Mostly remembered for his war films, especially one masterpiece which helped set a new standard for Hollywood in the early sound years, Lewis Milestone was a true motion picture pioneer who deserves more credit from historians. After working as an assistant, editor, and screenwriter for Howard Hughes, the Russian-born Milestone made his mark with a series of silent comedies followed by one of the most brutal, brilliant, and emotional anti-war flicks of all time. By that point a two-time Oscar winner, the difficult but frequently inspired director avoided settling down at any major studio; instead he bounced from producer to producer while making fast-paced comedies, sexy melodramas, and superior literary adaptations throughout the Great Depression. Although Milestone made a number of patriotic war movies during WWII, leftist beliefs and Russian heritage led to his ‘graylisting’ by the early fifties; for the last two decades of his career, this capable craftsman toiled away on middling TV and feature film projects, rarely recapturing the glory of his early work. Little remembered in the decades since his death, he still did a great deal to improve the fluidity of camera movement and performances in the early ‘talkie’ era and helmed a number of extraordinary pictures in the process.
Born in Russia to a family of Jewish descent (his father was a prominent costume manufacturer and his cousin a violinist), Leib Milstein first immigrated to the United States in 1912; upon his arrival he found work as a laborer, dishwasher, and eventually a photographer’s assistant. He joined the US Signal Corps during WWI, where he was introduced to filmmaking as the assistant director of Army training films. Milstein obtained the position of director on “The Toothbrush,” which taught soldiers the proper way to brush their teeth, followed by the similar “Posture,” “Positive,” and “Fight to Win.” A hard worker, the newly re-named Lewis Milestone became a naturalized citizen in 1919 and moved to Hollywood as an experienced AD. For the next few years he worked as an assistant and editor, or ‘cutter’ as it was known back then, before receiving his big break with the help of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. It was Hughes who found work for Milestone as an assistant to established silent filmmakers like Henry King and William Seiter; he worked as an editor on the Rin Tin Tin vehicle “Where the North Begins” and a screenwriter on “Up and At Em,” “The Yankee Consol,” “Listen Lester,” “The Mad Whirl,” “Dangerous Innocence” “The Teaser,” and “Bobbed Hair.” After leaving Seiter’s tutelage, Milestone made his debut, Seven Sinners (1925), into a winning comedy that was produced by Hughes and co-written with Darryl F Zanuck. Marie Prevost and Clive Brook play criminals who plan to rob a home in Long Island, resulting in a funny and complex farce which established Milestone as a director.
The Caveman (1926) was also co-written by Milestone and Zanuck and cast Prevost in the lead role, that of a sophisticated woman who tries to civilize Matt Moore’s uncouth carriage driver. The New Klondike, adapted from a Ring Lardner story, starred Thomas Meighan as a baseball pitcher who takes part in the Florida land boom and proved popular due to some witty one-liners from Ben Hecht. After feuding with star Gloria Swanson, Milestone walked off the set of “Fine Manners” and established his reputation as a difficult director; fortunately his next film, Two Arabian Nights (1927), was a smashing success that won him the first and only Oscar for best comedy direction. The story was pure escapism, with William Boyd and Louis Wolheim as American soldiers who escape from a POW camp during WWI and get mixed up with sheik’s daughter Mary Astor, but was engaging enough to confirm Milestone’s skill at silent farce. After doing un-credited work on a popular Harold Lloyd vehicle, “The Kid Brother,” Milestone made The Garden of Eden (1928) into an enjoyable vehicle for Corinne Griffith; the strikingly beautiful ‘Orchid Lady’ plays an Austrian girl who gets mixed up with a sleazy cabaret, led by lesbian Madge Evans, before her only friend reveals herself as a baroness, leading to a Monte Carlo vacation.
With fine sets from William Cameron Menzies and the sort of sexy sophistication associated with the farces of Ernst Lubitsch, Milestone scored another hit; later that year he made The Racket, a change of pace from his comedies which has been ranked among the more realistic crime flicks of the time. Meighan plays a police captain who is determined to bring a mob boss to justice in that fast-paced, risqué thriller; both controversial and successful on its release, the film was banned in Chicago because of its expose of the city’s corrupt police force. New York Nights (1929) gave silent icon Norma Talmadge her first ‘talkie’ role as a chorus girl whose alcoholic, songwriter boyfriend gets in trouble with a racketeer; the poor reception to that drama damaged the actress’ reputation among critics and moviegoers, though Milestone quickly moved on by guiding John Barrymore through “Tempest” without credit and making his last silent, Betrayal, with Emil Jannings as the burgermeister who marries pretty girl Esther Ralston but loses her to handsome, younger man Gary Cooper.
While many of his silent films were popular, Milestone didn’t enter Hollywood’s A-List until he adapted Erich Marie Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) into one of movie history’s most potent condemnations of war. Lew Ayres plays Paul, a young German man who is goaded into enlisting by his jingoistic professor and immediately encounters the horrors of trench warfare along with other soldiers played by Wolheim and Slim Sommerville. Milestone and co-writer Maxwell Anderson spared viewers none of the battle scenes, amputations, or anti-war themes of Remarque’s book, synthesizing the sights and sounds of the battlefield with a realism rarely matched in other early sound features. Immediately hailed as a masterpiece which won Oscars for best picture and director, the film became an international blockbuster that prompted controversy abroad; Joseph Goebbels banned it for the negative depiction of German military strategy, while the pacifist themes caused problems for the Russian-born Milestone with the HUAC some years later. At first, however, it was enough of a hit to signal a new era of well-crafted ‘talkies’ and mark the director as a master of the war genre, even as the violence of his original cut was trimmed by censors. The Front Page (1931), the first of many adaptations of Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play, featured Pat O’Brian as the reporter who wants to settle down and Adolphe Menjou as the unscrupulous editor determined to keep him on the staff, especially after they get a big scoop involving an escaped killer. While later versions, including Howard Hawks’ classic “His Girl Friday,” have eclipsed the original’s reputation, it’s still a fast-paced and hilarious comedy which again snagged Milestone an Oscar nod.
He subsequently moved on from producer Hughes and, due to his reputation, was able to freelance rather than settle at a major studio. His melodrama Rain (1932) was based on W Somerset Maugham’s tale of Sadie Thompson, a South Seas prostitute played by Joan Crawford who faces off against a hypocritical preacher portrayed by Walter Huston. Considered too daring for Depression-era viewers, the film was a box office flop on its release but, like so many of Milestone’s early sound dramas, has since grown in stature due to his straightforward presentation of Maugham’s story and ever-fluid camerawork. Hallelujah I’m a Bum (1933) was more successful, with a story by Hecht which intelligently satirized the struggles of the Great Depression and a fine performance from Al Jolson as a hobo known as ‘the Mayor of Central Park.’ He saves the life of suicidal girl Madge Evans, who is engaged to actual mayor Frank Morgan, in a wholly original film with rhyming dialogue, sharp political commentary, and a number of infectious songs by Rogers and Hart which rank Milestone’s musical among Jolson’s most entertaining, least dated vehicles. He next made an ambitious comedy, The Captain Hates the Sea (1934), with silent star John Gilbert in his final role as an alcoholic reporter who boards a cruise ship with everyone from Victor McLaglen’s dedicated detective to the Three Stooges. Though that Grand Hotel-style farce received publicity for its ballooning budget, due in part to the partying of the cast, it failed to recoup those costs at the box office.
Paris in Spring (1935) was a forgettable romantic comedy about a suicidal young man and woman who meet at the Eiffel Tower and conspire to begin a relationship to make their former lovers jealous. That predictable programmer was followed by an adaptation of the stage musical Anything Goes (1936), with Bing Crosby and Ethyl Merman among those featured in a standard cruise ship romance. While some of Cole Porter’s classic tunes, among them ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ and ‘You’re the Top,’ were given a smooth treatment by Crosby, the addition of lesser songs ultimately flawed Milestone’s translation of the Broadway smash. He next made The General Died at Dawn (1937) into an inventive hit featuring Cooper as a mercenary who romances spy Madeline Carroll while trying to thwart the plans of an evil Chinese warlord, played by Akim Tamiroff. Milestone made the most of a superior script from Clifford Odets, again using a number of cinematic tricks to enhance the atmosphere of his absorbing and still-impressive Oriental drama. His reputation as a master visual stylist was enhanced with Of Mice and Men (1939), a stellar adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel produced in part by Hal Roach. Burgess Meredith improved his standing in the industry as farm hand George; with Lon Chaney Jr as Lennie, the simple-minded giant he tries to protect during the Depression, and Betty Field as the bored foreman’s wife who ultimately brings about their downfall. Though neglected somewhat during Hollywood’s greatest year, Milestone’s sensitive adaptation of Steinbeck’s morality play maintains the spirit and anger of the book thanks to fine performances, a moving score from Aaron Copeland, and a pitch-perfect technique from the producer/director at the peak of his powers.
He never quite replicated that pinnacle, instead turning to comedy again with The Night of Nights–in which O’Brien plays a washed up Broadway actor and playwright who is offered the chance to make a comeback with the daughter the he never know he had. His comedy Lucky Numbers (1940) featured Ronald Colman and Ginger Rogers as strangers who share a sweepstakes ticket and go on a fake honeymoon, much to the chagrin of her fiancée, played by Jack Carson in an early role. Based on a more sophisticated farce by French auteur Sacha Guitry, much was lost in translation as Milestone struggled to keep the story afloat. My Life With Caroline (1941) was among the first productions of the United Producers Corporation, of which Milestone was a co-founder, and again starred Colman–this time as a New York-based publisher who suspects wife Anna Lee of taking on a lover. As WWII began, the director returned to training films with “Know For Sure,” about venereal disease, and “Our Russian Front,” a pro-Soviet short made in collaboration with Joris Ivens which prompted trouble later. Edge of Darkness (1943) was the first in his series of patriotic war films; Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan are among the residents of a small Norwegian village who form an underground movement to combat Nazi occupation.
Thanks to a taut screenplay from Robert Rossen and sturdy direction from Milestone, that star-laden propaganda movie was a box office success. The North Star followed in a similar vein, with a script by Lillian Hellman and ace camerawork by James Wong Howe to counter what would later be described as pro-communist themes. Anne Baxter and Dana Andrews play residents of a Ukrainian village which resists the Nazis, though the show was stolen by Erich Von Stroheim as a German doctor and Walter Huston as the Russian elder who defies him. Later used by Joseph McCarthy to blacklist Milestone, and released again in the fifties with the scenes of Russian collective farms removed, it was at least successful during the war; after doing uncredited work on “Guest in the House” he made The Purple Heart (1944), a more conventional battle flick starring Andrews as the head of a bomber squadron that is shot down over Tokyo. Though there were unfortunate stereotypes of the Japanese, who are presented as bloodthirsty sadists, the compelling story and nationalist themes were popular among American viewers at a time when the Pacific conflict raged on. A Walk in the Sun (1945) moved Milestone beyond propaganda to make for a scathing anti-war film, completed shortly before the Japanese surrender. Andrews leads a platoon into Italy where a number of soldiers, played by fine performers as diverse as Richard Conte and Norman Lloyd, fight for survival as they try to locate and raid a Nazi hideout. Though originally spearheaded by producer Samuel Bronston, it was Milestone who purchased the rights to Harry Brown’s novel, hired Rossen to adapt the screenplay, and constructed a deft synthesis of suspenseful, quiet moments and others featuring graphic violence. Though controversial, that gritty film was later hailed as the second classic of the director’s loosely related anti-war trilogy.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) found Milestone delving into post-war noir, with Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale who is forced to marry a childhood friend, played by Kirk Douglas in his debut, who witnessed a murder she committed many years before. A top cast and stylish direction made that melodrama a modest success; unfortunately, his reunion with Remarque, Arch of Triumph (1948), was a major box-office disappointment. Charles Boyer plays a doctor living in Paris shortly before the Nazi invasion; while pursuing a vicious German physician, portrayed by Charles Laughton in a cameo, he also falls for a fragile young woman played by Ingrid Bergman. Producers, hoping the aging artist could replicate his most lauded success, lavished an enormous budget on that wartime epic, though his four hour cut was severely trimmed by censors and generally dismissed by viewers who wanted to move away from war themes since the conflict had ended. That failure nearly bankrupted its production company, Enterprise, so Milestone made No Minor Vices quickly in an attempt to recoup the costs. Andrews plays a pediatrician who hires artist Louis Jourdan to paint wife Lily Palmer in a silly, overly convoluted story which lacked the Lubitsch-inspired frivolity of the director’s prior comedies. He returned to form with The Red Pony (1949), a touching family film starring Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy which was adapted by Steinbeck from his own short story. Shepperd Strudwick plays the young boy who learns about responsibility after receiving his first pony in that well-constructed melodrama, a commercial success which provided viewers with one of Copeland’s most famous scores.
Unfortunately, it was also around this time that Milestone was blacklisted by the HUAC for his Russian heritage and the leftist leanings in many of his wartime films; he cleared his name with Halls of Montezuma (1951), a jingoistic and patriotic film which naturally became a hit in the complacent postwar years. The glitziest of Milestone’s WWII movies, it starred Richard Widmark and Jack Palance as soldiers trying to find a secret Japanese base; a tribute to the United States Marines, the film was a success which vindicated Milestone to McCarthy’s committee but is less interesting today than his anti-war features. He tackled Victor Hugo with an adaptation of Les Miserables (1952) which differed greatly from the source, with Michael Rennie as the pre-French Revolution convict who escapes from prison, rises to power in a town, and is relentlessly pursued by officer Robert Newton. He next travelled Down Under to shoot an adventure film, Kangaroo, which was among the first Technicolor extravaganzas to be shot on location in Australia. Maureen O’Hara plays a rancher’s daughter who is pursued by fugitive Peter Lawford; certainly the plot was middling, though Milestone compensated with a few exciting scenes and some glorious landscape shots. The director remained in that country to make Melba (1953), an interesting biopic featuring Patrice Munsel as the Australian girl who became one of the great opera singers of the nineteenth century. Popular enough among fans of opera and Nellie Melba, it still featured some of the mediocre elements which often marred Milestone’s later work.
They Who Dare (1954) was shot in England and featured Dirk Bogarde as one of the British soldiers stationed in Egypt who face off against the Luftwaffe. By now a director-for-hire who primarily worked on European co-productions, the aging auteur moved to Italy to make The Widow (1955), a melodrama featuring Patricia Roc as the self-centered beauty who falls for auto racer Massimo Serrato, although he’s clearly in love with another woman. The last of Milestone’s films as a writer/director, its lackluster response led him back to America to direct episodes of “Schlitz Playhouse,” “Suspicion,” and “Have Gun Will Travel.” He returned to features with Pork Chop Hill (1959), a fitting wrap-up to the anti-war trilogy featuring Gregory Peck as a commander in the Korean conflict whose regiment finds itself unable to keep control of a hill which has little strategic importance. With a cast of future TV stars at his disposal, among them Rip Torn and Harry Dean Stanton, Milestone made another expensive, gritty condemnation of war which allowed him to address pacifist themes for the first time since his blacklisting.
With Ocean’s Eleven (1960) the veteran effectively teamed the Rat Pack in the enjoyable tale of Danny Ocean, played by Frank Sinatra, who assembles a team of old war buddies to rob all five of the major Las Vegas casinos on New Year’s Eve. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and other friends of Sinatra filled out the supporting cast, while a combination of early sixties cool, Saul Bass’ inventive titles, and a suspenseful heist sequence made for a hit that later spawned Steven Soderbergh’s remake and its two equally bankable sequels. Unfortunately, Milestone’s involvement was muted as the Rat Pack largely dominated the show; he received even less control over his next and final feature, an expensive three-hour remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) which he took over from British director Carol Reed. Trevor Howard gives a sturdy performance as Bligh, the tyrannical captain who is eventually overthrown by his men on a South Seas voyage, with Marlon Brando as noble rebellion leader Fletcher Christian. Brando largely took control of that adventure from Reed and Milestone, greatly expanding the budget and resulting in a box office failure in spite of the publicity surrounding its production. Tired from that disastrous shoot, the aging filmmaker returned to television, a medium he despised working in, by helming episodes of programs like “The Richard Boone Show” and “Arrest and Trial.” Stricken with illness shortly afterwards, Milestone retired and remained inactive until his death in 1980; fortunately his last request, to have his most famous anti-war classic restored, was eventually granted and posthumously enhanced his reputation among film critics. Perhaps not one of the great artists of the Golden Age, Lewis Milestone was still a prolific figure who did more to advance early sound technology, while still making entertaining features that greatly appealed to Depression-era viewers, than any other filmmaker.