Tell it to the Marines (1926)


It’s the monthly Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, when blogger Mike’s Take on the Movies assigns me a movie I’ve never seen and vice versa.

This month I was pleased to get the chance to watch Lon Chaney in one of his biggest hits, as Marine drill sergeant O’Hara, a tough taskmaster with a big heart. Through years of training, service and battle, from barracks to the Philippines to China, O’Hara whips the soft, silly, vain young “Skeet” Burns (William Haines) into a decent man and good fighter. It’s the basic story of character-building through discipline, with a love triangle involving Nurse Norma (Eleanor Boardman) to add jealousy and a personal grudge to the men’s already contentious relationship.


Chaney is perfectly gruff, scary when angered, and intolerant of shirking, irresponsibility, and womanizing, all of which Burns would proudly list as his talents (along with the annoying one of constantly picking his nose). He may be hard as nails but Chaney’s also sensitive, a caring, watchdog father-figure at his most critical, and even more heartwarming is his bashful interest in Norma. He observes her bumpy relationship with Burns, one where she repeatedly needs to puts her foot down about boundaries and reject unwanted advances, but she also worries about not getting Burns in trouble and defends him to O’Hara. Hoping there’s a chance for him to step in once they’ve split, O’Hara is nothing but a kind gentleman toward Norma, and has an especially nice bit where he wonders what in the world she could possibly find to love in his face, so weathered it makes a bulldog look pretty. It’s easy to see why this movie was such a big hit; the Chaney-Haines chemistry is good, Haines is an amusing, cocky, good-natured troublemaker just begging to be reformed, and it’s fun to watch them butt heads until they bond in their last firefight together. After that, O’Hara truly becomes the warm approving father, giving a sort of blessing to Skeet and Norma’s marriage and dedicating himself to molding more misfits and upstarts into good soldiers.

Now go see Mike’s Take on a pre-Code in which one of my favourite actresses plays a notorious woman trying to sail away from her troubles.


6 thoughts on “Tell it to the Marines (1926)”

  1. Chaney was a bit of a revelation for me here as it was my first time seeing him in a straight role. I was captivated by his tough demeanor and it made me realize he could have acted at any era and been successful. Glad u liked it.

    1. For sure, great to see what he could do without the makeup and he was really good. I was thinking of who compared to him nowadays, I guess if you remade this it would work with people like Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Pratt.

  2. As long as it wasn’t Jim Nabors and whoever played Sgt. Carter, we’re ahead of the game. It also reminds me in description of one I’ve been meaning to see after the reviews I’ve gathered over the…small gulp…years now, SOLDIER IN THE RAIN. I knew Chaney wasn’t a one-trick pony, but I need to see this one as well…though an adult compulsive nose-picker? Wow.

    1. Yeah that was really distracting, he did it like 3 times that I can recall! Great stuff from Chaney, really liked his work here. Thanks!

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