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May 2020

It Happens Every Spring: Ray Milland


There are several theories about the origin of the stage name, Ray Milland, for the man born Alfred Reginald Jones in 1907 in Neath, Glamorgan, Wales. The surname of his step-father, Mullane, is one likely source which became blended with the name given to an area near Neath, “mill-land”, thereby offering up a delightfully phonetic name. In British films, the neophyte actor was billed as Spike Milland and, later, Raymond Milland.


A rose by any other name, however, would still be this uniquely original actor known in Hollywood, and then elsewhere, as Ray Milland. I find his pathway to the U.S. film firmament almost as exciting as the luster that he suavely yet sensitively gave to that silver screen. With his rich masculine timbre, the defining resonance of any Welshman, Ray Milland was a star almost without trying.

The grace of his movements in any movie scene was owed largely to his equestrian skills, learned, initially, at the horse-breeding estate of his uncle. At the age of 18, he journeyed to London to serve for the next three years as a guardsman with the Royal Household Cavalry of the British Army, and as a member of the elite Guard for the Royal Family. Milland (who was still, at that time, named Alfred) engaged in 19 months of disciplined instruction in horse soldiering, fencing, pugilism, and marksmanship.


The British Royal family basically provided all of the lessons for this young man that a Hollywood studio system would have invested in the raw male recruit for movie-making!

Alfred excelled in his athletically technical pursuits, winning trophies, medals and awards, not unlike the array of tennis trophies that a future film character portrayed by Ray Milland would show off in the 1954 classic film, Dial M For Murder. Another similarity to his character, Tony Wendice, is the sudden, unexpected and rather vexing loss of the financial means by which to continue his pursuit of this rarefied career: an independent income was a stipulation for becoming a Guardsman.


Cut off from the money, or allowance, from his stepfather, Alfred Jones had to find a different path in life. Somehow, the acting bug not bit, but nibbled at him, and he started with small parts on the London stage.


Through a series of good luck; smart chances; befriending the right people, especially women, in the right places; and awaiting the crucial recognition of his good looks and smoothly masculine voice, Ray Milland made it from England to Hollywood that next year, 1929, the year of the Stock Market Crash. He was signed by MGM to a one-year contract.


That year ended, and Milland returned to England. In 1934, he returned to America, and he joined Paramount, the studio that would be his home for most of his acting career in Hollywood. At first, his roles were extremely type-cast, the suave man-about-town in the type of light romantic comedies that must have been the testing ground for young talents, testing their patience and their nerves perhaps more than their acting abilities.


By 1940, Mr. Milland left America, once again, to return to England to star in a screen adaptation of French Without Tears. He was good, very good, and thus returned to Hollywood to receive top-billing in a Cecil B. DeMille production of Reap the Wild Wind. This typically lavish TECHNICOLOR adventure drama pitted a sophisticated Milland against John Wayne in a fight — that Milland wins!

I was first introduced to the graceful acting splendour of Mr. Milland by the 1942 film, The Major and the Minor, directed by Billy Wilder, and co-starring Ginger Rogers. As Major Philip Kirby, Milland makes his first major (ha) vault toward the Hollywood heavens. The film is a rare romantic treat every time that I watch it.


Following this success, for Wilder as well as for Milland, Director Wilder decided to cast this actor against type in the 1945 production of the somber, non-sober, and dangerously scary movie, The Lost Weekend. Just about every major male Hollywood star of the time ran away from this role of an alcoholic writer, fearing the portrayal would end his career.


This performance not only propelled Milland into serious Star stratosphere, it earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor. The dark side of Milland was something this man did not run from, and his courage for delving into such murky waters only added to his abilities to plumb other waters, such as the smooth-as-silk treachery in Dial M For Murder, as well as lively character actor roles in comedy, in horror and in sci-fi flicks.

Milland somewhat returned to his love of athletics in the 1949 movie, It Happens Every Spring.  In this whimsical flick, Milland plays a research chemist of a small college in the Midwestern United States. He also happens to be a baseball lover . . . who has to assume another identity to play baseball. And risk the love of his life, played by Jean Peters. Here we have science, sports and romance, the way they used to be!


A major component of the long-term and wide-spread success of the career of Milland came from Paramount’s use of his on-screen attraction as An Alternative To — other actors such as Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Steward, José Ferrer, and Joel McCrea. In this way, he was not overly typecast and was able to broaden his range fairly early in his film career. The downside to such a diversified image for Milland was that his excellence on-screen was often under-appreciated or even under-seen.

As a working actor, he pursued the practicality of his craft more than the glamour, making him equal star and equal actor. His handsome charm was natural, and that gift, added to his dexterous acting skills, and his candid, self-deprecating humor, created a quiet allure that was indeed rare during the Golden Age of Hollywood. This actor of dual citizenship, British and American, died in 1986 in Torrance, California.


Mr. Milland was not shy about expressing his views or his feelings about the profession into which he so gracefully sauntered. A few of his simple, refined and realistic statements of spontaneous aplomb are as follows:


When asked why he’d agreed to play in so many awful films late in his career, Milland joyfully and honestly quipped: “For the money, old chap, for the money!”


“Nowadays the stars walk around in supermarkets, dressed in blue jeans. It’s depressing. I really think the fault lies with that ‘Method’ school of acting in New York. They want to be real, natural, you know, real folk. Well, God, every street corner you go around has real folks. You don’t look for that in world stars. The entertainment business is a fantasy world. I don’t think any female star should be seen doing the laundry. Hollywood was built on glamour, and they’d better get it back as soon as they can.”


“The Celtic mind in its lonely moments is a tumbling sea of love and compassion and romanticism and neurotic hates.”


“The greatest drawback in making pictures is the fact that film makers have to eat.”


“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I can't take quiet desperation!”


“I go to the cinema to be entertained, not depressed.”