Lewis Milestone — That Boy from Odessa (1932) 🇺🇸
Lewis Milestone was born in Russia and he has worked his way up from raincoat maker at $4 a week to the forefront of motion picture direction.
by Jim Tully
His face is broad. There is a glint of laughter in his eyes. He is well tailored, about five feet ten, and slightly heavy for his height. He gropes for a word now and then and has a slight accent; otherwise his English is perfect.
A Russian who came to this country after having received the equivalent of an American high school education in his native land, he is more keenly aware of the subtleties of the English language than most native educated men. Meeting him a half dozen years ago, it was the first thing I noticed.
So small a world is the film colony that a few words concerning him lodged in my memory several years before I met him. Rowland V. Lee, the Paramount director of George Bancroft, said to me when I saw the heavily built young Russian walking across the Ince lot:
His name is Lewis Milestone, and he’s a cutter. Look out for him, Jim; you’ll be writing about him some day. He’s going quite a distance in this business.”
Milestone was gone by the time the words were said. But I remembered.
Born in Odessa, Russia, in 1895, “On the Black Sea, the home of Chekhov and Kuprin,” is the way he speaks of his birthplace.
Milestone’s father was a manufacturer.
The future director was sent to Germany to attend a university where he remained a short time. His father sent him the money for the return fare home during the summer vacation period.
With this money, he suddenly decided to come to America and landed in New York with three dollars. His father cabled him, “Now that you are in the land of Liberty and Labor, roll up your sleeves and go to work.”
He went to work in a raincoat factory at four dollars a week. A strike came in the factory and Milestone was thrown in jail. Within a short time, he was out of one jail into another — a raincoat factory.
With the future looking about as cheerful as Hollywood on a rainy day, he tried the various jobs in America out of which so many restless and ambitious fellows have eventually arrived.
In broken English he sold chromo photographs from door to door. Unable to look longer at such monstrosities on their walls, the citizens of America decided to enter the World War.
Milestone enlisted in the Photographic Division of the Signal Corps.
He told me quite sincerely that his reason for enlisting in this division was because of his keen anxiety to go to the front, and that he had been promised a chance to stop real bullets within six months.
We were drinking lemonade in New York in Jim Moriarity’s place, at the time; and I concluded it would not be wise to dispute a man who was so anxious in youth to stop bullets. So I chimed right in with him, remembering that another very good friend of mine, Rupert Hughes, enlisted for the same purpose and humorously told me later that he had had thirty swivel chairs shot from under him in the terrible battle of Washington, D. C.
Everybody calls Milestone “Milly,” and, as by this time “New Movie” readers know him as a brave soldier and an able director, they may as well be chummy with him too.
While Milly was pining in Washington to go forth and be shot for some idea but vaguely understood even by the people who started the fracas, there were in the same division three other young men who also wanted to die — Albert Kaufman, and the two future directors, Wesley Ruggles and Josef von Sternberg. The latter, being more democratic in those days, had not yet become aware that his middle handle was Von.
Through these young fellows, Milly heard tales of daring on Hollywood lots that made his blood run so cold he decided the game was a good racket.
A keen logical mind, he had long ago realized that making raincoats and peddling chromos was a job for men with futures behind them.
When the World War ended and Milly had recovered from his grief at not being shot to make the world safe for democracy and the panic of 1930, Milly left his other fellow patriots, Kaufman, Sternberg, and Ruggles and got a job with the nice sounding title of “assistant cutter.” It paid twenty dollars a week, and he did most of his work with a broom — sweeping the cutting-room floor. Every Saturday he washed the windows in order that the cutters might look down upon the lot and see the directors meditating on the Fourth Dimension and the meaning of life and art in motion pictures.
After six months Milly went over to the Fox Studios at more money, and a better broom.
Leaving there he joined Mack Sennett, named in his Irish youth Sinot, and pronounced by the whimsical and lovely Mabel Normand, that is no more — “Sin-not.”
The sardonic Irishman sized Milly up and ordered a street sweeper for him.
He went next to another Irishman, more suave than Sennett, less sardonic, and more easily swayed by his own impulses — Thomas Ince.
With a powerful mind and as keen an apprehension as any man I have ever known, Milly learned swiftly from these two men — the fundamentals of films.
With this rigid training as a background he began to look about for a chance to go on his own — as a director.
Here, his shrewdness was again in evidence. He refused offers to become an assistant director. A half-dozen years of observation as cutter and gag man — he waited.
If he took a job as assistant he might be a detail man for years in an already over-crowded field.
His ability and personality had impressed the Warner Brothers, then as daring as any producers in the business, but not in the strong position in which they are today.
He directed two pictures for them, “Seven Sinners” and “The Caveman,” in which Matt Moore played a leading role.
A strong man, Milly had made enemies and friends in his climb upward. His most loyal friend was Matt Moore.
This actor, a shrewd judge and analyzer of men, met everybody in films socially. Always at the proper time, he would put in praise for Milly.
His name at last came under the notice of the producer of “Two Arabian Knights.”
Milly was chosen to direct it.
The story was barely in embryo at this time. It was utterly different from anything that had ever been done and, as in All Quiet on the Western Front, the love interest was casual. It detailed the trials and tribulations of two vagabonds in the same gusty picturesque manner in which Cervantes handled Don Quixote and his befuddled follower.
It was the finest work of its kind ever done on the screen, far richer with the flavor of life than all the synthetic offerings of Lubitsch and his imitators.
The film made Milly and its chief actor, Louis Wolheim. It may here be said in passing that without Milly, Wolheim would not occupy the position in the film world he does today. The best work of Wolheim’s career is in Two Arabian Knights, “The Racket,” and All Quiet on the Western Front — three Milestone pictures.
After Thomas Meighan seemingly had departed from the screen, an effort was made by his friends, among whom was Milly, to bring him back to public favor.
Milly was given complete charge in selecting and directing a story in which he appeared. He chose “The Racket.” It brought Meighan up again to being a highly successful box-office attraction.
It is likely that had Milly’s advice been followed, Meighan would have remained in the Big League of films instead of retiring to the bushes of his Great Neck estate.
Gratified with Meighan’s success, the producers forgot who was responsible for it. They bought a sloppily sentimental story for him and insisted that Milly direct it. Milly refused on the ground that it would undo all the good work he had done in Meighan’s behalf by driving his public completely away.
James Cruze took up the megaphone after Milly, getting sixty thousand dollars for three weeks as the director of “The Mating Call.” Cruze had, under the Paramount banner, directed Meighan in some very bad pictures, but in none more terrible than The Mating Call.
Milly has, if I remember correctly, directed about seven films. His third, Two Arabian Knights, was awarded the Academy of Motion Picture Science medal as the best of the year.
His last film, All Quiet on the Western Front, has received the same award this year.
The night before the film was shown in Hollywood, Milly left for Europe to be gone six months. Upon his return he signed with Howard Hughes to direct “The Front Page” at $125,000 and, I surmise, a share in the profits.
It is safe to say that within a short time Milly will be a producing director. He knows his Hollywood, does the man whose life was nearly ruined because he could not lose it in the World War. He knows that under the present system directors can be easily discarded when their usefulness is past. But when one shares in the profits, nothing is sweeter — unless it be death at the front.
Milly, in his days of struggle, lived in a little red one-room cottage facing an alley. Another cutter, still his close friend, lived with him.
He often talks of the little house.
On going back to visit it, he said to the people who now live in it — his friends — “I’d be tempted to move back here again were it not that people might think I was cheap.”
And of cheapness, no man can accuse Milly. He once went in debt for a telescope which cost $1500 for his friend, Matt Moore. When Paul Kelly who recently made the sensational hit in Bad Girl was in a spot, he found in Milly a great friend who remained with him through a long trial and San Quentin.
At least eighty percent of the smug sinners in silence in Hollywood and many members of the Lambs Club turned their backs on a high principled man caught in a maze.
Meighan handed $10,000 over at once. Three other men, a Russian Jew named Milestone, Matt Moore, and another Irishman raised five thousand more. Paul Kelly did his stretch and was told by his friends to hold his head high. He did — like the brave lad he was. I had seen him in the jute mill undergoing enough punishment to kill most men — and so had Milly.
IN the darkest days, Milly went to him — laid out enough money to keep him going for months. Paul went — and Milly was in his dressing room on the opening night of Bad Girl when Kelly received the greatest ovation known in New York since Lionel Barrymore appeared in “The Copperhead.”
Texas Guinan was also in the dressing room. Looking at Milly, she said, “We Irish must stick together.”
Milly is known on many film sets as “God’s gift to the extras.” For if they work in a film he directs they are practically sure of being in the film and not “on the cutting room floor.”
Many directors have so much “over footage” that cutters are often forced to cut out important scenes to bring the picture down to the proper length. Chaplin, for instance, wastes a fortune in film in every picture he makes.
Milly, on a large production, has been known to save two hundred thousand feet of film. In All Quiet on the Western Front, he covered the entire book, and kept the spirit of the souls in pain which the book contained.
As a rule the man who writes a good book, the opinion of Hollywood not being considered, is infinitely superior to the hack who is given the book to direct into a film.
Erich Remarque of All Quiet on the Western Front, or Ben Hecht of The Front Page can find in Milestone a man worthy of their spiritual and mental mettle.
There are those film critics, still in mental swaddling clothes, who find fault with Milestone because there is little love interest in his films. Perhaps he has looked about at love in Hollywood.
At any rate, he has amply proven that two insipid people need not neck all through a film to bring money into the box office.
His Two Arabian Knights has been so financially successful over the world that it will be made into a talkie.
Credit must be given Carl Laemmle, Junior, for having enough confidence in Milestone and allowing him full sway in the direction of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Milestone is superior to all the older directors, who graduated luckily from the school of ham actors that inflicted America thirty years ago when the one who could declaim loudest and cry the easiest got his name in the papers. Men like Griffith, Cruze, and other graduates of honky tonk medicine shows and one-night stands can only see life in terms of a man and woman clawing at each other. Cruze’s pet saying, “You gotta have love interest” can be made the slogan for all of the breed.
Who remembers the love affair in The Covered Wagon? Who wants to?
One man on the film horizon can stand with Milestone — another Russian— Eisenstein.
He is returning to Russia — the victim of misunderstanding.
It was said that the Hamilton Fish committee called Fred Beetson, the Hollywood secretary of Will Hays, before them. Their method was to investigate Eisenstein and his business in America. Was it not true that the Russian, as a Soviet, was to film something pertaining to the class struggle in America? Did not the very title of his projected film disclose that fact? Was it not called “An American Tragedy?”
Mr. Beetson is said to have explained to the un-well-read gentlemen that the story, the title of which was “An American Tragedy”, concerned the pathetic plight of a boy and a girl, and was written by a man named Dreiser.
“Who’s Dreiser,” a gentleman is said to have asked — “a Russian?” Mr. Beetson is said to have explained Mr. Dreiser’s position in American letters.
“Never heard of him,” was the verdict.
An American tragedy.
Milestone whipped it — after many years.
Lewis Milestone directing a scene of the grim All Quiet on the Western Front. During the World War, Milestone served in the Photographic Division of the United States Signal Corps. After that he got a job in Hollywood as assistant cutter. In other words, he swept up the cutting room floor. But he licked Hollywood in a few years.
Lewis Milestone was born in Odessa in 1895. His father was a manufacturer. Milestone was sent to Germany to study. The family forwarded money for him to come home for his first vacation — and he used it to buy a ticket to America. Milestone landed in New York with three dollars in his pocket.
Helen Cohan is the youngest daughter of the famous George M. Cohan, stage star, dramatist and song writer. You can see Miss Cohan in “Lightnin’” playing opposite Will Rogers.
(Jim Tully is writing a feature story for New Movie every month. These are done with all the characteristic Tully vigor and sweep. His story on Wallace Beery will appear in an early issue.)
Source: New Movie Magazine, February 1932