Ray Milland–Report from Resolfen History Society

A Report on the May Meeting of Resolfen History Society

Ray Milland

Former headmaster and BBC Wales Pop Historian, Phil Davies has been a speaker at the meetings of the History Society for several years, and this year he took, Neath film star, Ray Milland as his focus.

He began by describing a visit to cocktail bar in the town of Ray Milland’s birth and was surprised to see that there were twelve cocktails on offer named after famous film stars, of whom only two had Oscars. Notably absent from the list was a drink named after a film star, born in the Cimla who actually DID possess one.  He noted that there was no plaque to him, no recognition in the Gwyn Hall or Civic Centre and even the Milland from which he took his stage name is a natural feature. Much of the details of Milland’s life actually came from his autobiography “Wide Eyed in Babylon”, a well written if a little embellished version of his life.

Reginald Truscott- Jones, was born on January 3rd 1907 in Neath. He spoke Welsh as a boy but was also of Spanish descent. His father was a former British Army officer who had served in the Second Hussars which relieved the Siege of Mafeking in the Boer War. His mother was described as a typical well to do housewife of the period, who would like to “twitch the curtains” in curiosity. Following their separation, the young Ray, was brought up on a farm in the Cimla with his aunt. Here he became a good horse rider, which alongside his impressive 6 foot, two inches of height and good looks gave him a lot of the skills he would use in his later career. He attended the Gnoll School and came under the influence of Gomer Jenkins the famous headmaster of that school whom he described as his muse.

Later, Ray, went to a private school in Cardiff, and then became a clerk in the steel business. He then decided to join the army and enlisted in the Household Cavalry for some three and a half years, an experience which helped him with another range of skills regarding an acting career since he had already developed an interest in pantomime and general perfoming. On leaving the Army, he remained in London and mixed with the thespian community. He met Estelle Brodie an American actress who encouraged him to find an agent. This led to a small part in the silent movie “The Informer”, in which a fortuitous injury to an Austrian marksman, gave him the chance to usurp the part by showing his prowess with the rifle. Since he then had to apply for an Equity card, a stage name was devised with Reginald becoming Ray, and Truscott-Jones replaced by Milland. A later appearance as a fireman, in “The Flying Scotsman”, in 1949, brought him to the attention of MGM studios and he was offered a contract in Hollywood with the option of an extension.

Even though his first foray in to the American film industry did not prove very successful, he did at least meet his wife Mel, a marriage which lasted all his life. In 1932, Ray Milland returned to London, but owing to the advantageous exchange rate of the pound  to the dollar was able to purchase a return ticket for Los Angeles and this time was signed by Paramount studios. His first film was “Bolero”, where he starred alongside Dorothy Lamour. He specialised in action roles such as aviators (he was a pilot) cowboys and playboys. In those days, a film was completed in a few weeks and there was a multiple turnover of roles. However, in one scene, a saddle broke and gave him a serious injury. Banned from flying for a while, he took up joinery and then managed to give himself a hand injury with a buzz saw!!! This made him unfit for military service during the Second World War, though he did serve (unlike the more famous John Wayne) by training American pilots for the US Army ( which has its own air force, Ed) and by both visiting the troops and general fund raising for the war effort.  His film career, now became playing smooth, suave, characters in a vein similar to Cary Grant.

Mr Davies then turned to his film career. Ray Milland had a part in 165 movies over 40 years and also produced 6 films himself. Perhaps his most famous film is “The Lost Weekend”, in 1945, produced by Billy Wilder. In the film, Milland played an alcoholic alongside Jayne Wyman and several scenes of this powerful film were shown to the audience. This most decorated of movies also gave an Academy Award to Ray Milland. He went on to take parts in “Dial M for Murder” (1954), “Love Story” (1970). He also had parts in TV series such as Hart to Hart and cameo roles in more modern science fiction movies such as “Battlestar Galactica”.

Mr Davies concluded his memorable talk by reading passages from Ray Milland’s autobiography. He returned to Neath in the 1970s and though the book was obviously written for an American audience, Milland is still very much a Welshman and proud of his Welsh heritage and he could quite easily become a Neath boy once again without much effort. For a man who starred alongside George Raft, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich it is incredible that his memory is not better kept in his home town. Ray Milland died in 1986, of cancer, and his ashes were scattered the next day in the Pacific ocean off the coast of California.

Mr Trefor Jones, thanked Phil Davies for a most enjoyable evening and hoped that he would return next year.

The History Society will now take a short break over the summer, though there will be an annual trip on June 15th to the Royal Mint if anyone is interested. It will reconvene on the second Monday in September at the Church Hall, with a new and varied programme of talks. Please join us then.