Rites of Manhood

The cover of the souvenir program to the 1926 MGM film TELL IT TO THE MARINES.

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.

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The Original Odd Couple

Robert J. Flaherty (left) and W.S. Van Dyke collaborated on White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).

Robert J. Flaherty (left) and W.S. Van Dyke collaborated on White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).

Either by accident or design, MGM came up with the most unlikely partnership in the history of motion pictures in the late twenties. Imagine if you can a collaboration between Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker who is generally credited with pioneering the documentary form (though some film scholars take issue with that classification), and W. S. Van Dyke II, who was known in the industry as “One Take Woody” because of his quick, cost-saving shooting schedule. Flaherty’s filmmaking method was just the opposite. His painstaking preparation for each film was legendary; both Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926) took over two years to complete. Somehow these two men were brought together by MGM mogul Irving J. Thalberg for White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).   Continue reading