ailing, citing everything from galloping consumption to fallen arches to cold feet, and she sends him out with castor oil capsules and a light duty notice. The reason she gives for light duty, however, is “doubtful.” O’Hara gets it, flashing a winsome grin at Norma, who banters with him a bit before pretending to throw a glass of water at him. Our sergeant then assigns Skeet to “light duty.” Read: He hands Skeet a pickaxe and sends him off to dig ditches.
Now thoroughly entranced, Skeet goes about trying to woo Norma. He rents a car to take her out, only he finds himself chauffering O’Hara and Norma to town so Norma can catch a bus. After dropping O’Hara at a bakery, though, Skeet picks up Norma at the bus stop, promising to take her right home. O’Hara warns him to be back at the base by ten-thirty or else.
Heh. Nope. Skeet accidentally runs the car off the road, so he and Norma hop on a bus, where Skeet comes on way too strong. When they finally get back to the base, it’s way past ten-thirty. Norma is so put out that she spills the whole story to the officer on duty, and Skeet gets hauled off to the brig.
Norma has second thoughts later, and as the company is getting ready to go on sea duty, she tells O’Hara that she doesn’t want to stand in the way of Skeet’s Marine career. O’Hara is so eager to please her that Skeet is as good as free. Right before Skeet leaves, he and Norma make up, and in spite of herself, Norma confesses she’s into Skeet. After a couple of rapturous kisses, Skeet is off.
While on board the USS California, Skeet scraps with sailors, making the mistake of challenging the boxing champion of the Navy, but that’s nothing compared to what he finds when his company gets to their destination at Tondo Island. Madden warns Skeet to stay away from the native women because O’Hara will lay him flat. Skeet sort of complies but has to fight off one especially randy lady, Zaya (Carmel Myers). Long story short, he gets a letter from Norma breaking up with him because of his supposed dalliance.
O’Hara is more than happy to fill in for Skeet, who now thinks O’Hara is trying to eliminate him in Nora’s good graces. Skeet hates O’Hara, he’s sick of the Marine Corps, and he doesn’t care who knows it. He bellyaches to a sailor, which is apparently a big no-no.
This is not how things end, though. Nora and her fellow Navy nurses, who are in Hangchow (now Hangzhow) caring for victims of an epidemic, are attacked by an army of bandits, so it’s up to Skeet, O’Hara and the rest of their company to save them. Who Nora ends up choosing is indeed the big question.
This movie starts out really strong–the comedy game is on point. I knew William Haines could do comedy (Show People is a really good example). Lon Chaney was the shocker in that regard. He’s not a goofball; he’s more of a straight man, but he knew how to bring it. He stands back and lets Haines be the buffoon while making sly, albeit inaudible commentary.
Where Tell It To the Marines falters ever so slightly is the pacing. Skeet’s first sea-duty is barely over before three years have passed, only we don’t know it until he mentions it offhandedly. It’s kind of jarring; I have to wonder if maybe some intertitles or scenes were lost that would have filled in those blanks. Still, it’s a fun movie and goes by with lightning speed.
Where the film really shines is in its realism. It was made with the full cooperation of the Marine Corps and partially shot at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. This facility is still in use today, with male enlistees training there, and has been added the National Registry of Historic Places. Just as is often shown in the film, the site has a bulldog mascot that basically has the run of the facility. The overall look of the Depot is much the same as it was in 1926 as well. The only thing that would make Marines wince happens in the final few minutes of the movie, when O’Hara is seen directing troops with his collar gaping open. Oh well.
Tell It To the Marines was incredibly successful upon its December 23 release–in fact, it was the second-highest grossing film of 1926 and 1927. MGM historian John Douglas Eames called it “Leo the Lion’s Christmas gift to American box offices.” It’s still a gift for audiences today, because it shows another side of the often-typecast Lon Chaney and is a great example of how fun silent movies can be.
For more of the Tell It To the Marines Blogathon, please visit Gill and J-Dubs. Thanks for hosting–this was such a great idea. Happy belated birthday to the Marine Corps, and thanks for reading, all! Another silent film review is on the way (the second of three coming out this week)…
Tell It To the Marines is available on DVD from Amazon.
Eames, John Douglas. The MGM Story. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975.