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debonair Welshman whose cool, handsome exterior showcased a wide range of acting
abilities, Ray Milland's good looks may have smoothed his entry into filmmaking
in the late 1920s, but ultimately it was his talent that kept him in demand as an actor for
more than five decades and 120 films. In everything from screwball
comedies to film noir dramas, Milland delivered consistently credible
performances, even when he had little to work with, making him one of
Hollywood's most reliable leading men of the 1940s.
Ray Milland stumbled into acting in the late 1920s when a British filmmaker
spotted him at a party and offered the 22-year-old a bit part in THE PLAYTHING
(1929). After a half-dozen similarly insignificant roles in British films, "Raymond Milland" traveled to the United States under a short-term contract with
MGM to try his luck in Hollywood.
MGM shortened his first name to Ray and
continued casting the acting novice in minor supporting roles, although the
studio did agree to loan him out for more substantial parts in Will Rogers'
AMBASSADOR BILL (1931) at Fox in which
he tries to overthrow the boy-king of a fictional European country, and
Warner Bros.' BLONDE CRAZY
(1931) in which he competes with con-artist James Cagney for
When his contract with MGM expired,
Milland bounced around taking whatever roles he could get, including a
supporting part in Fox's CHARLIE CHAN IN
LONDON (1934), even returning to England for two movie roles in 1933.
Finally, based on the strength of two films he made with Carole Lombard --
BOLERO and WE'RE NOT DRESSING, both 1934 -- as well as the endorsement of his
leading lady, Paramount Pictures
signed Milland to a long-term contract. He would remain with the studio
for some twenty years.
Milland made a number of film comedies over the course of his career, but few
have stood the test of time as well as EASY LIVING (1937), a depression-era
screwball comedy written by
Preston Sturges and starring
Jean Arthur, one of the decade's best comediennes. The story of a
wealthy financier (Edward Arnold) who gets
fed-up with his spoiled family, kicks his son (Milland) out into the real world to get a job and
(inadvertently) gives his wife's fur coat to a struggling working girl, thereby
turning her world completely upside down, EASY LIVING combines screwball comedy
with social satire to teach a fun lesson about judging a person's socio-economic
status by his or her outerwear. Though
Arthur is certainly the star of
the film, Milland more than hold his own comically as her leading man, and the
film is an often-overlooked delight.
Another enduring example of the range of genres represented in Milland's career,
Paramount's BEAU GESTE
(1939), adapted from the 1924 novel by Percival Christopher Wren, is an
adventure tale in the best tradition of both imperialist literature and
pre-World War II Hollywood's fascination with exotic overseas colonial locales.
Starring Gary Cooper as the title character
and co-starring Milland and Robert Preston
as his younger brothers, the film follows the Gestes from their boyhood in a
wealthy English manor house to their coming of age in the French Foreign Legion.
Directed by William Wellman,
BEAU GESTE was somewhat overshadowed by such landmark adventure films as
GONE WITH THE
WIND, STAGECOACH and GUNGA DIN released the same year, but stands
alongside THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935) and
THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE
(1936) as some of the best Kipling-esque adventure films of the decade.
By the time of REAP THE WILD WIND (1942), Milland's stature in Hollywood and at
risen to the level of leading man. In fact, he received top billing over
both John Wayne and Paulette Goddard in
Cecil B. DeMille's 19th century shipping
adventure. Featuring Oscar-winning special effects, including ship wrecks,
giant squid, and some pre-scuba diving, REAP THE WILD WIND's reliance on
then-cutting-edge cinematic technology dates it somewhat, but Milland has quite
a bit of help carrying the plot of the film, and the story, along with its
impressive Technicolor cinematography by
Victor Milner, have helped it
weather the years.
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