The Milestones of Milestone

December 6, 2020   •   By Gary D. Rhodes

Lewis Milestone: Life and Films

Harlow Robinson

TO SPEAK OF cinematic milestones is common. To speak of the director named Milestone, much less so. But what a name it was, Lewis Milestone, as monumental as director King Vidor’s name was regal. Lewis Milestone: Life and Films, Harlow Robinson’s new book from the University Press of Kentucky, is a welcome biography of a man whose films remain better known than his name.

Consider the power and presence of Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), a fatally optimistic film adaptation that bravely maintained the unhappy ending of Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (1929). The restoration of the film in 2006 by the Library of Congress reaffirmed its reputation, with Milestone’s delicate handling of the actors and the challenging narrative still gripping today, more than a century after the Great War. Indeed, it is difficult to name a more powerful early talkie, which did much to establish the war movie as a genre. Milestone subsequently directed other war movies, but none of them recaptured the sheer genius of All Quiet on the Western Front.

But those of us who admire Milestone’s films don’t consider him to be affiliated with any specific genre. After all, his Academy Award for All Quiet on the Western Front was the second time he won an Oscar for Best Director. His first — in the category of Best Comedy Director — was for Two Arabian Knights (1927), with Mary Astor and William Boyd. Milestone had honed his career in comedies, writing the scripts for The Mad Whirl (1925), The Teaser (1925), and Bobbed Hair (1925), all of which humorously depicted the jazz-crazed youth of the Roaring Twenties.

Thereafter, he would direct numerous comedies, including musical comedies like Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) and Anything Goes (1936). The Front Page (1931), an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play of the same name, remains the most notable of these works, exemplifying Milestone’s ability to balance humor with drama. Howard Hawks’s film adaptation of that play, His Girl Friday (1940), is tremendous, and rightly enjoys its reputation, but Milestone’s version is also superb, and illustrates how quickly he evolved from silent films to sound.

Even Milestone’s less successful work is intriguing. Rain (1932), with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston, is an imperfect film, and sadly — due to its public domain status — is usually seen in imperfect prints. And yet it is as unforgettable as Milestone’s heist movie Ocean’s 11 (1960), which so many of us — including Martin Scorsese — love, in spite of its flaws. Milestone’s film career, which lasted for over four decades, was highly varied, and included some TV westerns and dramas in the late 1950s and early ’60s. His dramas ranged from Of Mice and Men (1939) to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).

Some directors are auteurs: they have signature styles that are repeated across a number of films. But others do not, including the vast majority of studio directors like John Huston. And it is possible to value a director like Huston as much as an auteur like Orson Welles. Milestone was a great artist and director, but he was not an auteur. More scholars need to consider the type of choice Harlow Robinson made when selecting an important and accomplished studio figure such as Milestone. Put another way, we need more critical and historical studies of studio-era directors like Edwin Carewe, W. S. Van Dyke, Erle C. Kenton, Archie L. Mayo, and Roy William Neill, as well as of independent directors of the same era, such as Sam Newfield and Spencer Williams.

Robinson teaches history at Northeastern University, with much of his research dedicated to Russian, Soviet, and Eastern European cultural history — especially film and the performing arts. Milestone was born Leib Milstein in Russia in 1895, and this biography benefits greatly from Robinson’s profound understanding of Milestone’s background and filmmaking style. Robinson is also an astute observer of classical Hollywood cinema, with a rich understanding of its histories — artistic, technical, and industrial. His book teems with research that is deployed in deft, engaging, and accessible prose.

Robinson concentrates on the key aspects of Milestone’s life and career, never getting bogged down in plot synopses or other minor issues. Rather than shoveling up endless rubble, he offers us the milestones of Milestone. Robinson’s story is as tight as most classic Hollywood films, and that deserves to be heralded. This is a book equally as valuable to film buffs as to academic scholars, speaking to readers inside and outside the academy.

The volume is also an achievement for “Screen Classics,” the film biography series at the University Press of Kentucky, which has been at times uneven. Given the sheer number of contributing authors, that is perhaps inevitable, but it is nevertheless unfortunate. The best books in the series, like Robinson’s, have been exhaustive in their research and thoughtful in their execution. Brian Taves’s Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer (2011) is an excellent example, as are Marilyn Ann Moss’s Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director (2011), Alan K. Rode’s Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film (2017), and Gabriella Oldham and Mabel Langdon’s Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy (2017). And Sherri Snyder’s Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood (2017) is a very welcome study of a neglected silent film star.

But there have also been notable misfires. Ruth Barton’s Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film (2010) is not just minimally researched, it lacks a basic understanding of classical Hollywood cinema. (Lamarr deserved better. Thank goodness for Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer, published by Thomas Dunne Books in 2010.) Stranger still was Arthur Lennig’s The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi (2003), which included, alongside its many unnecessary plot synopses and lazy cannibalization of secondary sources, a biased account of a lawsuit involving Lugosi’s heirs that risked the very real possibility of a libel suit. Academic presses must remember their responsibility to adhere to higher standards than other presses.

Let us hope that the Screen Classics series continues for many years, but with editors using books like Harlow Robinson’s Lewis Milestone: Life and Films as a model of what an ethical, well-researched, and thoughtful critical biography should be.

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Gary D. Rhodes is an associate professor in the Film and Mass Media program at the University of Central Florida. He has written and directed numerous films and has authored, co-authored, and edited more than 20 books about the cinema.