Nov. 21, 2009
Tell It to the Marines (1926)
Grade: 52/100

Director: George W. Hill
Stars: Lon Chaney, William Haines, Eleanor Boardman

What it's about. This silent film combines action, romance, and comedy, and became a major box office hit. Made with the cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps, it stars William Haines as a cocky young hedonist who volunteers for the Marines and is hardened into manhood by craggy, scowling drill sergeant Lon Chaney. Along his path toward heroism and redemption, Haines courts pretty Navy nurse Eleanor Boardman, who is also a favorite of the unromantic Chaney. Boardman plays hard to get, but her protestations are all in vain, since deep down, she loves the rascal Haines.

Haines' best friend in the service is rubber-faced comic relief Eddie Gribbon. Troublemaker Haines briefly strays from the good path with nymphomaniac island native Carmel Myers, but inevitably proves his worth in a furious battle with Chinese bandits led by villainous Warner Oland, who would resurface years later as the star of Charlie Chan movies.

How others will see it. I was surprised to learn that women who see this film love it. The user ratings for women are 9.1 out of 10, a remarkably high figure. The cynical conclusion is that the movie reinforces all the things about men, women, and the Marines that people want to believe in. They want to believe that the Marines partially occupied China solely to fight bandits and plague, that tough-as-nails sergeants all possess a heart of gold beneath their tough guy exterior, and that handsome playboys will settle down and marry once they have found their beautiful, chaste brunette. It doesn't often work that way in real life, but this is the movies, where the most fortituitous outcomes are achieved, against all odds.

It must be said, however, that most casual film viewers will have no interest in this movie, simply because it is a black and white silent film with mono sound made while Calvin Coolidge was President. They would rather see a horror movie involving beautiful teenagers in dire peril. Or a romantic comedy featuring this year's model. Or a costly action movie where the bad guys eventually get theirs.

How I felt about it. Tell It to the Marines should be seen back to back with Shoulder Arms, Charlie Chaplin's satire of life in the World War I trenches. This way, viewers can compare the messages of the two movies, and realize that Chaplin was closer to the mark. Tell It to the Marines implies that the USMC will make a responsible, successful man out of you. Shoulder Arms informs you that war is pointless hell, yet makes you laugh at the same time.

We would like to believe that our young troops are stopping evil Warner Oland, even as they are actually committing the My Lai massacre. Believe what you want, but the deployment of Marines is often to the benefit of corporations such as Halliburton or Exxon, and the young man returning from horrific overseas duty is more likely to be troubled than a model citizen. If you marry a playboy he will cheat on you, and if you marry an adventurer, he will leave you. Marry an accountant, preferably a rich one, and cheat on him. There's the life lesson the movies will never teach you.