short, wiry former 'song-and-dance' man became one of the most significant
of all British film stars, and in his nearly 60 year career he appeared
in well over 100 films, as well as substantial theatre and TV performances.
Hewas one of the most popular and beloved English actors, was born Lewis
Ernest Watts Mills on February 22, 1908, at the Watts Naval Training
College in North Elmham, Norfolk, England. The young Mills grew up in
Felixstowe, Suffolk, where his father was a mathematics teacher and
his mother was a theater box-office manager.
training as a dancer, he was first on stage in the chorus of The Five
O'Clock Revue (1929) and was regularly on the London stage, in revues,
musicals and straight plays, throughout the 30s, as well as making films
before war broke out. He is an engaging juvenile lead in such 1930s
pieces as The Ghost Camera (1933), the chirpy musical Car of Dreams
(1935), the love interest for Nova Pilbeam’s Tudor Rose (1936),
and the schoolboy grown into soldier in Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939).
WW2 changed everything for Mills, as it did for so many connected with
British cinema. The roles he played ‘In Which We Serve’
(1942), ‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943), ‘This Happy Breed’,
‘Waterloo Road’ (1944) and The Way to the Stars (1945) defined
a new kind of British film hero. He was the boy next door in his ordinariness.
He also established an everyman reliability under stress; showing himself
to be decent, brave and loyal.
Mills was always noted for his sincerity and believability rather than
for romantic qualities. He topped the Picturegoer poll in 1947 for his
performance as Pip, the personable everyman in 'Great Expectation's
(1946), emphatically a figure for a supposedly more egalitarian Britain;
the tormented hero, an industrial chemist who fears he may have committed
murder, in The October Man (1947). This ordinary decency was elevated
in ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ (1948) to the status of national
hero. It is the nobility of sacrifice for others which turns physical
suffering and defeat into a spiritual triumph; a victory for the team
rather than for charismatic individualism. In place of the debonair
gentleman's dash and charm, Mills embodies a boyish enthusiasm which
is deepened by testing into a gritty determination to continue whatever
was the shabby private detective in ‘The End of the Affair’
(1954). The twitchy, repressed military types in ‘Tunes of Glory’
(1960) and ‘Tiara Tahiti’ (1962) and he is ultimately very
moving as the father in ‘The Family Way’ (1966) who may
have loved no one as much as his dead mate.