“It will be that most of you will never have heard of him, know then only that during the first third of this twentieth century, Ernest Milton had shaken the English theatrical world by acting with a startlingly original brilliance of performance a whole series of characters. ” Peter O’Toole, Loitering With Intent
But that powerful and startling genius proved impossible to locate, ultimately. After years of locating every available film and recording, I could not find him – I could only infer his existence in the unlikeliest of places. At the British Library, listening to ancient reel-to-reel tapes, I came across two intriguing recordings.
One was a radio performance of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm from 1959. The broadcast starred Paul Scofield and Irene Worth, but in the small role of Ulric Brendel, Milton showed something of the old spark. As a seedy, poverty-striken political philosopher and professional “genius”, Milton is brilliant, handily outperforming the leading players.
The other recording was of a 1958 broadcast of Vasco, an adaptation of a play by the Lebanese poet Georges Schehade. It’s hard to describe this play. Really it is – it might be a comedy, but it more a strange vision with overtones of anarchic comedy. Milton plays Caesar, an eccentric old man who sets off on a mysterious quest with his daughter. And again, I’m struck by the beauty of the performance. It’s not proof of the explosion of talent Peter O’Toole describes, but it makes the hypothesis of genius clearer and less unreasonable.
Films (incomplete, as I haven’t been able to locate all films mentioned by imdb.com:
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey.
Milton has one brief moment on screen in this, his only serious role in a major film. As Robespierre, he sends Chauvelin (Massey) to England to trap the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernell (Leslie Howard), a master of disguise intent on rescuing aristocrats headed for the guillotine during the French Revolution. Everything goes wrong for Milton – his film presence is awkward at best, either primly stiff or lurching melodramatically across the set. His costars for the scene both older (O.B. Clarence) and younger (Massey) seem perfectly at ease, Massey in particular quietly oozing menace as he contemplates mischief to come. But despite a clumsy, theatrical turn that fails to integrate with the other performers, Milton is still the most interesting character in the scene. I wouldn’t use this to prove his greatness as an actor, but I can at least put the case that more roles might have brought more and better out of him.
It’s Love Again (1936) with Jessie Matthews and Robert Young. Following up on her success in “Evergreen”, Matthews portrays a young dancer eager for stardom. Ernest Milton is the flamboyant, jaded producer she must impress. Milton hits his stride in light comedy, and even gets a musical number of his own, singing “When You Wore a Tulip” at the piano with Olive Sloane. Meant as a hokey set up for Matthews to blow everyone away, the number is actually rather sweet and Milton has a good singing voice. He is engaging and funny throughout and the film itself is high-spirited and enjoyable.
The Foreman Went to France (1942) with Clifford Evans and Tommy Trinder. Engineer Evans goes undercover in Nazi-occupied France. Milton has a tiny role as a suspicious stationmaster with a heavy accent.
Fiddlers Three (1944) with Tommy Trinder, Diana Decker and Sonnie Hale. The leads are magically transported back to ancient Rome, where they meet Nero and have lots of amusing adventures. Ernest Milton is Titus, a chatty hairdresser who waxes nostalgic for Eddie Cantor, the last visitor from the future. Despite a cast that includes Francis L. Sullivan and the great Elizabeth Welch, I had trouble recalling the details of the film almost immediately, and Milton’s cameo is likewise forgettable.
Alice in Wonderland (1949) with Carol Marsh, Stephen Murray and Pamela Brown. Notorious for being knocked out of the spotlight by Disney’s cartoon version of the classic, this live-action/clay-puppet version is really pretty clever and well-performed. And once again Ernest Milton shines as a stuffy Oxford Vice-Chancellor and his Wonderland counterpart, the White Rabbit. Not only does he have his own musical number, “I Play the Game”, but Milton also gets a tongue-twisting monologue in the trial scene and develops a characterization of the White Rabbit as a whiny, opportunistic tattle-tale that is so poised and witty that I’m tempted to think I know what his Malvolio must have been like.
Cat Girl (1957) with Barbara Shelley and Robert Ayres. Horror film with Shelley as a young woman who inherits a family curse that turns her into a ferocious feline at night. Ernest Milton is the mad, creepy uncle who passes the curse on. Milton gets plenty of screen time early on, and horror might have been a good genre to exploit his unique gifts, but Cat Girl is silly even for its genre and when he’s not on screen, there’s no reason to watch. Not even for Ms. Shelley, who went on to greater fame in better films.
William Tell (1958) with Conrad Phillips and Willoughby Goddard. Pilot episode for the popular TV series. Oh, the indignity – Ernest Milton appears as Judge Furst, Tell’s father-in-law, but he has clearly been dubbed by another actor. Perhaps Milton’s theatrical delivery was too out of place for the world of TV swashbucklers – and as I type that I am aware of how strange that sounds. But yes, it’s not him.
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (1963) with Donald Wolfit and Sean Connery. Milton has the title role in this heavily abridged version from the Living Shakespeare LP series. He’s not happily cast, lacking any sense either of the old king’s wily nature, surely a great part of his pathos, and his warrior spirit. Milton is merely soft and tired, and his chant doesn’t do the verse justice. A great disappointment.
King John (1964) with Donald Wolfit and Rosemary Harris. King John was one of Milton’s signature roles – but in this version he plays Cardinal Pandulph with solemn and subtle menace. While not a major role, this does give Milton the opportunity to showcase his unique vocal qualities at the service of rhetoric that carries varying levels of threat.
Merry Wives of Windsor (1966) with Anthony Quayle, Joyce Redman and June Jago. Milton plays Justice Shallow, and is good enough to make it a pity he didn’t play Shallow in Henry IV Part II. Milton had a history in this play having been a memorable Ford at the Old Vic in the 1920s. His quavering delivery smacks of old school theatricality, but this doesn’t matter so much – it’s a small role nicely delivered and it makes a good finale for the actor’s Shakespearean career.
And that’s it. Somewhere, there may be a scene from Milton’s Lear from a TV broadcast. It’s mentioned in the obituaries. And at one time it was said that recordings of Rope and Pirandello’s Henry IV were out there somewhere, but I can find no source for them. So I’m happy to let go for now of a great performance mystery – a celebrated performer who left no – or at least a severely abbreviated – legacy.