Thursday, October 8, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #41 (Lon Chaney edition)

(Warning: these may contain spoilers)

Tell It to the Marines (1926) – TCM ran this the other night on their Sunday Silent Nights showcase; they’ve shown it at least one other time since I started getting the channel and I recorded it last time with every intent of watching it…then I’d get halfway-through and start dozing off (not because of the film’s content, but because I sometimes have trouble sleeping nights and do not get enough rest). But I made it through the entire picture Sunday, and this is a good thing because I had wanted to see this movie for quite some time. Makeup artist/Chaney author and aficionado Michael Blake has often touted Marines as showcasing Lon’s best onscreen performance, and upon its completion, I think Michael is absolutely right.

Lon plays Sergeant O’Hara, a tough-as-nails Marine D.I. (a title card reads: “A hard-boiled egg…if he had ever been hatched he would have been a lion”) in charge of the Corps’ new recruits—which in this case happens to be Private George “Skeet” Burns (Donald Haines), a slick operator from Kansas City who mixes with O’Hara like oil and water from their very first meeting. O’Hara puts Burns through the paces of becoming one of the few and the proud, and during his training Skeet falls for Navy nurse Norma Dale (Eleanor Boardman)—a lovely female who just happens to have popped up on O’Hara’s radar as well. Burns, O’Hara and the rest of the men ship out to sea and while stationed on Tondo Island, Skeet makes the acquaintance of a bit of tropical crumpet named Zaya (Carmel Myers)—he attempts to enter into an assignation with her but changes his mind at the last minute; this leads to a spirited fight between the natives and the stationed Marines…and a juicy bit of scandal that finds its way stateside back to Norma. However, Skeet gets the opportunity to redeem himself when he, O’Hara and the squad are assigned to evacuate Norma and other medical personnel from the overcome-by-bandits region of Hangchow. With his three-year stint complete, Burns leaves the Marines to get married to Norma and start a ranch; he asks his new-found friend O’Hara to come with them but the sergeant refuses, saying his heart belongs to the Corps.

Marines is an entertaining piece of hokum that may not appeal to modern audiences because much of its storyline and set pieces are old-hat—but I think it’s important to remember that the film’s content was presented at a time when these clichés were brand-new. A good example of this is a sequence when Burns has a disagreement with a sailor on the ship that’s taking the men to Tondo Island; O’Hara intervenes and tells the two men: “If you want fight [sic] I’ll get you a battlefield!” A boxing match is set up between the two combatants, and it’s not until Burns steps into the ring that he learns that he’s up against the Navy’s reigning boxing champion…much to O’Hara’s shit-eating grin delight. You’re probably thinking right now: “Hey…that sort of sounds like Abbott & Costello’s Buck Privates…”—and you would be 100% right.

No, what makes Marines such a delight are the performances of the three principals—Haines, a boyish silent screen star who fleshes out his admittedly “fresh” character with charming bits of business (I like how he looks at himself in the mirror in the morning after having rose and shone, popping a zit on his face while taking inventory) is particularly engaging as Burns, who makes the audience root for him despite his callowness. With every movie I see Eleanor Boardman in, I become more and more of a fan—particularly because there is a sublime beauty to her often plain-Jane performances (Show People—which also co-starred Haines—and The Crowd). It is however, Chaney’s show all the way—his O’Hara is a real flesh-and-blood individual who appears to be all tough-talking business (Chaney continues to impress me because he’s one of the few actors I’ve watched who always seems to be thinking) but his hard-boiled countenance frequently melts away to reveal a soft-nougat center, usually when he’s in the company of Boardman’s nurse. In one scene, he gazes at Boardman’s picture and allows himself a brief moment to pine but quickly snaps out of it as a title card reads: “I’m certainly the ugliest mut in the service.” There is then a close-up of O’Hara’s faithful bulldog, and O’Hara smilingly reconsiders: “No…you got it on me a little.”

Directed by George W. Hill, Marines also includes in its cast Eddie Gribbon, a hard-working second banana (he was one of the original Keystone Kops) who did quite well in silent films as supporting comic relief—though I must confess I have a tendency to confuse him with his brother Harry, another dependable comic whom I remember mostly from the Vitaphone two-reel comedies he did in the 1930s, some of them co-starring Shemp Howard (Corn on the Cop, Mushrooms). And if the guy playing the Chinese warlord leader looks familiar, it’s because it’s a younger (and much thinner) Warner Oland, who later achieved screen immortality as the inscrutable Charlie Chan.

Mockery (1927) – Chaney plays a “slow witted and ignorant” peasant named Sergei in this outing set against the background of the Russian Civil War—he is enlisted by Countess Tatiana Alexandrova (Barbara Bedford) to help her get to Novokursk; she is disguised as a peasant girl and she asks him to pretend to be her husband. As the two of them hide out in a cabin, they are besieged by Bolshevik revolutionaries who administer a brutal whipping to the hapless Sergei—but the two of them are rescued in time by soldiers and Tatiana promises the faithful Sergei that she will look after him by securing him a position in the house of Vladimir Gaidaroff (Mack Swain), and that they will always be friends. Tatiana later strikes up a romance with the dashing Captain Dimitri (Ricardo Cortez), much to the love struck Sergei’s dismay…and matters of the heart are not helped much by Sergei’s co-worker Ivan (Charles Puffy—hey…a movie set in Russia that doesn’t have a character named “Ivan” is as unthinkable as a film about stage musicals that doesn’t have a character named “Pop”), a Bolshevik troublemaker who fills Sergei’s head with ideas of revolution and becoming the masters of their rich employers. Tatiana and the Gaidaroffs are attacked by the revolutionaries when the Russian Army is called away; Mr. and Mrs. G head for the tall grass but Tatiana is at the mercy of a drunken Sergei, who is determined to have his way with her. Fortunately, Dimitri and his men return in time to rescue his fiancée from the lecherous peasant—but Tatiana, her sympathy stoked by the whip scars on Sergei’s body, claims that Sergei was only protecting her—and the peasant gets his chance to do so when the revolutionaries return a second time.

Bobby Osbo noted that Mockery was released between two of the most famous film collaborations of actor Chaney and director Tod Browning—The Unknown (1927) and the legendary lost London After Midnight (1927). Maybe he was trying to explain why Mockery often gets lost in the shuffle but for my money the film—despite excellent performances—is a bit simplistic; it’s pretty much a variation of the old Beauty and the Beast theme. Chaney is aces as always (I like how his sad character has some genuinely funny moments, particularly when he’s sassing off to Mrs. Gaidaroff [Emily Fitzroy]) and I was very taken with Bedford (though when watching the film I knew something had to be up because she was a bit too attractive for a peasant girl)—glancing at the IMDb I noticed that I’ve seen a good many of the movies she appears in but that they’re mostly bit parts. Cortez well demonstrates why he was in much demand as a matinee idol (the actor is best known for playing the first onscreen incarnation of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and he later had a successful career behind the camera as a director) and of course, it’s always fun to see second banana Mack Swain in a meaty character bit. Puffy, the actor who plays Ivan, sort of reminded me of Harold Sakata as Oddjob in Goldfinger (1964)—don’t ask me why, he just does. (If you look sharp, you’ll also see future sagebrush star Johnny Mack Brown as a Russian officer.)

Mockery premiered on TCM back in May of this year, and of course was one of those films that I kept meaning to watch but postponed for reasons too numerous to list. The film was directed by Benjamin Christensen, the Dutch director who was responsible for Häxan (1922; a.k.a. Witchcraft Through the Ages) and who also directed a film that I’m now on the look out for, Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), because I liked the description written in Leonard Maltin’s classic movie guide. (Although the movie pretty much had me when I saw that Thelma Todd was in the cast.)

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1 comment:

Booksteve said...

I caught TELL IT TO THE MARINES earlier this year and was very impressed. Chaney's performance here (and in most of his films) is much more modern-seeming than others of the same era. An excellent screen actor.

Billy Haines was openly gay at a time when it was just unacceptable especially when in the public eye so his career was curtailed in spite of his popularity. He may have inadvertantly inspired a gay stereotype when he and his long-time (50 years!) partner became successful interior decorators.