Sunday, 10 July 2011

Ray Milland #1

Occasionally dismissed as exuding the impression of a cut-rate Cary Grant, but lacking his more obvious good looks and comedic touch and having a career that was nowhere near as consistent, Welsh-born Hollywood actor Ray Milland was a hugely underrated actor and director.

Born Alfred Reginald Jones in Neath, Wales, on 3 Januray 1907, he took his stage name from the Millands area of his home town of Neath. Joining the Household Cavalry as a young man, he became an expert shot and a member of his company's rifle team, winning many prestigious competitions. After his four-year duty service was over, he tried his hand at acting and made several films in the UK.
He appeared as an extra in Picadilly (1929), using the name Spike Milland, but his first proper role was in Castleton Knight’s thriller, The Flying Scotsman (also 1929), which was one of the earliest sound films. Like Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), it was originally intended to be a silent movie and the decision to include diegetic sound was made during production, with the result that there is dialogue only twards the end of the film, the rest of the story being accompanied with title cards and music,. There is a question as to whether the film was originally released without sound; some historians think its use of sound predtaed Blackmail, but the BFI database currently indicates that sound was added for a re-release in 1930.

Milland relocated to Hollywood after a talent scout spotted him on the stage in London. He initially featured in supporting roles for at various studios such as films like The Bachelor Father and Just a Gigolo, both made in 1931 at MGM; The Man Who Played God and Blonde Crazy, both 1931 at Warner Brothers; The Glass Key (1935) at Paramount; Next Time We Love (1936) at Universal. He gradually made his way up the cast list and signed a contract with Paramount in the late 1930s.
During the prodiction of Cecil B. DeMille's Reap the Wild Wind (1941), Milland was forced to have wavy hair and he later claimed the curling tongs caused his hair to fall out and as a result, he received fewer male leads. However, all his better roles date from that time, not before it.
A cursory glance at his filmography shows his career was rich and varied, working with a number of major directors and taking in a vaiety of genres and styles and in roles that encompassed the heroic, the romantic, the sympathetic amd the macchiavellian; for example, there were Westerns: John Farrow’s Copper Canyon (1950) and Allan Dwan’s The River’s Edge (1957); horror movies like Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944) and Roger Corman’s The Premature Burial (1962); film noir: Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948); spy films like Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1944); thrillers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) and Allen’s So Evil, My Love (1948); romantic screwball comedies like Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942); science-fiction: Corman’s X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963); social drama such as Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), for which he won the best actor Oscar, and George Stevens’ Something to Live For (1952); action adventure: DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind (1941); in 1952, he even starred in the experimental thriller with no dialogue, Russell Rouse’s The Thief.
While still starring in films, in the 1950s, Milland began to act and direct on televsion ansd was the star of two shows. Meet Mr McNulty (also known as The Ray Milland Show) (1953-55), was a sitcom about an English professor at a girls’ college. From 1959-1960, he starred in Markham, as the eponymous private detective and attorney.
After leaving Paramount, he also turned his hand to directing some of the films in which he starred: the taut Western, A Man Alone, and the spy thriller, Lisbon (both 1955); a British crime drama, The Safecracker (1958); his chilling vision of a dog-eat-dog apocalyptic America, Panic in the Year Zero (1961. His final work behind the camera was a British-made courtroom drama based on a play he had starred in on Broadway, Hostile Witness (1968).
In later life, the quality of most of Milland’s film work dipped considerably with some dire horror fare like Frogs and the bizarre social drama, The Thing with Two Heads (both 1972). In the latter, he plays the wealthy racist Dr. Maxwell Kirshner, who, when he discovers he is dying, demands his head be transplanted onto a healthy body and it is - onto that of a black death row prisoner. He still occasionally appeared in a quality film like Jack Gold’s Aces High and Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (both 1976); however, easily his mosty succesful film from this period was Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970), in which he played the Ryan O’Neal character’s father.

The author of 100 short stories, he completed his entertaining autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon, in 1974. One of the tales he recounted recalled his time in the Household cavalry when, after a night of drinking, he was unable to control his horse during a pocession in front of the King of Afghanistan and it bolted:

“I went right through the mounted band, who were helpless because their reins are fastened to their stirrups. The drum horse, who was at least nineteen years old, ended up in the memorial fountain, and I finished up in Buckingham Palace courtyard, alone and without a friend in the world.”

His last movie was the straight-to-video The Gold Key (1974), but he continued working in televsion, mostly in guest star roles, but he won an Emmy for his work in Rich Man, Poor Man in 1976. His last televison role was as the Home Secretary in Roy Ward Baker’s Sherlock Holmes television film, The Masks of Death (with Peter Cushing as Holmes and John Mills as Watson) in 1984.

Milland died of lung cancer in Torrance, California in 1986, aged 79.


  1. I'd take him over Gregory Peck any day of the week.

  2. A fine actor, with many credits.