TCM Star of the Month: David Niven

October promises to be a busy and exciting month for fans of Turner Classic Movies.  Each Tuesday and Thursday night Illeana Douglas will host “Trailblazing Women in Film,” a showcase and celebration of women behind the camera that will profile 47 women directors in all.  Friday night programming delivers some of the horror classics we’ve come to expect of this spooky month, including films based on classic literary thrillers on the 23rd.  “Treasures from the Disney Vault” is the theme for the 28th, featuring The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad at 8:45 pm est.  I had the VHS and Bing Crosby’s deep, dulcet narration of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” remains a thrilling memory from my childhood.  The great Tod Browning’s Freaks sneaks into the schedule on the 29th at 7:45 am est then the party starts early, with a full slate of Hammer Horror during the day, on the 30th and continues into Halloween with a variety of Horror classics.  I’m looking forward to all these and more, but I must confess I was most giddy to learn a certain Brit had been chosen as Star of the Month.

ca. 1958 --- Image by John Springer

David Niven ca. 1958 — Image by John Springer

“Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going.  Don’t take anything too seriously.  It’ll all work out in the end.”

– David Niven

David Niven has become a particular favorite of mine though he only entered my movie-watching consciousness about four years ago.  If Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and James Dean were the Founding Fathers to my discovery of classic film, David Niven and William Powell were the mustachioed sophisticates who ushered in a new era of enlightenment.  That I happened upon them both around Christmas of 2011 was an unexpected gift, just a couple more TCM Discoveries for which I am eternally grateful.

…..

“Now that’s what I call a really charming man.”

So says Lady Melrose to her fellow party-goers of title character Raffles, star cricketer by day and gentleman thief by night, as played by David Niven in the 1939 film.  It is a line that could just have aptly described the actor himself, and it came to typify the man’s persona both onscreen and off.

By his own account, Niven’s early days in Hollywood were inauspicious.  On arrival at Central Casting he was greeted at the front door by a large banner which read: DON’T TRY TO BECOME AN ACTOR. FOR EVERY ONE WE EMPLOY WE TURN AWAY A THOUSAND.  He registered anyway.  Classified as Anglo Saxon Type 2008 his first “role” as an extra was naturally that of a Mexican peasant, outfitted with a sombrero, false mustache, and some makeup mixture out of a spray gun that would today be called Brownface.  His first day’s work as an actor netted him $2.50.  Through a series of happy accidents, chance meetings, and no small amount of charm, Niven somehow parlayed that discouraging start into legitimate Hollywood success.  He made more than 80 films in a career that spanned five decades, winning an Oscar, a New York Film Critics Circle Award,  two Golden Globes, and not a few hearts along the way.

Off screen Niven was just as interesting as on, probably more so.  He was a Sandhurst (Royal Military Academy) man who served in Malta and Dover with the Highland Light Infantry before heading to the States.  He dabbled in all manner of rackets while awaiting his break in Hollywood, spending time as an organizer of indoor horse races and a deck hand on a fishing boat.  His acting career was finally taking off in 1939 but just then Hitler invaded Poland and Niven returned to serve his country in WWII, first with the Rifle Brigade and eventually the Commandos.  During his service he met Winston Churchill who said to him, “Young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country.  Mark you, had you not done so — it would have been despicable.”

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Lt. Col. Niven in Normandy 1944.  (Photo via Comet Over Hollywood)

As a star Niven made the rounds, and you get the sense that people genuinely liked having him around.  He hobnobbed with British royalty and went shooting with JFK.  He played golf with Douglas Fairbanks, tennis with Charlie Chaplin and polo with Daryl Zanuck.  He sailed aboard Santana with Bogie and Bacall.  Early in their careers he shared a residence with Errol Flynn at 601 North Linden Drive, aptly called “Cirrhosis by the Sea.”  The man had some stories.  His ability to artfully unfold them may have been his greatest talent.

A gifted raconteur, Niven converted his skill for storytelling into two novels and two memoirs.  I’m not familiar with the novels but I have listened to an abridged version of The Moon’s a Balloon–Niven’s story from birth through his ascension in Hollywood–and own a copy of Bring on the Empty Horses, which functions more as a series of vignettes about his time in Hollywood and those he met there.  He moves about in language as gracefully as he did around a movie set.  Honest–if given to embellish–and effortlessly entertaining, his books give an idea of what it may have been like to sit with Niven and listen to him regale a rapt audience.  His voice shines through and even when he shares details about his pals and acquaintances (Gable, Grant, Bogart, Flynn, Chaplin and Goldwyn among them), doesn’t become judgmental or exploitative.  Both books are highly recommended.  I can think of no better guide through the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Empty Horses

My worn copy, a Christmas gift and prized possession.

A quick compilation of David Niven trivia reads like the transcript of ideas pitched for the Most Interesting Man in the World commercials:

  • According to IMDb, his 23 minutes and 39 seconds of screen time as Major Pollock in Separate Tables were the shortest to earn an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role until Hopkins’ 16 minutes as Lector.  (His explanation?  “They gave me very good lines and then cut to Deborah Kerr while I was saying them.”)
  • He may have been the only person ever to NOT be upstaged by a streaker.  Possessed of a sharp wit and unflappable aplomb, watch as he owns this moment at the 1974 Academy Awards with a memorable quip.
  • While skiing in the Italian Alps he lost feeling in a particularly sensitive area and revived it by placing the affected appendage in a whiskey glass full of alcohol.
  • He apparently judged a Neptune’s Daughter contest.  I don’ t know what that means either but it looks like an excuse to ogle beautiful young women in their swimsuits.
  • He was sought by author Ian Fleming to portray James Bond, but turned down the role because he felt he was too old to play it.
  • He has an album available on iTunes and Amazon.  It’s just him reading the “world’s most famous love letters.”  That’s correct, when Roulette Records execs asked themselves who they should get to read the world’s greatest love letters, they came up with the answer of David Niven.  Naturally.
  • He basically admitted to being Peter Pan: “This isn’t work.  It’s fun.  The whole thing is fun.  I hear actors say, “I have to go to work tomorrow.”  Nonsense.  Work is eight hours in a coal mine or a government office.  Getting up in the morning and putting on a funny mustache, and dressing up and showing off in front of the grown-ups, that’s play, and for which we’re beautifully overpaid.  I’ve always felt that way.  After all, how many people in the world are doing things that they like to do?”
  • He is the subject of an excellent villanelle poem by Peter Swanson.
  • His face (which he once described as “a cross between two pounds of halibut and an explosion in an old clothes closet”) is the visual inspiration for Green Lantern villain Sinestro, and there’s totally a character in “Star Wars Rebels” (2014) based on him too.
Niven Models

Sinestro               Niven               Gall Trayvis

Niven Reads

Look at this boss.

As I went back through Bring on the Empty Horses in search of anecdotes for this post, I happened by a few lines that stood out to me.  To borrow from the author:

“This, of course, is not intended to be a portrait of Samuel Goldwyn.  At most, it is a few hesitant lines of a preliminary drawing, because in spite of many years of close association with him, I was never able to see him clearly” (p. 133).

I suppose it’s never easy to write about another human being–if you ask Willa Cather, “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own”–but I feel that keenly as I sit here trying to wrap up these words about a man with whom I had no close association, but who died before I was born.  David Niven is a most difficult subject to sketch because he was so many things in his 73 years:  actor, author, soldier.  Father, husband, friend.  Flawed, like the rest of us.  Rebellious and roguish at times, but characterized by politeness and professionalism–“They pay me enough – so the least I can do is arrive sober, be on time and know all the jokes.”  Owning the posture and pronunciation befitting an officer and a gentleman.  Well-dressed and debonair with his trademark slick hair, blue eyes and pencil-thin mustache above a beaming smile.  For all that we know about him, all that remains of him through his work and his words, the quality that made him stand out remains hardest to define.  He had that something you can’t quite put your finger on, but somehow recognize as special.

Niven Charm

A self-aware Niven as David Slater in Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue. (screenshot of this original gif.)

When Gregory Peck asked David Niven how he it was that he seemed so incredibly cheerful all the time, Niven is said to have responded, “Well, old bean, life is really so bloody awful that I feel it’s my absolute duty to be chirpy and try and make everybody else happy too.”  The sentiment in that quote may be his most admirable trait.  Through all the pain he suffered and all the success he enjoyed, and both were considerable, he endeavored to keep his spirit, courage, kindness, and that self-deprecating sense of humor.  Even if they waned momentarily, he seems largely to have succeeded.  According to a nephew who was with Niven as he neared the end of his battle with ALS, “His last gesture a few minutes before he died had been to give the thumbs-up sign.”  Film critic Barry Norman theorized that people would continue to see Niven’s films “simply because the very presence of Niven makes them feel better.”  Norman was right, as I and the TCM Party crowd can attest.

David Niven once said, “I see my purpose in life as making the world a happier place to be in.”  Along with so many other accomplishments, he truly lived out that purpose and continues to fulfill it still.

Star of the Month Guide
Of his more than 80 films, TCM is airing 38 on Monday nights and Tuesday mornings in October, plus The King’s Thief on the 21st, a Wednesday.  Notably absent are The Pink Panther, Guns of Navarone, and the film for which he won his Oscar, Separate Tables.  The first two show pretty routinely on TCM, though the latter seems to appear less often.  If you’re planning to join the SOTM celebration, the complete list of films scheduled will follow below (and can always be found on TCM.com).  But first, here are three films I consider essential in the Niven lexicon:

Bachelor Mother (1939)
This is one of Niven’s earliest leading man roles, pairing him with longtime Fred Astaire partner Ginger Rogers.  Producer Samuel Goldwyn, with whom Niven was under contract, advised the actor, “Everyone’s going to expect you to dance. Show them you can act instead.”   The story kicks off with Polly Parrish (Rogers) receiving notice that her holiday employment at John B Merlin & Son will be coming to an end.  On her way to lunch she picks up a baby that has been left on a foundling home stoop and is mistakenly presumed to be the child’s mother.  Hi-jinks ensue.  Niven stars as playboy David Merlin, the son in Merlin & Son.  Charles Coburn does a marvelous turn as Niven’s father.  It’s a delightful romantic comedy that has become required viewing each December in my home.
Airing Oct. 5 at 9:30 pm eastern.

bachelor mother 2

Niven and Rogers are fashionably late to the party in Bachelor Mother.

The Dawn Patrol (1938)
If you’re like me, The Dawn Patrol needs no further recommendation than that it offers the opportunity to see Basil Rathbone, Errol Flynn and our aforementioned Star of the Month sharing the screen.  On the off chance that you’re not already sold, it also happens to be a fine film.  Flynn and Niven play WWI pilots; Rathbone is their commanding officer, forced too often to send inexperienced young fliers into perilous battle.  Directed by Edmund Goulding, an early champion of Niven’s, it was the actor’s first big success.
Airing Oct. 5 at 11 pm eastern.

dawnpatrolthree

Niven, Flynn and Rathbone look skyward in The Dawn Patrol.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
A picture by director Michael Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers.  Produced on the heels of WWII, it is an ambitious film, the setting of which spans heaven and earth.  Full of poetry and high ideals, with a nod to the past and an eye to the future.  A fascinating blend of fantasy and reality.  It is arguably the finest film Niven ever made, though that is matter of taste.  I feel it’s best to go into entirely cold, if possible, but I will say this: it will win you–capture your attention, heart, and all–within the first ten minutes.  It is beautifully shot in both monochromatic black and white and glorious Technicolor by the legendary Jack Cardiff.
Airing Oct. 12 at 8 pm eastern.

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Niven as Squadron Leader Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death.

As promised, here is the schedule in full.  Underneath each block I’ll share a brief synopsis and background information of those films I’ve seen.  I’ve been steadily working on my David Niven collection but I’m excited to say there are 10 films showing that will be new to me.  (*  —  Denotes films that I have not seen.)

October 5
Raffles (1939)
Bachelor Mother (1939)
The Dawn Patrol (1938)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Splendor (1935)*
Eternally Yours (1939)

Raffles stars Niven as a gentleman thief opposite Olivia de Havilland.  Wuthering Heights sees him in the thankless role of Edgar Linton alongside Merle Oberon’s Cathy and Olivier’s Heathcliff.  In Eternally Yours he plays a magician and wife Loretta Young grows tired of his act.

October 6
Dodsworth (1936)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
Rose Marie (1936)*
A Feather in Her Hat (1935)*

Some early roles for Niven, including a few of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him variety.  Notable is Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn, based on a fateful charge made by British light cavalry in the Crimean War that was also memorialized in poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  I’ve yet to see A Feather in Her Hat but I think it’s fair to call it a turning point for Niven.  His role as Leo offered him the first big scene of his career and he recalled the story of his disastrous first take, and the surprising response of those on set,  in his autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon.  I know I can’t tell it better than Niven and you can hear him do so here.  Alfred Santell’s direction (and the cooperation of those on set) calmed Niven’s nerves, allowing his natural ability to make its first appearance in front of the camera.  This is where it all began.

October 12
A Matter of Life and Death (1947)
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
The First of the Few (1942)*
The Way Ahead (1944)*
Enchantment (1948)
A Kiss in the Dark (1949)
A Kiss for Corliss (1949)

The Bishop’s Wife, starring Cary Grant as an angel who comes to the aid of Bishop Niven and wife Loretta Young, is a beloved holiday tradition for many.  Initially Niven was set to play the angel but he and Cary swapped roles and a Christmas classic was born.  Airing after that are the two films Niven made during WWII.  The first, alternatively known as Spitfire, was directed by and also starred Leslie Howard (in his last onscreen appearance before his untimely death in 1943) as RJ Mitchell, the designer of the aforementioned Spitfire aircraft.  My father–a history major and a pilot–has extolled the virtues of this agile British bird and her Rolls-Royce engine, which figured prominently in the Battle of Britain.  Second is essentially an expanded Army training film that was in fact used for officer training at Sandhurst and in Australia for many years.  In Enchantment Niven and Teresa Wright are unlucky in love as the former plays Sir Roland Dane at the ages of 25 and 70.  In Bring on the Empty Horses he alleges that he donned 60 pounds of lead to slow his youthful gait and dyed his hair white for the final scenes at Sam Goldwyn’s insistence.  A failed attempt to dye it “back to normal” after wrapping resulted in a shiny magenta color that Niven claims to have been stuck with for about a year.  After all, the Los Angeles Examiner‘s reviewer wrote that it was  “a pity Goldwyn allowed Niven to ruin his performance by wearing an appalling wig.”

October 19
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
My Man Godfrey (1957)
The Moon is Blue (1953)
Bonjour Tristesse (1957)
The Toast of New Orleans (1950)

The first film of the night is of course based on the Jules Verne classic adventure novel.  It was a massive undertaking that popularized the cameo, used the most animals and the most costumes in a single film to that time, and ultimately won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Phileas Fogg was a favorite role of Niven’s.  My Man Godfrey (1957) exists as a contradiction to anyone who thinks unnecessary remakes are a new trend in Hollywood.  I still like it.  It boasts a couple performers I’m fond of (June Allyson stars opposite Niven) and it’s a sweet bit of fluff.  If you want anything more, or doubt your ability to enjoy it without comparing its every scene to the original, it probably isn’t for you.  Niven was nominated for a Golden Globe for his take on Godfrey.  Next are a couple movies by Otto Preminger; The Moon is Blue, in which Niven and William Holden vie for the attentions of innocent Maggie McNamara, is tame by today’s standards but was considered controversial on release and even banned in some states for its utterances of the words “virgin” and “pregnant” among other such shockers.  Niven is in his element as the roguish David Slater and won a Golden Globe for his performance.  Bonjour Tristesse (meaning “hello sadness”) lives up to its title, but Raymond is a good role for Niven and he plays the character’s carefree facade and the insecurity it masks with equal prowess.  Jean Seberg stars as Raymond’s daughter and partner in frivolity and Deborah Kerr as his late wife’s friend who comes for a visit.

October 20
Happy Go Lovely (1951)
Happy Anniversary (1959)
The Little Hut (1957)
Tonight’s the Night (1954)
Soldiers Three (1957)*

Happy Go Lovely stars the talented dancer Vera-Ellen as a dancer (what else?) who becomes the subject of rumor after she receives a ride from a rich bachelor’s chauffeur and is seen exiting the millionaire’s car.  She decides not to correct the rumor that she and B.G. Bruno, the millionaire, are an item in part because she hopes it will interest potential investors in her struggling show.  Complications arise when B.G. shows up.  The Little Hut is a silly stranded-on-a-desert-isle tale of three people: Stewart Granger and Ava Gardner as husband and wife and Niven as Gardner’s ex.

October 26
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)
The Impossible Years (1968)
55 Days at Peking (1963)
The Best of Enemies (1961)*
Murder by Death (1976)

Niven wears middle-aged domesticity well in Please Don’t Eat the Daises, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home meets Cheaper by the Dozen.  He tries to manage his commute and his job as a drama critic while corralling the four young boys he shares with Doris Day, and their giant sheepdog.  In the second film of the night he graduates from four young boys to father of two teenage daughters, the eldest of whom keeps him busy chasing her revolving door of would-be lovers.  In my experience people love Murder by Death, a parody of famous literary detectives and murder mysteries at large.  I confess it’s not quite a favorite of mine, though I do enjoy it.  I think my unabashed fanaticism for Clue (1985)–I watched it often enough I could probably do the whole thing as a one woman show, verbatim–keeps me from loving Murder by Death.  To be fair, it probably helped that I was familiar with the Clue board game whereas I’ve never read any of the mystery novels that MbD references, and I only know a few of the characters from their appearances on film.  Personal preference aside, it’s a fun movie that is absolutely worth watching for its outstanding ensemble cast featuring Eileen Brennan, Peter Falk, Elsa Lanchester, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, and Alec Guinness, among others.

October 27
Eye of the Devil (1966)
Where the Spies Are (1965)*
Guns of Darkness (1962)*
Lady L (1965)
Before Winter Comes (1968)*

I can’t offer much on these titles, three of which are completely new to me.  I found Eye of the Devil to be a strange stab at Horror, but it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of Sharon Tate.