How well do you know Milton Sills? He died a long time ago and not many of the films that he starred in have ever made it to video. So don’t feel bad if Milton Sills is no more than a name to you. If even that. I don’t know him beyond The Sea Hawk, but his performance there was enough to make me want to know more.
Sills was just forty-eight and, thanks to his stage trained voice, earning accolades for a talkie comeback when a heart attack claimed his life in 1930. Yes, Milton Sills has been gone for awhile.
Perhaps you are more familiar with another actor who predeceased Milton Sills by just a few weeks.
An unsigned newspaper editorial titled “The Curtain Falls on Milton Sills” begins: “In losing Lon Chaney and Milton Sills within a few weeks of each other, Hollywood has lost two of its greatest actors.” The anonymous writer continued, “Such men achieve a rare popularity, but it is built on momentary impressions, and they are forgotten within a few moons.”
That seems half correct.
The rugged 6’1” Sills was often touted as the he-man of the screen. As he built his reputation on screen two-fisted became the term used repeatedly to describe both the actor and his output. Milton Sills was a silent film tough guy; a man of action; a he-man.
Photoplay editor James R. Quirk explained why he dubbed Sills "The Mighty Milton" when he eulogized the late actor from inside the pages of his magazine. Quirk claims he coined the nickname when accompanying Sills on a trip to Yosemite Park where, “Milton knew every wildflower in that park by its Latin as well as its English name. He knew the geological significance of every rock formation and natural phenomena. He sat at a piano in the moonlight and played Bach and Beethoven divinely, the while watching the celestial parade of planets, all of which he could place and name.”
While Quirk’s details seem a bit too florid to be entirely believable there is no doubt that Milton Sills, two fisted motion picture tough guy, had a far more cerebral side than film fans were treated to on the screen.
Sills had attended the University of Chicago on a scholarship and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy in 1903. Upon graduation he was awarded a fellowship in philosophy and remained on at the school for another two years before once and for all being lured away from academia to the stage in 1905.
Later articles about movie star Sills often commented on his extensive library and his knowledge of multiple languages. His name was included as co-author of the 1932 book Values: A Philosophy of Human Needs (Back in print!), which was a reproduction of a conversation between Sills and spiritual philosopher Ernest Holmes about the title subject.
Milton Sills did not partake in this conversation as a movie star. His voice was that of respected scholar and philosopher. In a 1998 article contributed to The Silents Majority website his daughter, Dorothy Sills Lindsley, then 87, recalled her father “studied calculus before going to sleep so he could discuss astronomy with one of his close friends, Edwin Hubbell.”
Milton Sills was no lightweight.
Milton Sills was born in Chicago, January 12, 1882. His father, William Henry Sills, was a successful mineral dealer while his mother, Josephine, was the daughter of a well-to-do banker. Money was not an issue. Milton grew up on the South Side of Chicago and attended public schools there. He entered the University of Chicago in 1899 after having graduated from Hyde Park High School.
Sills studied both philosophy and psychology at the University of Chicago but also found the time to act in a few of the University's stage productions. Sills chose the stage as his career when Donald Robertson, of the Donald Robertson Players of Chicago, visited the school to lecture on Ibsen. He offered the young philosophy fellow a position with his company and Sills accepted.
Milton Sills made his professional acting debut in New Palestine, Ohio as leading man in Dora Thorne. He was paid $30 per week.
After getting his feet wet with that part Sills joined the Donald Robertson Players in Chicago where he starred in The Miser and then performed works from Ibsen and Shakespeare for the company. From Chicago he went south to New Orleans where he played in stock for $50 per week. It was while in New Orleans that Sills was offered the lead in This Woman and This Man on Broadway at $150 per week in 1909. That seems to have been a rather easy decision!
After his Broadway debut Sills next acted in the Charles Frohman produced The Happy Marriage. It was while playing in The Servant in the House in San Francisco (or perhaps Minneapolis), later in 1909, that Milton Sills met future wife Gladys Edith Wynne. They married at the Savoy Chapel in London, May 26, 1910.
Sills next appeared in David Belasco’s The Fighting Hope with Blanche Bates before hitting the road with William A. Brady’s Mother. It was while her husband toured in Mother that Gladys Sills gave birth to daughter Dorothy, April 19, 1911, while visiting her own mother in London. Milton Sills would first lay eyes on his daughter when they returned to New York two months later.
Milton Sills continued acting on Broadway over the next few years appearing in plays such as Diplomacy, The Governor’s Lady, and Panthea. William A. Brady got a hold of Sills while the actor was appearing in The Law of the Land and asked how he would feel about appearing in a motion picture.
The Pit had been novelist Frank Norris’ second story in his incomplete trilogy, The Epic of the Wheat. Norris, who died young himself at just 32, is largely forgotten today but film fans will know him best as the author of McTeague, the novel Erich Von Stroheim meticulously reconstructed as the film Greed (1924). The Pit had already been previously filmed by D.W. Griffith as one of his more famous early one-reel films, A Corner in Wheat, in 1909. Brady’s 1914 version of the film directed by Maurice Tourneur was a lengthier five reel production starring Wilton Lackaye. Milton Sills made his film debut in the final scene.
A couple of additional plays came and went fast on Broadway over the next couple of years for Milton Sills, but as early as 1915 he was already very busy appearing before the camera in East Coast film productions.
He spent the 1910’s appearing in support of leading ladies such as Pauline Frederick, Clara Kimball Young, Viola Dana and Mary Miles Minter. The strapping star rose quickly and was being paid a then record $1,500 per week at one point during the decade. His salary only seemed to rise and fan magazines even began to employ sarcasm when discussing Sills' earnings over the next decade.
By 1923 it was reported by Photoplay and newspapers nationwide that Milton Sills was the busiest actor on film and, what’s more, his films were typically successful as well. This period of heavy activity was crowned by his being cast in the starring role of Frank Lloyd’s The Sea Hawk, as noted above, Sills’ most famous film.
This action tale sees Sills as a man of many faces. At the open his Sir Oliver Tressilian has settled down after life at sea and is doing his best to woo society mistress Rosamund (Enid Bennett) against the wishes of both her brother, Peter (Wallace MacDonald), and guardian, Sir John Killigrew (Marc MacDermott).
When Sir Oliver's own brother, Lionel (Lloyd Hughes), kills Peter the blood leads back to Oliver's house and he is soon accused. Brother Lionel panics when he sees Oliver may be cleared and arranges a deal for his shanghai by a group of pirates led by a bearded Wallace Beery. Just as Sills' Oliver makes a deal with Beery's Captain Jaspar Leigh a Spanish ship attacks and Sills is soon shirtless and bearded as a galley slave.
Forming a friendship with the Moor he's chained to, Yusuf-Ben-Moktar (Albert Prisco), Sir Oliver takes advantage of a Moor attack to align himself with the Muslims, denounce Christianity and reemerge three years later as the feared Sakr-el-Bahr, translated for us through the intertitles as the Muslim name for "The Sea Hawk."
Appearing in a third drastically different costume Sills as "The Sea Hawk" sets about gaining vengeance and clearing his name, not without several difficulties along the way.
The Sea Hawk was a rousing showcase for Milton Sills which elevated him from busy actor to the highest ranks of stardom over the next few years.
After The Sea Hawk Sills was finally promoted to leading man with ads for First National’s The Making of O’Malley proclaiming the film to be Milton Sills first starring picture. He starred again in boxing film The Knockout and next with Doris Kenyon in The Unguarded Hour.
As is so often the case while Sills’ professional career skyrocketed his personal life hit a few bumps. In 1925 Gladys Sills filed for divorce on grounds of desertion claiming that Milton had left Los Angeles for New York in August 1924 and never came back. While the Sills divorce would not be finalized until October 1926, Photoplay took notice of Sills’ interest in co-star Doris Kenyon as early as their November 1925 issue. “Doris says it isn’t a romance, they’re just good friends,” reported Cal York. I can see him winking.
Good and close friends. One October 13, 1926 headline told the entire story: “Milton Sills, Divorced Yesterday, Married Doris Kenyon Today.” What went unreported by newspapers was told by daughter Dorothy in 1998: “My poor mother tried to commit suicide the day Father married Doris.”
Health was an immediate issue for the new couple with a small and quick wedding ceremony being held due to Kenyon’s recovery from a recent illness. It was an East Coast wedding taking place on Silver Lake near Ausable Forks, NY at Kenyon’s summer home. It was reported that the couple planned to honeymoon through the Adirondacks before returning West to Hollywood.
Sills gained a nice round of publicity for the film Men of Steel which he not only starred in, but also wrote. Wife Doris Kenyon was his co-star.
In 1927 son Kenyon Sills was born and the fan magazines regularly ran photographs of the boy during the remainder of Sills’ life. Unfortunately that time is winding down.
His daughter wrote that Milton Sills had a breakdown sometime in 1928 while newspaper reports had him ill in 1929. Possibly the same illness. Late in 1928 Sills’ first feature with talking sequences, The Barker, was released and it was a hit. Co-star Betty Compson even earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress off of her success in the film. Also featured in The Barker was Dorothy Mackaill, who would continue to co-star in Milton Sills talkies, His Captive Woman early in 1929 and Man Trouble the following year. But before Man Trouble Sills would take time off from the screen in order to recover from illness.
It was in April 1929 that Sills became sick for three weeks and dropped 60 pounds off his formerly strapping 180-190 pound frame. He went into a temporary retirement, but soon returned to his old form. Upon his return for Man Trouble Photoplay Magazine even published a photo to prove that Sills seemed back to his old self.
It was reported that Fox Films had signed Milton Sills to a long term contract after the success of his first few talking pictures and his subsequent comeback from health issues. His first film under this Fox contract was to be The Sea Wolf. It would also be his last.
Sills finished work on The Sea Wolf, but would not live to see its release. Just six days before The Sea Wolf premiered in theaters Milton Sills would suffer a heart attack in front of friends and family after a tennis game with his daughter Dorothy. A doctor was summoned and he attempted to revive Sills, but to no avail. Milton Sills was dead at age 48 on September 15, 1930.
Studio flags were set at half mast in honor of Milton Sills the following day. Doris Kenyon was in shock and after the rowdiness fans caused at Lon Chaney’s recent funeral decided to keep Milton’s own funeral plans secret. Milton Sills was buried near his hometown at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.
Besides his personal studies and vast library Sills’ interests included music and the fine arts. He spoke several languages, the lowest number commonly reported being four: English, French, German and Spanish. He liked to play chess and he also enjoyed gardening and was said to have one of the finest gardens in Hollywood. “You see, I just plant ‘em and they grow,” Sills said to Photoplay in 1924 after he had been chosen to address a meeting of the state horticultural society in Los Angeles.
Milton Sills was a member of many clubs throughout Southern California and was also one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In his earlier days he was active in Actors’ Equity. He has a star on Hollywood’ Walk of Fame.
In 1918 Milton Sills spoke to Photoplay Magazine about the poor reputation of motion pictures. He drew a comparison to the initial reception to Shakespeare in his own time with Milton explaining that, “Almost everything that has been said against the moving picture was originally said against him (Shakespeare) because he appealed to the masses. Always there is that vanguard of conservatism, working on the principle that because a thing is popular it cannot have real merit. There are some authors even now who would have apoplexy if you asked them to write a scenario. I believe however that their number is growing less and less with every excellent production.”
In attempting to sort out Sills’ legacy after his death the editorialist of “The Curtain Falls” article wrote that “Milton Sills sent many a youth home desiring to be a he-man … His appeal was aimed at an instinct as old as the Romans, and an instinct that has survived for so long must have its place in the world.”
A final word from Photoplay’s James R. Quirk, November 1930: “The most brilliant mind in the history of motion pictures and one of the most gallant and courtly gentlemen who ever graced the stage has gone.”
Whether it was simply timing or truly talent, perhaps both, Milton Sills was so appreciated in his own time that obituaries and subsequent remembrances often connected him with Lon Chaney. Chaney is a star who whose own reputation has not only survived but grown to legendary status over the many passing decades while Sills seems to have been shamefully “forgotten within a few moons.”
- Annual Register. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1893-1930. 1904. (205). Google Books. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- Associated Press. “Milton Sills, Educator and Screen Actor, Dies.” Mason City Globe Gazette. 16 Sep 1930: 1. NewspaperArchive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- Associated Press. “Mourning for Sills.” Kokomo Tribune. 18 Sep 1930: 10. NewspaperArchive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- Bird, Carol. “A Man of Talents.” Photoplay. Jun 1926: 41,78. Media History Digital Archive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- Chase, Frederic A. “Milton Sills Was Gripped by Last Picture.” Charles City Press. 20 Oct 1930: 6. NewspaperArchive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- “Enter Little Sills.” Oakland Tribune. 20 Jun 1911: 12. NewspaperArchive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- Hall, Leonard. “Reeling Around.” Photoplay. Apr 1929. Media History Digital Archive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- Lowrey, Carolyn. The First One Hundred Noted Men and Women of the Screen. New York: Moffat, Yard and Co., 1920. Google Books. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- “Milton Sills Busiest Screen Star of 1923.” The Pittsburgh Press. 5 Oct 1924: 5. Google News. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- “Milton Sills, Divorced Yesterday, Married Doris Kenyon Today.” The Independent. 13 Oct 1926: 8. Google News. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- “Milton Sills Rites to Be Held Friday.” The Pittsburgh Press. 18 Sep 1930. Google News. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- “Milton Sills Successful In Comeback.” The Pittsburgh Press. 27 Apr 1930. Google News. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- Quirk, James. R. “Close-Ups and Long-Shots.” Photoplay. Nov 1930: 29. Media History Digital Archive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- “Real Stories of Reel Life.” Fairbanks Times. 20 Feb 1930: 2. NewspaperArchive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- Smith, Alison. “A Gentleman and a Scholar.” Photoplay. Jun 1918: 87-88. Media History Digital Archive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- “Society Is Ready.” Oak Park Oak Leaves. 4 Jan 1908: 4. NewspaperArchive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- “The Close-Up: Milton Sills.” Laredo Daily Times. 1 Mar 1927: 2. NewspaperArchive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- “The Curtain Falls on Milton Sills.” Moorhead Daily News. 17 Sep 1930: 2. NewspaperArchive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
- United Press. “Milton Sills Dies After Heart Attack.” Wisconsin State Journal. 16 Sep 1930: 1. NewspaperArchive. Web. 8 Sep 2012.
Other Milton Sills Articles Online
- Life with Father: Dorothy Sills Lindsley on Milton Sills at The Silents Majority courtesy of The WayBack Machine.
- Mary Mallory: Hollywood Heights - Milton Sills by Larry Harnisch at The Daily Mirror
- Milton Sills: Chicago's Forgotten Movie Star by John R. Schmidt at WBEZ.com