It’s a new month and February’s featured star, May McAvoy, will pass the crown to a new performer. This month’s star is not known to the general public but he has a devoted group of fans among silent movie nerds.
The featured star is…
Milton Sills (1882-1930)
A rugged star of oudoorsy action pictures, Milton Sills gave up a career in academia once he heard the siren call of the stage. (Probably for the best as he would have been a major distraction in the classroom. Rawr!) He joined the wave of stage stars trying their hand at the movies in the mid-1910s. Most failed to catch on but Sills was one of the exceptions.
Sills’ films have a fairly low survival rate but fans can catch a glimpse of his 1910s work in Patria and Eyes of Youth. (Both films also include appearances from a certain up-and-comer named Rudolph Valentino.) I also wrote a little article about the gritty lost film The Honor System, which starred Sills, was directed by Raoul Walsh and shot in the Yuma Territorial Prison.
The 1920s was good to Sills but, again, lost films abound. He was Colleen Moore’s leading man in Flaming Youth, the quintessential flapper picture by all accounts. In her autobiography, Moore stated that Sills was a shameless upstager. Naughty Milton!
Sills found his signature role in 1924 when he was cast as the brooding, swashbuckling protagonist of The Sea Hawk. (I’ve heard rumors that Valentino wanted the role. No offense to Rudy but Sills was perfect.) He continued to work in brawny fare, including a couple of Jack London adaptations.
Sills seemed perfectly equipped for sound and his few sound ventures were indeed successful. Alas, he died from a heart attack in 1930, just a week before his final film, The Sea Wolf, opened.
Why you should love him:
Sills had a combination of brains and brawn that was rare in the silent era and is even rarer today. His best movies had plenty of adventure and derring-do but they also included moments of reflection and character development. Modern action stars would do well to emulate Sills.
Alas, few of his films survive and even fewer are available on home media. If you get a chance to see Sills in action, take it.
Oh and here is Sills’ 1916 recipe for coconut cake. You take a cake. You add coconut. Voila!
What? You don’t like random cake recipes?
Where you can see him
In addition to Eyes of Youth and Patria, listed above, you can also see Sills in Burning Daylight. I have also reviewed Sills in three films on this site. (Click the title to read my review.)
Miss Lulu Bett (1921): Lois Wilson is the main attraction but Sills ably supports her and the two characters embark on an adorkable romance. It’s also a chance to see Sills play an academic, something he rarely did on the screen.
Adam’s Rib (1923): No relation to the Tracy/Hepburn film but it did influence Bringing Up Baby. (The flapper heroine falls for a nerdy, glasses-wearing paleontologist.) Sills plays the flapper’s dad but he has problems of his own. His wife is stepping out on him with Theodore Kosloff (?) and then we get a caveman flashback… It’s weird, okay?
The Sea Hawk (1924): A real corker, this one! Sills plays an Elizabethan privateer who is betrayed by his own brother and ends up as a Barbary pirate. Epic in every way, this is one of the finest swashbucklers ever made. (Sorry, Doug. Sorry, Errol.)
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