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.