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”.