My movie pick this week is an oldie, a silent film, but definitely a goodie. 1926’s Tell it to the Marines, stars Lon Chaney, in a role where he looks like himself, not playing a role with transforming make-up to hide his real face. This post is for The Chaney Blogathon, hosted by Movies, Silently, and The Last Drive-In. Be sure to visit these two blogs to read other great posts about actor Lon Chaney and his son, Lon Chaney Jr. When our oldest enlisted with the USMC in 2010, I found myself reading all about the Marine Corps, any materials that I could get my hands on. I even bought a cd of Marine Corps music when I was at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, when my son graduated from his boot camp. I also began watching classic movies that featured Marines in the plot. According to Thomas Rick’s excellent book, Making the Corps, the United States Marine Corps had an uncanny ability to promote themselves with the cooperation of Hollywood. I believe that there are more movies about Marines and the USMC then the other military branches. After devouring Rick’s book, and another great one by Frank Schaeffer, Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story about Love and the United States Marine Corps, I found that Turner Classic Movies would be airing their silent film, Tell it to the Marines, late on a Sunday night. I tivoed it, watched it, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
William Haines plays Skeet Burns, a young man who decides to join the Marines to get a free train trip to San Diego, CA. When the train arrives in San Diego, Skeet hops off of it and gets on a train bound for Tijuana, Mexico to go and see the horse races. Sergeant O’Hara(Lon Chaney) arrives at the train station to collect the new recruits and he is irritated that one Skeet Burns isn’t present, as his name is on the list. Days go by and Skeet arrives back in San Diego, hungry and out of money, so he reluctantly goes to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and is placed in Sergeant O’Hara’s capable hands for boot camp.
As Skeet learns the ropes of boot camp, we see him flirting with a Navy nurse(Eleanor Boardman) much to the dismay of Sergeant O’Hara. We learn that he has feelings for Nurse Dale but because he has kept quiet as to how he feels about her, he might lose her to Skeet, an upstart who is full of himself. Here’s a clip illustrating Skeet visiting Nurse Dale’s examination room claiming that he is sick, his attempts to flirt with her, and the Sergeant coming in to get him out of there.
As weeks go on, Skeet becomes a passable Marine, and Nurse Dale is smitten with him. She asks Sergeant O’Hara if Skeet can be included in a Naval Training exercise and reluctantly O’Hara allows Skeet to be a part of it. Skeet, goofing off on the ship, angers a sailor and agrees to box with him not knowing that the sailor is the Navy Heavyweight Champion!
Next up, the Marines are sent to the island of Tondo and a naval installation that is there. The days are boring but there are island girls, especially one gal called Zaya(Carmel Myers) and she catches Skeet’s eye. Before he gets too serious with Zaya, Skeet breaks it off with her, which angers her and causes a fight between the islanders and the military men. O’Hara has to rescue Skeet. Rumors about Skeet and Zaya get back to Nurse Dale and she breaks up with Skeet.
The Asiatic Squadron soon asks for our intrepid Marines, and coincidentally Nurse Dale is there, in China, working with a group of Navy nurses. Will this being in close proximity of one another cause Skeet and Nurse Dale to patch things up? Will Sergeant O’Hara make his feelings known to Nurse Dale? An evil band of thugs is on the prowl and also have their eyes on the American nurses and their outpost. Will the Marines rescue the nurses and their patients in time? Will Skeet learn to follow orders and show respect to Sergeant O’Hara? Will Sergeant O’Hara recognize the strong Marine that Skeet has developed into?
The answers to those questions can only be answered by watching this gem of a silent movie. The movie has been put on dvd and it is available to purchase through Amazon.com and at TCM. The cast does a good job in their specific parts, but Chaney owns this film. He does a great job portraying a stern, tough as nails, Marine sergeant, who has a secret, soft heart. There is a touching scene where Sgt. O’Hara is all alone in his tent, looking over memorabilia he has collected through the years of his duty, and we can tell he is torn between telling Nurse Dale how much he loves her, but that would also mean giving up the main life he knows, that of being a Unites States Marine. With his well-worn face and expressive eyes, he conveys his emotions perfectly in every scene he is in.
Part of this film was filmed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and the shots of the place reminded me of my brief time there. I don’t think the Depot has changed in its appearance that much from 1926! The USMC were so pleased with Chaney’s performance of a Marine Sergeant that he was made an honorary Marine after the film was released. It did great at the box office and I am sure that the Marine Corps hoped it would boost their enlistment numbers. I’ll close out my post with a few more shots from Tell it to the Marines.