After attending the best schools available in San Francisco, young Ernest Milton disappears for a few years for “private instruction” and materializes, at the age of 22, on the east coast ready not only for a professional acting career but a casting type. Except for a single notable departure (as the whip-cracking camel driver in the biblical epic “Joseph and His Brethren”) he would spend the next six years playing sensitive young Europeans. Along the way, he would make two trips to England as Boris Andrieff, the lovesick expatriate aristocrat in Potash and Perlmutter, Montague Glass’ comedy of the New York garment district and in its sequel Potash and Perlmutter in Society. I suppose you really had to be there, because Potash and Perlmutter is a dull read at this distance. Perhaps the joy or humor was in the performance at a time when dialect humor was comedy gold, but its charms have not survived.
In England, he caught the eye of Lilian Baylis, The redoubtable manager of London’s Old Vic Theatre, and under her patronage, his career rocketed. In the 1920s he would play nearly every major Shakespearean tragic role and would make his mark in classic comedy as well. The critics, with a few exceptions, would rhapsodize over him and audiences would loyally attend each performance. He first played Hamlet in 1918 and subsequently many more times occasionally using a full text. Ernest Milton’s Hamlet, widely praised and highly regarded, is the central mystery of Milton’s career. Amid all the cries of genius, there is no attempt to preserve the performance (except for an enigmatic 78 recording in the Victoria and Albert Museum, purporting to be Milton reciting “To Be or Not To Be” – please may it find its way to mp3 along with a side b with “Rogue and Peasant Slave”). Though reconstruction is now impossible, two elements of the portrait are often mentioned. The first is inevitably Milton’s depiction of Hamlet’s madness. JC Trewin was haunted by his spectral “Halooooo” after the ghost’s departure and Christopher Plummer recounts the legendary nature of his madness, present in secondhand accounts for the young actor to greedily devour. Fellow performer Marie Ney, as Ophelia, recalled “quivering with terror” a the approach of Milton’s “lunatic” figure. But there was also a gentle side to Milton’s Hamlet. To theater historian Marvin Rosenberg in The Masks of Hamlet, Milton was “one of the sweetest of early twentieth century Hamlets”. Rosenberg goes on to quote a number of critics who emphasized Milton’s unique sensitivity. The suggestion of these two apparent polar extremes is that Ernest Milton’s Hamlet was a dynamic portrait that played an essentially refined personality off against fierce and unpredictable fits of passion. It’s not surprising that audiences were captivated or that critics gushed.
But the first performance to echo back across the Atlantic was in a modern drama. In John Galsworthy’s 1922 play Loyalties, a group of socialites is staying at the home of a wealthy friend. One of the group is Ferdinand De Levis, young, Jewish, wealthy and desperate to fit in with his new friends. Unfortunately, his “friends” find him pushy, vulgar and ridiculous, and when a large amount of money is stolen from his room, no one wants to hear about it. De Levis, bitterly disabused of the notion that he has a place in this group, presses his case and the resulting scandal causes the thief, destitute Major Dancy, to commit suicide.
Sir John Gielgud, in his obituary for Ernest Milton, vividly recalls Milton as De Levis but significantly remembers him as the target of the accusation. The lapse of memory is justified, De Levis is indeed so vulnerable and so apologetic that he might almost be the guilty man, his ostracism from the group is a liberating event that allows him to regain his dignity. Milton was by all accounts brilliant, and American theater critic Alexander Woollcott noted his performance with approval. De Levis is not, really, the main character of Galsworthy’s play, which turns focus to the group of friends and to the wretched thief in particular for much of its length. But it was Milton who walked off with the honors.
Later in the decade, Milton would win laurels as Pirandello’s Henry IV in his own adaptation (“The Mock Emperor”), though ominously lost money as a producer. He might have considered it worth the loss, since the Emperor’s fantastical and sinister eccentricity seemed a perfect fit for Milton’s mature stage persona. But the play itself, though a fascinating work of genius, is difficult and unsettling – hardly a crowd-pleaser.
For a play that both fit Milton’s talents and pleased the multitudes, he would have to wait for Patrick Hamilton’s thriller “Rope” (or “Rope’s End”). Based loosely on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case, the play follows the killers’ daring stunt of hiding the body in the room where they will be dining with the murdered boy’s own father and with Rupert Cadell, former teacher of one of the killers with unconventional opinions about life and about murder. As Cadell, Milton made a big enough hit to finally cross the Atlantic to Broadway, where his virtuoso performance was lauded. Critics admired his delivery of Cadell’s languidly witty dialog and his subtlety and remarkable economy of movement. It was Milton’s high-point as an actor, and he probably had every reason to expect that his ship had come in for good, when he was struck with a stomach ailment that required surgery and forced an end to the production just as it had begun touring.
This is, of course, the same Rope that later became a Hitchcock film with Jimmy Stewart taking on the Ernest Milton part. While Hitchcock was known for casting against type, in this case the decision was ruinous. The sinister aura of decadence that moves the killers to assume that Cadell will somehow approve of their daring crime is part of the play’s tension, as much as the presence of the unseen body on stage. Needless to say, Stewart has none of this quality and there is never a serious question about what his reaction will be – which makes the two killers cross the line from reckless to impossibly stupid.
And so I leave Ernest Milton at the age of 39, a hit on Broadway, suffering a temporary setback of illness…