Tell It to the Marines (1926)

tell it to the marines

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Tell It to the Marines stars William Haines as a young new recruit in the Marines, Skeet Burns, who finds himself at the mercy of the tough-but-kind Sergeant O’Hara, played by Lon Chaney.  O’Hara has his work cut out making a decent recruit out of the cocky Burns, and the two men also find themselves falling for the same woman, Norma Dale, a nurse played by Eleanor Boardman.

Nearly ninety years after he rose to stardom, it is hard to fathom how William Haines managed to make a career out of playing such unlikeable characters.  His character in Tell It to the Marines is typical: he is big-headed, obnoxious, rude, and treats women badly.  He had already played a similar character in Brown of Harvard (1926), and would continue to do so for most of his career.  Yes, there is a transformation during the course of the film, but the character is still not particularly likeable by the end.  Brown of Harvard and Tell It to the Marines are the best examples of the Haines formula, and there is no denying he plays the part well.

However, the best thing about the film is the wonderful performance by Lon Chaney as Sergeant O’Hara.  Stripped of his make-up and contortions, Chaney manages to put a human face on O’Hara, making him both strict and compassionate, and the character allows Chaney to show off his rarely-seen comedic skills as well.   Like Clara Bow, a single shot of his face can convey exactly what he is thinking, a rare thing even in silent cinema, and his final moments in the film are particularly moving.  Chaney said that this was the favourite of all the films he had made, and it’s easy to see why.  The film was made with the full co-operation of the U.S. Marines, and Chaney was even rewarded with the title of “honorary marine” for his efforts.   Tell It to the Marines is said to have been the most financially successful film out of all those he made at MGM.

This is entertaining stuff, and the lengthy running time (for the period) flies by really quite quickly, helped by the episodic nature of the narrative.  The action sequences in China towards the end of the film are brilliantly done, and the change in tone from comedy to high drama is handled with aplomb.   While Skeet Burns is an annoying character, it is difficult to fault Haines’s playing of him.  Meanwhile, Chaney is in great form and Eleanor Boardman is superb as the nurse that the two men fight over.

In 1930, just three years after the general release of Tell It to the Marines, Lon Chaney would be dead as a result of cancer, and Haines would be the top male box office draw.  However, his time at the top was short-lived, and his contract at MGM was terminated in 1933.  For years, this was thought to be because of the homosexual Haines being unwilling to marry at the request of studio bosses.  However, André Soares, in his biography of Ramon Novarro (thoroughly recommended, by the way), dismisses this, stating that it was all due to the (somewhat less interesting) fact that Haines wasn’t bringing in enough profit on his films as his looks began to fade and he was no longer able to play the wise-cracking characters he was known for.   In 1935 he retired from acting completely, and he and his partner, Jimmie Shields, began a successful interior design business.  Haines died in 1973, and Jimmie committed suicide shortly after, unable to carry on without his partner of 47 years.  Joan Crawford had dubbed the pair “the happiest married couple in Hollywood”.



Are you sitting comfortably?  Then we’ll begin.  Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife thrower in a travelling carnival/circus who is passionately in love with his glamorous assistant, Nanon (Joan Crawford).  She is completely oblivious of Alonzo’s love and is more interested in turning away the affections of Malabar, the strong man, because he’s a rather tactile fellow, and she has a morbid fear of men’s hands.  However, unbeknown to everyone except his faithful assistant, Cojo, Alonzo is actually in possession of his arms and keeps them strapped to his body under his clothes in order to give the illusion of being armless.  What’s more, not only has he got two arms, he has three thumbs (I hope you’re following this) and, leaving a trail of murder behind him, cannot let anyone find out about this as it would reveal him as the murderer.  As he pursues his love of Nanon, Cojo points out to Alonzo that they will never be able to be together as, on their wedding night, she will find out that he has arms after all.  Realising this, he blackmails a renowned surgeon into amputating his arms – after all, he can use his feet in a similar way so he won’t miss them.

Oh, the things a man will do for the love of a woman.  Like amputating his arms.  Let’s face it, we’ve all done it.  No?  Oh, OK then.  Obviously things don’t quite go to Alonzo’s plan in this rather bizarre film from 1927, but then I guess you’re not surprised given the plot summary of the first half of the film.

This may well be Chaney’s best role, and is certainly one of director Tod Browning’s greatest efforts.  Browning is perhaps best known today as the director of Freaks (1932) and Dracula (1931), but it is his silent work that shows him at his best, especially when directing a film with a carnival setting such as this one.  This is a grotesque little film, and one that has a finale which wouldn’t be out of place in the “torture porn” cycle which has dominated the horror genre over the last decade, and still pulls quite a punch (excuse the pun) nearly eighty years after it was made.  Aside from Chaney, the film is also notable for Joan Crawford’s great performance in the role of Nanon, the object of Alonzo’s affections, with the New York Times stating that she “gives a most competent performance” (Hall, 1927: 17).  That’s actually quite a complement for the New York Times.

Thought lost for decades, The Unknown is a great (and often horrifying) watch.  It can be found only on region 1 DVD as part of “The Lon Chaney Collection” which comes with an entertaining feature length documentary on Chaney, a reconstruction of the lost film London By Night (Tod Browning, 1927) and two more feature length silent Chaney classics:  The Ace Of Hearts (Wallace Worsley, 1921) and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (Herbert Brenon, 1928).  Highly recommended.

The Lost (and rare) films of Lon Chaney

Some months ago I put together some ads and stills from some lost Jack Pickford films thanks to the wonders of the Media History Digital Library, and got some very nice comments from those of you mad enough to follow the blog.  Bearing that in mind, this entry makes a start on looking at the lost and lesser-known films of Lon Chaney in much the same way, along with some publicity shots that I haven’t seen elsewhere.  Enjoy. (and yes, I’m sure there will be a part two at some point).

Publicity Picture:

chaney 1929 photoplay

The Kaiser (1918)

Although Chaney doesn’t appear in the picture, I have included the article as the film is directed, produced, written by and starring Rupert Julian, pairing he and Chaney together seven years before Phantom of the Opera.

lon chaney mpw march 23 1918 1690

While Paris Sleeps (1923)

Film Daily magazine were seemingly obsessed with this movie, with these four pictures all appearing on front covers during early 1923.

lon chaney film daily jan 31 front page

lon chaney film daily front page

lon chaney film daily front page 3

lon chaney film daily front page 2

All The Brothers Were Valient (1923)

Staying with Film Daily, here is a review of the above lost film.  Sorry for the feintness of the print in places.

lon chaney 1

Unknown (1922)

No, not the film featuring Chaney as an armless knife-thrower, but simply an unknown shot.  It’s from Movie Weekly in March 1922, but if anyone knows the story behind it, please help us out.

lon chaney movie weekly 25 march 1922 p21

Riddle Gawne (1918)

Riddle Gawne survives in fragment form, and sees Chaney paired for the only time with William S Hart.

lon chaney riddle gawne

The Grand Passion (1918)

Another Chaney film from 1918, although I’m not sure whether Chaney is in this pic or not – my guess is not, but interesting to have a still from another lost Chaney film nonetheless.

lon chaney mpw jan 12 1918, p 241

The Big City (1928)

One of the most regrettable of the lost Chaney/Browning collaborations.  This is Photoplay’s take on the film.

lon chaney photoplay big city

lon chaney photoplay feb 1928 p 6

The Miracle Man (1919)

Another legendary mostly-lost film.

lon chaney photoplay jan 1928 120

Alas and Alack (1913)

The following are screengrabs from the surviving fragment of this early Chaney short in which he plays both a fisherman…and a hunchback.

ALAS AND ALACK.avi_snapshot_06.05_[2013.02.20_20.21.04] ALAS AND ALACK.avi_snapshot_10.59_[2013.02.20_20.19.58] ALAS AND ALACK.avi_snapshot_11.06_[2013.02.20_20.20.11] ALAS AND ALACK.avi_snapshot_12.49_[2013.02.20_20.20.29] ALAS AND ALACK.avi_snapshot_12.57_[2012.07.23_16.57.31]