Mark Steyn

Remembering John Mills

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The Mills family, according to David Thomson, has ‘crowded us out with insipid, tennis-club talent’, which is a cruel verdict, but hard to disagree with. When the gals tried being naughty, you felt embarrassed and sorry for them. Juliet Mills’s skinnydipping in Billy Wilder’s Avanti! (1972) is the only topless scene I’ve ever wished would end, and then, when Jack Lemmon starts trying to bring it to an end by holding up wet socks and other bits of business in front of her breasts, you start wishing the laboured shtick to bring the scene to an end would end.

As for dad, if Britain’s other theatrical knights had the best screen careers they could manage under the prevailing local conditions, John Mills always gave the impression that the British film industry was his natural level. The world changed, Britain changed, the army changed, eventually even the British film industry changed, but decade in, decade out there were still officer roles for Sir John. They didn’t have to be officers per se; they could be Lord Chelmsford, India’s Viceroy in Gandhi (1982), or the Scotland Yard inspector in Michael Winner’s tacky remake of The Big Sleep (1978), but he played them as army officers anyway, the last stiff upper lip in British Equity. The title of one of his earliest films, O.H.M.S. (1937, for Raoul Walsh), is as good a summation of his career as anything else. He somehow achieved the status and honours of a star, while at the same time nimbly avoiding having to carry any picture.

Given the pictures in question, that was probably a wise move. But it meant he spent a good three decades getting cast in films for no other reason than that everyone else was in it so you might as well have John Mills, too. In Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things a year or two back, he showed up as a nonagenarian coke snorter. As the wags about town had it, it was a non-speaking part but he had a couple of lines — which was a better joke than he got on screen.

Most of the cameos weren’t that memorable. The Big Sleep plays like a clever co-production deal they forgot to flesh out into a movie. There’s sleepy-eyed Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe, which is smart casting, except that Marlowe is now a shamus not in the mean streets of Los Angeles but in the leafy lanes of the Home Counties, which doesn’t work at all; you might as well have cast Mills as Marlowe. There’s Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair, because someone talked him into agreeing to a couple of scenes as long as they were easy. There’s Sarah Miles and Candy Clark as the dippy sisters who seem a bit low-wattage to pull Mitchum. There’s Joan Collins, who has the measure of the project. And, when they drag the Thames for Jimmy Stewart’s Bentley, there’s John Mills playing a London detective like an Indian Army colonel.

He wasn’t always ‘Sir John’. He started out as Lewis Ernest Watts Mills, the son of an East Anglian schoolmaster. But his much older sister Annette, who danced at Ciro’s and was later Muffin the Mule’s straight woman, encouraged his ambition to be a song’n’dance man. So he moved to London and became ‘John Mills’, which even for the stage names of the day was one of unnaturally unassuming modesty. He was short with bright blue eyes, and, if he wasn’t exactly Astaire or Jack Buchanan, he could have been Donald O’Connor in his Singin’ in the Rain days and he and we might have had more fun. For a while, he was one half of a double act of ‘Rhythmic Duettists’ with a chap called George Posford, who played the balalaika while Mills sang ‘Sonny Boy’.

But then came the movies and by 1935, in Forever England, he was Able Seaman Brown holding off the Kaiser’s battleship with only a rifle. In Which We Serve followed, and We Dive at Dawn, and by then military uniform had become to the wannabe hoofer what top hat and tails were to Astaire.

He was in the best of a certain type of dutiful British feature — Dunkirk, The Colditz Story, I Was Monty’s Double — and you have to look hard to find a major celluloid military engagement he didn’t show up for. Without them, he might never have pulled off his marvellous performance in Tunes of Glory, Ronald Neame’s clash of cultures in a Scottish regiment between Alec Guinness’s carrot-topped rowdy carouser and Mills’s by-the-book colonel. Neame is one of my favourite British directors, with a particular knack for highly strung highwire ladies’ turns — Judy Garland in I Could Go on Singing and Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie being the two pre-eminent examples. Mills’s colonel is really a twitchy kilted version of those stellar gals, and the scene where the officers get a little wild during the reeling at the regimental cocktail party is one of his finest moments on screen: he seems to be visibly cracking up before our eyes, and the movie’s especially lurid colour, which till then seems to have had no other purpose than to scare the pants off you with Guinness’s blazing orange hair, comes into its own and conveys in vivid shades every intensification in Mills’s mood.

Guinness’s is the showier performance, but it’s Mills’s picture, and his final appearance in the officers’ mess, with his eye twitching and vein popping and then an eerie calm as he accepts the totality of his social isolation, is at a different level from anything he’d done in the previous 30 years. Of course, if he hadn’t served so long in all those stiff-upper-lip roles, his disintegration as an officer and a man wouldn’t have had half the impact. In that sense, it was superb casting.

What’s harder to understand is how he then went back to playing decent, honourable John Mills types for the next 45 years. He made occasional extravagant efforts to broaden his range, winning an Oscar for his village idiot in Ryan’s Daughter (1970), though it wasn’t as good as his ruddy peasant in King Vidor’s War and Peace 15 years earlier. On stage, he introduced ‘Mad Dogs And Englishmen’ and Vivian Ellis told me he was ‘rather good’ in Jill Darling. I would have liked to have seen him in a film musical, but he’d probably have been a tap-dancing viscount’s son romancing Dame Anna Neagle. He got 75 years of steady work out of the British film industry and, when you think about it, that’s an achievement all by itself.