Milton Sills (1882-1930)
Country of birth: USA
The basics: Milton Sills was born in Chicago into a well-to-do family. He received a college scholarship, earned a post as a professor and was working toward his doctorate when, in 1905, he decided that the theater was his true calling. Success came quickly to the handsome former educator. He was offered his first film role in 1914 and again prospered swiftly in his new profession. Sills was renowned for his he-man roles, his philosophical musings and his academic background, a rarity in the motion picture world. Sills freelanced for years before signing on with First National 1924, where he continued to make virile adventure films interspersed with comedies and dramas. He was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. Sills suffered from poor health in the late twenties but he was able to make a made a successful sound transition. Tragically, his career ended with a fatal heart attack in 1930.
You probably saw him in: The Sea Hawk, Miss Lulu Bett, Burning Daylight, The Eyes of Youth
Silent style: Milton Sills specialized in rugged, two-fisted parts. The man was born to play a Jack London character. However, Sills was also capable of lightening things up. He was the gentle Johnny-come-lately suitor to Lois Wilson in Miss Lulu Bett and the staid lover to Colleen Moore’s flapper in the lost film Flaming Youth. Sills brought intensity and unaffected masculinity to his roles, as well as brawny good looks.
Sound transition: As a stage veteran, Sills had an advantage in making the transition to talking pictures and he found success in yet another medium. He completed two partial-talkies and two all-talking pictures, as well as a talking trailer to his final silent film, Love and the Devil. His last screen appearance was as the sadistic title character in an adaptation of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.
What others said:
“And now Milton Sills is going to stage another big fight. Milton can’t appear in a picture anymore, without somebody gets (sic) all mussed up! It’s hard to remember that he was a college professor — once.”
Cal York, in the gossip section of Photoplay
If you gotta know more:
Values: A Philosophy of Human Needs by Ernest S. Holmes and Milton Sills (philosophical work)
Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy by Debra Ann Pawlak (biographical entry)
Classics of the Silent Screen by Joe Franklin (biographical entry)
Immortal Ephemera: Milton Sills, The Mighty Two-Fisted He-Man of the Silent Screen (excellent online article)
If you can only see him in one thing: The Sea Hawk, probably his most famous and readily available film. It demonstrates his versatility (he goes from English gentleman to galley slave to Barbary pirate) and the previously mentioned two-fisted screen persona.