Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tell it to the Marines!

"Trouble?  Tell it to the Marines!"  This is the intertitle in a 1926 silent film directed by George Hill and starring Lon Chaney from which the picture derives its name.  Although forgotten today, Tell it to the Marines! was an enormous success at the box-office when released and an excellent example of a superbly crafted and highly effective popular entertainment.  This was a movie that your grandparents or great-grandparents enjoyed and, unlike many silent films, the picture retains its appeal today.  All manner of things are packed into the film's 90 minute length:  there is raucous physical comedy, various romances, superb, if stylized, acting, and spectacular action sequences.  The picture features Lon Chaney's performance as O'Hara, a tough-as-nails Marine sergeant, a role that is the progenitor of all the other rough and tough Marine drill instructors in film and TV history:  O'Hara is palpably the source of Lee Ermey's ferocious performance in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and, of course, the basis for Gunnery Sergeant Vince Carter on the TV show Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.  Chaney plays the part without any of his trademark make-up effects and is enormously charismatic as mentor, and antagonist, to the rather doughy-looking and feckless hero, "Skeet" Burns,  the fresh recruit that Sergeant O'Hara has to "whip into shape."  Cheney's O'Hara has a hideous bulldog, a beast so ugly that it is beautiful in an awful sort of way, and he yearns for the love of a comely Navy nurse, Norma.  But Chaney's character knows that he is too homely, coarse, and professionally motivated -- wedded, as it were, to the Marine Corps -- to win the woman's love.  Instead, the film ends with her married to the soft-faced and pretty Skeet, a palpably disappointing outcome since Chaney, with his sinewy frame and bantam rooster strut and leathery face with a toothy jack-o-lantern grin is the more appealing character.  The most emotionally charged parts of the film are the love scenes between Chaney's O'Hara and Skeets: sequences shot in big close-ups in which O'Hara relinquishes his romantic interest in Norma, and, in effect, cedes her over to the more conventional lover, Skeets.  In the film's final shot, O'Hara is belaboring a new set of recruits -- he glances for a moment at the happy lovers, Norma and Skeets, feels a tear come into his eye which he bats away as if it were a pesky insect, and, then, without dropping a beat returns to hectoring the new recruits.  Skeets begins the film as an indolent, useless youth who has fled Kansas City with a railroad voucher to join the Marines in San Diego.  Instead of reporting to the Marine Corps base, he goes to "Tia Juana" to bet on the horses.  By the end of the film, of course, Skeets is a decorated veteran and combat hero.  The film is efficiently directed and the camerawork and editing is mostly unobtrusively effective -- the picture looks like a movie by Howard Hawks.  There are several astounding sequences:  we get a wild shot from a motorboat whirling around a destroyer plowing through heavy seas -- the image gives the viewer an palpable sense of sea-sickness and must have been fantastically effective on the big screen.  A boxing scene climaxes with Skeet on the ropes, half-unconscious, rolling his eyes at the camera, an alarming image of violence and despair.  We see the Marines landing at Hangchow and advancing up a beach.  As the camera shifts to a full-frontal shot of the Marines marching toward the lens, a perfectly shaped phalanx of bomber biplanes flies overhead.  The climax of the film involves thousands of extras attacking a rear-guard of Marines defending a little arched bridge that spans a gorge that seems to be about a thousand feet deep.  The battle scenes are chaotic and realistic; the Marines fire bolt-action carbines and seem to have great difficulty operating their rifles.  Werner Oland mugs as a wild-eyed Chinese bandit.  There is a savage riot scene involving tattooed Polynesians on Tondo Island, shot with what seems to be a handheld camera and, frequently, out-of-focus -- the fight involves a "Goo Goo girl" also called a "Floosie" in an intertitle.  Much of the movie is a mild-mannered service comedy:  Skeets becomes a toughened Marine with relatively little difficulty and most of the movie involves his mischievous behavior in violation of O'Hara's orders.  Probably, the most interesting aspect of the film for modern viewers is its documentary elements:  the movie shows us what it was like to go on a date with a Navy nurse in 1925 -- we see rural California, San Diego street cars, and, of course, the Marine Corps training facility at San Diego.  This film, available on Warner Brothers Archive DVD, is delightful and entertaining from start to finish.   

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