When Skeet Burns (William Haines) enlists in the Marines, his hometown of Kansas City couldn’t be more thrilled — they’re glad to have him out of their hair for a while. At least all the people back home think he’s going into the Marines. Really, he just enlisted so he could get a free trip to San Diego and he could easily get to some horse races in Tijuana from there. When he gets off the train, he runs into Sergeant O’Hara (Lon Chaney), who tries to stop him from going off to Tijuana. Skeet manages to sneak away, but O’Hara is confident that he’ll be back. O’Hara’s hunch proves to be right when Skeet shows up at base after his trip to Tijuana.
At first, it appears that Skeet is all wrong for the Marines. He’s undisciplined, he’s got a bad attitude, and he can’t stop getting on O’Hara’s bad side. He’s miserable until he meets Norma (Eleanor Broadman), a nurse on the base. Even though O’Hara also has a thing for Norma, Skeet still tries to pursue her. At first, Norma is put off by Skeet’s forward behavior towards her, but she finds herself attracted to him. When Norma accidentally gets Skeet thrown in the brig when she complains to O’Hara about his behavior, she feels bad and tries to convince O’Hara to let him go on a sea training trip anyway.
When Skeet gets out of the brig, he really wants to get on the right track to impress Norma. But he has a hard time resisting trouble and gets into a fight with a Navy sailor on the ship and when O’Hara’s troop is sent to the island of Tondo, he gets involved with a native girl, despite O’Hara’s warnings not to. When Skeet tries to break it off with the native girl, he gets into a huge fight with several other natives and word of this incident gets back to the base. Norma no longer wants anything to do with Skeet. He thinks O’Hara told her about it just to make himself look good. But the truth is that O’Hara has realized that she’d be better off with Skeet. When the Marines are sent to Shanghai, where Norma is also stationed, O’Hara even tries to get Norma to give him another chance. But then Norma and the nurses are sent to another city that is being threatened by bandits. The Marines are sent in to protect them, and even though Skeet goes in with a lot of hostility toward O’Hara, he ultimately sticks by his side when O’Hara is wounded.
Overall, I really liked Tell It to the Marines. The pacing could have used a little bit of work. I thought it started out strong and it ended strong, but it dragged on a bit in the middle. Also it was a little predictable that it would turn out that O’Hara was particularly hard on Skeet because he reminded him of himself when he was younger. But those issues aside, Lon Chaney was superb in it. This is a little bit of an unusual Lon Chaney role because he doesn’t wear any of the dramatic make-up that he is typically known for. But Lon clearly proves here that his performances do not rely on heavy make-up. This was not only Lon Chaney’s personal favorite movie of his, but it was so realistic that he was made an honorary Marine for his work. But for how great this movie is, I don’t think it really gets the recognition it deserves.