Most classic movie fans know that silent film star Lon Chaney was often associated with Tod Browning, who directed him in ten movies starting with The Wicked Darling (1919) and ending with Where East is East (1929). Among their most famous collaborations are the silent version of The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927) and London After Midnight (1927), which is now considered a lost film. Yet, two of Chaney’s most legendary roles were helmed by different directors. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) was directed by Wallace Worsley and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is credited to Rupert Julian; both films helped establish Chaney’s reputation for playing monstruous and tortured characters. What tends to be overlooked in his filmography is the fact that Chaney wasn’t always typecast as some kind of grotesque individual and Tell It to the Marines (1926), one of his biggest box-office hits for M-G-M, presents him as a gruff but patriotic Marine sergeant in a stirring romantic drama by director George W. Hill.
Seen today, the film plays like a prototype for numerous movies to come featuring an arrogant wise-guy hero who gets his comeuppance but ultimately proves he is made of finer stuff when the going gets tough. Early versions of the script focused on a country boy named Roy Maynard who enlists in the Marines and Charles Ray was considered for the lead. Somewhere along the way the Maynard was discarded and two supporting characters, a smart aleck recruit named Skeet Burns, and his commanding officer, Sergeant O’Hara, became the main focus of Tell It to the Marines. William Haines, who had recently appeared in his first major breakthrough role in Brown of Harvard (1926), was cast as Private Skeet and Lon Chaney, who had recently completed The Road to Mandalay (1926) for director Tod Browning, was happy to accept the role of Sergeant O’Hara.
Synopsis: Skeet Burns travels to San Diego with the intention of joining the U.S. Marines but changes his mind and goes on holiday in Tijuana, where he ends up broke and aimless. Sergeant O’Hara decides to give Skeet a break and make a real marine out of the inexperienced recruit. But tensions arise when Skeet and O’Hara both fall in love with Norma Dale (Eleanor Boardman), a commissioned Navy nurse, so the sergeant has Skeet transferred to the Philippines. While in the tropics, Skeet has an affair with a native girl named Zaya (Carmel Myers) but Norma finds out about it and ends their romance. Shortly afterward, Norma is sent to China but is almost immediately caught up in a threatening situation involving Chinese bandits. The Marines are called in to rescue Norma and her fellow Americans with Skeet proving his courage under fire and winning O’Hara’s respect.
MGM brought in General Smedley D. Butler, commander of the Marine base in San Diego, for technical consultation on the film. The studio was also allowed to shoot on the base which made Tell It to the Marines the first motion picture made with the full cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps. The battleship USS California (It was later destroyed in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941) was used for the scenes at sea and the final sequence of the film, where the marines rescue the hostages, was filmed at Iverson’s Ranch in Chatsworth, California, the location for such films as Fort Apache and The Good Earth.
M-G-M mogul Irving Thalberg was actively involved in the making of Tell It to the Marines and worked with various writers on the screenplay though only Richard Schayer is credited. Thalberg was unhappy with the completed film and brought in screenwriter Frances Marion, who was married to director George W. Hill, for advice. According to Michael F. Blake in his Lon Chaney biography, A Thousand Faces, Marion wrote, “Viewing this picture the second time with the retakes, I still think the climax misfires. Reel after reel of marvelous entertainment builds up to a complete transition in the character of the boy – then it flops…if a climax is written into the picture and shot, it will hold them every minute…Up to the Shanghai sequence I still think it is one of the greatest pictures we have ever seen.”
In the end, Thalberg ended up ordering the cast and crew to shoot some additional retakes as well as new scenes involving the assault on the bridge by Chinese bandits. The extra effort was worth it because Tell It to the Marines was a hit with both audiences and movie reviewers. The critic for Motion Picture Magazine wrote, “Lon Chaney’s first appearance au naturel for many years and it makes one plead for more like it. He is a great actor and lifts himself out of the make-up artist class into real drama…This picture will be as popular as any we have had in many a day, and will go down on record as one of Chaney’s greatest.” Other critics concurred with Film Daily stating “Chaney and William Haines so natural you forget it’s a picture.”
Tell It to the Marines (1926) is an impressive example of what Chaney could do with a “straight” role. As Sergeant O’Hara, a gruff Marine who trains new recruits to become fearless officers, Chaney did not wear any makeup, relying solely on his dramatic skills to create one of his most compelling characters. Photoplay, in their review of the film, noted that Chaney’s “O’Hara has all the authentic earmarks of a real, honest-to-Tunney Marine.” Perhaps even more complimentary than the positive critical reviews was the response from the United States Marine Corps’ own magazine, Leatherneck: “Few of us who observed Chaney’s portrayal of his role were not carried away to the memory of some sergeant we had known whose behavior matched that of the actor in every minute detail….”
Tell It to the Marines could be seen as the prototype for such military training films as Sands of Iwo Jima and The D.I. and Chaney’s performance as the quintessential drill sergeant which other actors from John Wayne to Louis Gossett, Jr. would emulate. The film also helped advance the career of Haines in the role of the irresponsible youth who learns his own self-worth through the lessons of a boot camp lifer. The actor quickly became one of M-G-M’s most in-demand leading men between 1927 and 1931 appearing in such box-office winners as West Point (1927) opposite Joan Crawford, Show People (1928) co-starring Marion Davies and Navy Blues (1929), where he was paired with Anita Page. Unfortunately, the openly gay actor was arrested in a sexual incident with a sailor in 1933 and this caused William Hayes, the film censorship czar, to ban him for making any more films. Instead, Haines retired from acting in 1934 and became a popular interior designer who was hired by many of his fellow co-stars.
George W. Hill, the director of Tell It to the Marines, was riding high after the success of the film and made a smooth transition from silent films to talkies. He hit a career peak in 1930 when he directed two Oscar nominated films. The prototype for all future prison dramas, The Big House, was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Wallace Beery), Best Writing (by Hill’s wife Frances Marion) and Best Sound (by Norma Shearer’s brother Douglas) and won in the latter two categories. The other movie, Min and Bill, scored a Best Actress Oscar for Marie Dressler. His career at M-G-M looked bright indeed but a serious car accident in 1934 sidelined his career and he was found dead in his home the same year, an apparent suicide. Many suspected that his injuries from the wreck and depression may have influenced his decision.
In May 2012, the Warner Bros. Archive Collected released Tell It to the Marines on DVD with a music score by Robert Israel. It remains your best option for viewing and owning the film.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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