AN EXTRAORDINARY FELLOW
– the private life behind the public man
by Nick Zegarac
“I believe God felt sorry for actors so he created Hollywood to give them a place in the sun and a swimming pool. The price they had to pay was to surrender their talent.”
– David Niven
There’s never been a man like David Niven; a routine compliment in the Hollywood of his years, for the studio system of Niven’s day saw to it that no two stars gleamed alike. But in Niven’s case, the compliment holds true. He was an adroit sport in his youth, a cheerful and indomitable optimist throughout his life, and a man who maintained a tote of spectacular presence of self and self-assuredness that helped to manage the crassness and hoi polloi of Tinsel Town.
He was born to the rudiments of privilege as David Graham Niven in Kirriemuir Scotland on March 1, 1910. His mother was French, remarried to Sir Thomas Comyn-Pratt – a leading member of the Conservative party while Niven was still a child. His own father had gone missing in WWI and was confirmed dead when Niven was only five years old.
Raised, mostly by a British educational system that catered to his caste in believing that childhood and youth were best spent in unwelcome interruption away from the parental home, Niven spent the earliest part of his childhood in preparatory at Worthing Boarding School where he endured – among other humiliations - the wrenching of an ear and the contracting of an infection caused by a matron’s negligence.
Impetuously, Niven rebelled at his next placement – Heatherdown. He was expelled. Next, sent to a school for difficult boys, Niven continued to endure his own brand of Dickensian brutality. Eventually, he filtered down through the educational system, settling on Stowe School after failing to get into the Royal Navy.
The remnant sting on his emotional psyche from these early rejections in his life cannot be overstated. “Apart from the Chinese,” Niven would commit to writing decades later, “…the only people …who pack their sons off to the tender care of unknown, often homosexual schoolmasters at the exact moment when they are most in need of parent’s love and influences are the British so called upper and middle classes.”
Yet, Stowe also provided Niven with his first taste of success as a performer. He appeared in their military revue by day and, afterward, frequented a local prostitute he would later refer to as Nessie who, by all accounts, was that perfect blend of doting mother-figure and amiable sex partner. He also began to legitimately court actress Ann Todd.
A stint at Sandhurst Royal Military College was among Niven’s more liberal and satisfying academic tenures, though once commissioned to the Highland Light Infantry in 1929 and shipped off to the remote port of Valletta, Malta, he continued to thumb his nose at authority – albeit, with a certain glib dispensation for the rigidity and structure of army life. Resigning his commission Niven moved to Canada, reflecting later on his youthful frolics with, “I was very much a drifter. I didn’t know what I wanted or really where I was going. I had ambition but it was formless. I just wanted to be somebody.”
Niven continued to bounce aimless from one ‘profession’ to the next. He became a bootlegger – then, legitimate salesman of spirits after prohibition’s repeal. But it was a chance meeting with renown, society party-giver Elsa Maxwell that made all the difference to the next direction Niven was to take. Reportedly, Maxwell told Niven, “You should go to Hollywood. Nobody knows how to speak English there except Ronald Colman!”
A TALE OF TWO SHIPS
and MORE FALSE STARTS
“Being in Hollywood is like making love to a porcupine – it’s a thousand pricks against one!”
To say that David Niven’s entrée to that bustling entertainment capital was a new start is perhaps a bit presumptuous. It was more of a false one, begun with a fleeting romantic attachment to actress, Loretta Young and a misfired attempt at procuring placement in movies through Hollywood’s Central Casting Office.
Instead, Niven was promptly rejected on both counts. Desolate, he made his way to the shoreline, colliding almost by accident with his past – the docked British war vessel, Norfolk. Welcomed aboard by crew members who remembered Niven as a cordial officer while on their stop at Malta, he was treated to several rounds of gin which left him unconscious inside one of the cabins. The next morning when Niven awoke he had another surprise – MGM’s replica of the S.S. Bounty had docked alongside the Norfolk and with it, the man who would eventually become Niven’s most trusted mentor – director Edmund Goulding.
However, before any lasting friendship could develop, Niven was introduced to the buxomly sexual Mae West and her agent, who superficially offered Niven a part in West’s next picture – then, promptly reported him as an illegal to the U.S. Immigration Department. While Niven waited for his papers to arrive from England, he lived in relative squalor just beyond the Mexican border, cleaning guns for the American tourists who had come to hunt quail there. Eventually, he acquired his work visa and a call from Central Casting as an extra. But the grueling life of a ‘filler’ performer (one who stands in the background and fills scenes) was not for Niven.
Instead, he cultivated a growing relationship with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and his wife, America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford. In an attempt to ingratiate Niven to more prominent Hollywood folk, Fairbanks let it slip to producer Darryl F. Zanuck that his friend was a most accomplished polo player – a sport which Zanuck worshiped and indulged in regularly. Inauspiciously, nothing could have been further from the truth. Though he made every valiant attempt to distinguish himself on the polo field, Niven miserably flopped out of favor with his team and all but lost Zanuck’s respect when his spirited horse attempted to take a nip out of producer’s behind.
However, while Niven had been busying himself with back roads into town, Goulding had been hard at work creating in-roads for his protégée. He leaked a story to the press that MGM was considering Niven for Mutiny on the Bounty (1936). Whatever the validity of this claim, the planted gossip effectively made rival producer Samuel Goldwyn – whom Goulding had also been plying with bait for Niven’s career – offer the inexperienced actor a seven year contract.
It was purely a mercenary act. Goldwyn was about to lose contract player, Ronald Colman and he desperately needed another Brit to fill his shoes. However, Goldwyn’s contract came with a codicil; ‘learn your craft’ – not in a Goldwyn picture, but by doing whatever other studios expected in projects away from the Goldwyn fold. The implication was crystal clear: if Goldwyn was going to make a picture it would not be with an amateur!
To help bolster respect and notoriety – not necessarily in that order – Niven cultivated the demeanor of a gentleman in Hollywood on his rather meager $5,200 annual salary. Comparatively speaking, Niven’s gross paled to that of Mae West – then the highest paid actor in America with an annual base income of $450,000 – higher than most executive salaries.
Regarding socializing as ‘good policy’, Niven made himself a fixture at the Hollywood Cricket Club with other British stars and hopefuls, but he also took the time to break free of that rather close-knit group to cultivate a growing roster of American friends including stars Gilbert Roland and Constance Bennett and MGM set designer, Cedric Gibbons.
Professionally speaking, Niven’s parts were growing; from his one liner in Paramount’s Without Regret (1935) to a considerable part as a doomed poet in A Feather in Her Hat, made that same year. The following year he had his biggest break to date, in a major supporting role opposite Errol Flynn in Michael Curtiz’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). Curtiz, known for his irascible tyranny and fractured English on the set, became one of Niven’s most ardent supporters after an initial clash of wills in which Niven held his own. “You think I know fucking nothing?!” Curtiz reportedly shouted, “I know fucking all!”
Niven also made an impression on Flynn – so much, that when production at Warner Bros. wrapped, the two men decided to rent a fashionable bungalow by the sea, as was customary then to help support expenses and provide for the necessary accoutrements required to successfully squire a revolving credit of women. During their time spent together, two incidents best illustrate the extent to which both Flynn and Niven were adroit practical jokers and ideally suited as house mates. The first incident borders on the macabre. After learning that his idol, John Barrymore had died, Flynn went on a drinking binge only to return home hours later to discover Barrymore’s corpse awaiting his return, propped up in his favorite chair – a consolation package on loan from a bribed undertaker.
The second incident proved damaging to Niven’s overall career. While yachting with Flynn, the two men gave a tow to the stranded boat of Columbia Studio president Harry Cohn. Cohn, who frequently made no bones about his low regard for the importance of star talent – “Kim Novak has had five hit pictures. If you want to bring me your wife or aunt, we’ll do the same for them!” – was grateful for the assistance. But his gratitude quickly soured once he reached the main land. As a joke, Niven had sent Cohn a hokey letter claiming salvage rights. Taking the letter to heart, the incensed and humorless Cohn barred Niven from Columbia Studios – not just from making a film there, but from ever setting foot on the grounds. This embargo was to last until Cohn’s death twenty years later.
FRIENDS...OF A SORT
“You must remember that I had no real firm grounding as an actor: I was always grateful that I could get through a scene at all: I suppose my real ability came later.”
– David Niven
In 1937, David Niven was loaned to producer David O. Selznick for The Prisoner of Zenda, a film experience later described by the actor as one of his most memorable and enjoyable of his entire tenure in Hollywood – he had at last found loyal friendships and camaraderie amongst his fellow actors. What more could he have aspired to except personal success?
But David Niven’s tenure with Samuel Goldwyn had yet to yield great results. On the horizon, was a part in Goldwyn’s most ambitious film to date – Wuthering Heights, a project that Niven emphatically did not want to do; not because his part was inconsequential, but because he would once again be under the direction of William Wyler. The two had teamed on Dodsworth (1935) and the experience had been peppered in bitter bullying. Eventually, Niven agreed to the role – because it was so very good for advancing his career – then quickly regretted his decision as Wyler reverted to his old ways. Years later, Niven was to accept that regardless of his methods, Wyler’s results on screen were indisputably fabulous.
It was also during this period that Niven made an unlikely and lasting friend of the screen’s most sultry femme fatale – Marlene Dietrich. Only a casual acquaintance, the merit of Dietrich’s devotion to Niven, strictly as a friend, was tested when Niven came down with a disastrous flu. To his astonishment, Dietrich arrived at his home, looking the part of a radiantly glamorous star as ever, but with soup and medicine in tow, before hunkering down to play housekeeper and clean up his entire home.
As Niven’s career with Goldwyn continued to prosper, the wayward advice of Hollywood alumni began to trickle down from the higher up lips to his lowly ears; everything from marrying the boss’s daughter to becoming a ‘yes’ man. But if Niven knew how to play ball amidst a sea of Hollywood fair-weathers, he was also not adverse to holding true to his own morality while maintaining a clear perspective of his own importance in the film industry. He was also very astute at recognizing what really made the American dream thrive. “Americans insist that they have no such thing as class distinction,” Niven said, “…(providing) you have as much money as the Kennedy family!”
But even a personality as stable as David Niven’s was to acquiesce in reserved awe to an invitation from William Randolph Hearst – the formidable newspaper baron who demanded from the Hollywood community, as well as others, respect that arguably was seldom earned and/or well-deserved. Hearst’s affair with actress Marion Davies had forced MGM into creating a series of star vehicles to showcase her talent – at least, her talent in the way that Hearst himself misperceived it. Anyway, Niven was to later reminisce that the power wielded by Hearst on the film making community was not only palpable but epic. Years later, reflecting on Orson Welles disastrous clash with Hearst over the production of Citizen Kane, director Billy Wilder made a comment that contradicts Niven’s admiration; “Hearst objected to the way he was turned into Kane. He should have been grateful. Kane had character!”
LOVE AND WAR: ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLIDER
In 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, effectively kicking off the European conflict. Though America’s involvement in WWII was still a few years away, the impact on David Niven’s conscience was immediately palpable. He returned to England a minor celebrity, but one who’s foreign success seemed to breed more public animosity than adoration.
Though film fans in Britain liberally adored him, the rigidity of the upper classes frowned upon his return. He was rejected from service in the RAF and instead given the meager assignment of teaching men to drive trucks. “I felt I was back in those early days…” Niven would later write, “…when it was so difficult to get work.”
But a very public reprieve was to arrive from Winston Churchill, not yet England’s Prime Minister, one evening at a social gathering. Churchill confided in Niven with boisterous enthusiasm, “Young man, you did a very fine thing to give up a most promising career to fight for your country.”
If enlistment into the British air force was forbidden to him, Niven found that the British film industry was quite ready to welcome him with open arms. Ironically, he was cast as a pilot in his first filmic effort, The First of the Few (1942). However, Niven’s ambitious service record ensured that he did not set foot before the cameras again until 1944. It was also during this time that Niven met Primula Rollo, niece to a Lord and the woman he would eventually make his wife. In Hollywood, Niven had played the role of the eligible, though perennial, bachelor about town – squiring many stars and starlets but never with solid intentions in mind. With Primula, the romance progressed in a more stabilizing direction, ironically at the very moment that England herself was facing certain defeat.
Promoted to the rank of colonel, Niven was involved in both the 1942 Dieppe raid and the Normandy landings. Yet, in the years following the war he would remained silent about his personal involvement in those battles, commenting only once and briefly; “Those days are past…better forget ‘em. Let’s hope they never happen again.”
At war’s end, Niven was eager to return to Goldwyn. However, he was also fearful that his absence from the Hollywood scenery had made him an undesirable once more – possibly for all time. “Six months…” so Niven wrote to Goldwyn, “…is too long for an actor to be out of business. Six years is a disaster.” To Niven’s good fortune and modest surprise, Goldwyn welcomed his return with a new five year contract and the opportunity to work with eminent producers/directors/screenwriters – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in A Matter of Life and Death (1946 aka Stairway to Heaven in the U.S.). Of that work experience, Powell was to later comment about Niven, “I had always admired his work. He seemed, so often, so much better than the material which he was in…I think he was quite marvelous.”
But Goldwyn’s next few film assignments for Niven were hopelessly out of touch with the sort of mature actor he had become. Though the films The Perfect Marriage, Magnificent Doll (both in 1946) and The Other Love (1947) did little to dissuade public enthusiasm for the actor, they were nevertheless largely forgettable post-war fodder that Niven endured with infrequent minor conflicts. But the worst was yet to come.
Tragically, the biggest blow to Niven’s Hollywood return was not professional, but personal. At a party at the home of fellow actor Tyrone Power, Primula Niven opened a door to the pantry that she presumed to be a closet and stepped into the dark, lost her footing and fell down a flight of stairs. She suffered irreversible brain damage and never regained consciousness. Her sudden and shocking death left Niven with two young sons to raise and a voracious wanton appetite for sexual liaisons that he would later described as his ‘illness.’
FALLOW PERIODTo preoccupy his time, Niven dove into work on The Bishop’s Wife (1947) – a project that Goldwyn almost maniacally took control over. The film was a financial success, but badly maligned by the critics who found its’ sentiment too syrupy sweet. Regardless of what the critics thought, Niven was pleased with the film’s success. He was more popular than ever. But his next project, Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) proved a misfire. Goldwyn had loaned Niven to Alexander Korda for the production – a British stab at producing a Hollywood epic. But the script was a shambles and the production shoot arduous and meandering; the one saving grace of the whole darn mess being that Niven met his second wife, Hjordis Tersmeden one afternoon in between takes. Tersmeden had been a Swedish model, but within ten days of meeting Niven she had retired to become his second wife.
Goldwyn next cast Niven in a trio of stinkers; Enchantment (1948), A Kiss in the Dark (1949) and The Elusive Pimpernel (1949) – the latter reuniting Niven with Powell and Pressburger. But like the debacle of Bonnie Prince Charlie – The Elusive Pimpernel proved a colossal dud, mired by a constant clash of input from Goldwyn and Korda. The reviews this time were scathing. The Times wrote “audiences are in danger of forgetting what a really accomplished actor Mr. Niven is.” Following a final commitment to Goldwyn on A Kiss for Corliss (1949) Niven and Goldwyn parted company forever.
Reflecting on his films, Niven had to admit – if only to himself - that he had made a career out of mostly second rate junk that had somehow transformed him into a star. It was at this professional crossroads that came a bit of good solid advice from his friend Humphrey Bogart; “Keep going somehow...never let them think they’ve got you running scared because somewhere in somebody’s desk is a script that’s right for you and when they dig it out it’s you they’ll want and nobody else and everything’ll be forgotten!”
But all was not forgiven it seemed in Hollywood, where Goldwyn had leaked the story that he had fired Niven. As a direct result, film offers were few. Niven appeared in support of Kathryn Grayson and Mario Lanza in The Toast of New Orleans (1950) – a role that did nothing to advance his career – and even tried his hand at Broadway in the disastrous Nina (1951) with Gloria Swanson. The irony is that director Otto Preminger saw Niven in Nina and enjoyed his performance so much that he opted to cast him in The Moon Is Blue (1953) a then ‘racy’ project that costarred William Holden and became a big hit with audiences. Unfortunately, Niven followed this project with yet another series of leaden tripe, beginning with The Love Lottery (1953) and ending with a ruthlessly charm free remake of Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, renamed The Birds and the Bees (1956).
It was at this junction that artistic salvation materialized in the formidably gregarious personality of producer Michael Todd – a man self-made famous for his ability to cajole and/or strong arm the Hollywood community into getting his projects developed and made. Todd’s latest excursion was to be the one for which he would forever be remembered; the grandiose all-star spectacle Around The World in Eighty Days (1956) – based on the exploits penned by Jules Verne, and Todd had decided that none other than David Niven was to be his Phileus Fogg.
Produced on a somewhat more flamboyant than artistic scale, Around the World in Eighty Days was a colossus at the box office and a general hit with most critics – winning the Best Picture Oscar for that year. It also resurrected David Niven’s reputation in Hollywood, as one critic in The Manchester Guardian wrote, “David Niven’s quite essentially English gentleman is never in any danger of disappearing: he dominates even this gigantic screen with as fine a performance as he has given us for many a long year.”
LAST ACT FINALES
In 1958, at the age of 48, David Niven at last achieved a sort of screen immortality that had eluded him for so long. Opposite Burt Lancaster, he starred in Delbert Mann’s adaptation of Terrance Rattigan’s highly successful stage play, Separate Tables – playing a lonely and somewhat forlorn Major with a terrible secret in his past. Poignant, tender and very much drawing on that well spring of internal angst and self-doubt that had occasionally plagued his early years, Niven proved to be the lynchpin of the film. He took home the New York Critic’s Film Award and the Oscar for his performance.
Niven’s acceptance of the latter, however, became cause for one of the most bizarre speeches in Oscar history. As Niven later wrote, “Such was my haste to get on that stage that I tripped up the stairs and sprawled headlong…I though the least I could do was explain my precipitous entrance so I said… ‘the reason I just fell down was…’ I had intended to continue ‘…because I was so loaded with good luck charms that I was top heavy…’ Unfortunately, I made an idiot pause after the word ‘loaded’…so I said no more on the subject, thereby establishing myself as the first self-confessed drunk to win the Academy Award.”
He was to redeem himself two decades later, when as a presenter at the 1974 Academy Awards, Niven provided the nonchalant rebuttal after Robert Opel streaked across the stage without a stitch of clothing. Leaning into the microphone with a charmed gurgle of a laugh, Niven said, “Isn’t it fascinating…that probably the only laugh that man will ever get is by stripping off his clothes and showing his shortcomings.”
The last acts of David Niven’s life were very much long overdue. His appearance in Carl Foreman’s The Guns of Navarone (1961) not withstanding, the rest of his Hollywood tenure did not provide for any more of a distinguished palette in artistic achievements than most of his pre-war film product had. “I wish only that someone could find the perfect role for Mr. Niven,” wrote Sunday Times critic Dilys Powell, “He is an actor far more delicate, far more easily damaged by wrong treatment in the medium than his insouciant air might suggest. I can’t help feeling that, lying around somewhere there is a small masterpiece for David Niven.”
That masterpiece remained elusive and, in the later years, long after Hollywood had become a thing of his past, Niven was to carry a bit of the remnant sting of the film Mecca into his personal life, describing Hollywood as “…a place where you spend more than you make on things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.”
Yet Niven, who openly professed to like people – actually did! He was never ambitious or ruthless in his pursuit of fame and fortune. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Even after early film reviews declared him the valiant successor to Ronald Colman’s mantel, Niven was often fond of reflecting that “I’ve been lucky to have stretched a minimal talent into such a long career.”
True, Niven perhaps lacked that raw animal charisma of a Clark Gable or Errol Flynn – but certainly not the acting chops to pull off roles equally as large or intense. And, when it came to suggestions that his reputation as Hollywood’s new Brit might eclipse Colman’s firm establishment, Niven was to observe, “It seems we were expected to be rivals. But how could we be? He was one of my very best friends!”
In retrospect, David Niven was not at all malicious about either his own stardom or the necessary fallout of becoming famous. While many great talents of his vintage have often crucified the reputations of Hollywood gossip columnists - particularly Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons after their deaths, Niven keenly mused that “they had delusions of grandeur and skins like brontosauruses…but they were gallant, preserving and often soft-hearted.” Only a true optimist could have labeled them so.
On July 29, 1983, at the age of 73, David Niven succumbed to a motor neuron disease that had been gradually eroding his physical self for nearly a decade. Paraphrasing Ernest Lubitsch, imminent playwright John Mortimer eulogized, “Nobody should try and play comedy unless they have a circus going on inside. Perhaps that was the secret of David’s style. He seemed so elegant and cool…so handsome and well dressed, but inside – the band was forever striking up, the children were clapping with delight and the clowns were always about to be brought on.”
@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).