Tuesday, March 31

David Niven

He worked from the 1930s through the early 1980s and while I could have included him in any of those decades, I am writing about him in my piece on the 1960s because, believe it or not, it wasn't until then that he truly settled into stardom.  He became more of a force at the closing of the 50s when he starred in an Oscar Best Picture and won a Best Actor Oscar for another.

David Niven always had mixed emotions about his film career and never felt that he was very good.  Imagine that.  One moment the career was all that mattered and the next he felt underused and unappreciated.  He had mixed emotions about his childhood.  He was a bit perplexed on being a parent.  He believed in marriage but was a prodigious philanderer.  For most of his life he was plagued with self-doubt, always wondering how he got himself into the situations he did... marriages, friendships, bad films.  I suspect he died without finding out many of the answers.

Throughout his life, perhaps the one constant was that he was a raconteur.  He could tell stories better than most and others turned to him, eager for the latest.  On film sets particularly, he was a great gossip (never mean and usually always using a humorous brushstroke) and coworkers reveled in hearing stories about his work on past films.  It was no surprise to many that he wrote two biographies, The Moon's a Balloon (1971) and Bring on the Empty Horses (1975), which are considered to be just about the best showbiz autobiographies ever written. Those who knew him always said he wrote as he spoke... warm, funny and newsy.

He drew his first breath in 1910 in London although, for some reason, he said for years he was born in Scotland.  His gift for mimicry and storytelling developed early and no doubt stemmed from a longing for attention. He was the youngest of four children whose parents were often too busy to pay much attention to them. He became a prankster and for all his life enjoyed spinning tales of these endeavors.  

For all the forthcoming nature of his stories, at heart he was a secretive man, especially when it came to things that were too painful. The first of those had to do with his paternity, which he didn't learn about until his teenage years.  While his parents were married, his mother had a longtime affair with another man. She had two children by him, one of whom was David.  Until husband and wife divorced, they lived as though the youngest two children belonged to both of them.  Then the mother married her lover but for years David thought he was his stepfather. Once he found out the truth, nothing much changed and David said didn't particularly care... stiff upper lip and all that.

He attended boarding school and began working out.  His strong desire to be and look fit became a life-long passion as was bedding women.  Sexually, he would always describe himself as insatiable. He took up tennis and he would forever play as long as he was physically able.  He began dabbling in some acting at school but it appeared to be little more than a lark to him.

All that changed when he began dating a young actress named Ann Todd.  She took him to a play starring Laurence Olivier and Niven was impressed.   Todd was beginning to think of Niven as marriage material when he suddenly joined the infantry, the first of his two engagements as a soldier.  By all accounts he was an impressive military man.  His sexual exploits were not left behind and generally involved prostitutes (his favorite) or other men's wives.

When he returned to civilian life, he again took up with Todd but also began dating Merle Oberon, who had designs on an acting career herself.   As he glided into high society, he developed the suave and sophisticated manner that we associate with him and it attracted the attention of heiress Barbara Hutton and they, too, began dating. One day she announced that she was going to America and suggested that Niven join her.

Once in the States and with no real prospect of work, he began thinking again of acting and in this case, the movies.  Everyone knew that meant Hollywood so off he went. By this time Oberon was there and Niven felt she could and would help him get established.  She knew that if he were good at anything, it was rubbing elbows with the rich and famous.  She suggested he use his skills on the tennis court to ingratiate himself with avid tennis player, Frances Goldwyn, the society-wife of the namesake of Samuel Goldwyn Studios.

The good news is it worked. Goldwyn put him under contract after receiving endorsements from his wife and Oberon.  The bad news is Goldwyn didn't have much confidence in Niven nor find him to be particularly talented.  Niven spent his long career at Goldwyn being loaned out to other studios for a fraction of the dough that Goldwyn made on him.  His Hollywood work history never much pleased him.

Pouncing on scores of actresses did please him, however.  Loretta Young was one of those.  Both she and Oberon, while both romancing him, were also finding him roles in their pictures.   He did make a lot of films but scant attention was paid to him.  Some of them were well-known films such as Mutiny on the Bounty, Rose Marie, Dodsworth, The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Prisoner of Zenda... all in the 1930s, all small parts and some uncredited.  

In 1938 at Warners he made The Dawn Patrol where he played a British flying ace and he and the film's star, Errol Flynn became fast friends.  One can just imagine. A few years later, however, their friendship ended bitterly because Niven felt Flynn betrayed him in some business matter.

The following year he took the role of Edgar in Wuthering Heights with Oberon and Laurence Olivier with whom he spent time when Olivier was in Hollywood. Niven was often a shoulder to cry on for both of his friends because they did not like one another.  Is that too much to bear for fans of Cathy and Heathcliff?

He made 11 films in the 1940s, none of which were much to write home about, although one, 1947s The Bishop's Wife is often Christmastime viewing.  His friend Young got him the part of the angel and then Cary Grant was hired to join the cast and he wanted the same part... and got it.  Niven played the bishop and he quite disliked Grant for his machinations.

He also spent some time in the U.S. military because he wanted to. He knew he was a good soldier and wanted to contribute. His career was rather lacklustre at the time.  Also in the 1940s he married the love of his life, a fellow Brit, Primola Rollo, known as Primmie.  Everyone was shocked when they wed because they had only known one another for days, and as some said, he was having too much fun being single.  What some may not have known is that he never stopped having that fun. 

After Primmie came to America, Niven was eager for her to meet all his California friends.  One night his good pals, Tyrone Power and wife Anabella, invited the Nivens over for a dinner party.  Also in attendance were Power's good pal, Cesar Romero, and married couples Gene Tierney and Oleg Cassini, Richard Greene and Patricia Medina and Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer. After dinner they decided to play a game.  It was called Sardines but was essentially hide and seek.  The lights were all turned off and one person had to find all the others in the dark.  Primmie opened a door, apparently thinking it was to a closet, and tumbled down the basement stairs, dying two days later. She was 28, they had been married almost six years and she had produced two sons. Niven was inconsolable.

With 2nd wife Hjordis

He threw himself into work, happy at least that he was finally top-billed in some films.  He recklessly enjoyed encounters with many women until he began a lengthy relationship with Rita Hayworth. Many thought they would marry although Niven told his buddies he could never marry an actress.  Whom he did marry was a beautiful Swede he had also known for a matter of days named Hjőrdis (pronounced Yerdiss) Genberg and they spent 35 miserable years together.  All who knew her disliked her and felt that she behaved badly.  She was an alcoholic who was beset with mental illness.  She was agoraphobic with a capital A. She belittled him, their friends and the movie business.  She especially loathed his storytelling although how many partners enjoy hearing the same stories over and over again?  She did try to ingratiate herself with his young sons but they preferred their nanny.

Quite a number of his films in the 1950s (when I first became aware of him) were nothing to write home about either, but there are exceptions.  There certainly are.  In 1956 he was signed to star in producer-impresario Mike Todd's Around the World in 80 Days. I found it incredibly silly and could never quite sit through the entire affair.  When it won the Oscar for best picture (what?!?!? they didn't see Giant?), as the top-billed star, Niven finally got the acclaim he so desperately sought.

Two years later he won the Oscar for his work in Separate Tables, costarring with his old girlfriend, Rita Hayworth, his new girlfriend, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Wendy Hiller, and Gladys Cooper.  It concerned the lives of hotel guests in England. Niven played Major Pollock, who as it turns out, is not a major at all but some old lech who has been arrested for molesting women.  

His Oscar-winning role

He was decidedly un-Niven in that he was dowdy, uncomfortable and odd.  Perhaps that shift from how he normally was made Oscar voters go all mushy.  And not that I don't think he was good, but I found Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones and especially Paul Newman in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof far more deserving of an Oscar. Sad to say that when I have thought of or mentioned Niven over the years, I usually think oh yeah, one of those who shouldn't have won the Oscar.

About that crack of Kerr being his new girlfriend... actually I mean it more in the working-relationship way because this was the first of five films they did together.   But that's not to say there haven't been rumors. Months later in 1958 he worked again with Kerr in Bonjour Tristesse, which I mentioned in my piece on their comely costar, Jean Seberg.  Here he was the quintessential Niven and the reason why I've always liked him... gay (the old definition), carefree, stylish, charming... and if that weren't enough, a womanizer.  Type-casting.  It is my favorite DN role.  He was so taken with Cote d'Azur, where it was filmed, that he moved there.

He also slipped in there a remake of My Man Godfrey, a perfect successor to the William-Powell butler role, with June Allyson as the wealthy employer who has fallen for him.

In the mid-50s, Niven had gone into a TV producing partnership with Allyson's brainy husband, Dick Powell, and Charles Boyer.  It was named Four Star Productions (hmmm, but that's only three!) and they put out some wonderful entertainment, a great deal of which one of them starred in.

The 60s arrived and they didn't hurt his new leading-man status. He played Doris Day's theater-critic husband in Please Don't Eat the Daisies.  His stock soared when he signed on to join Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn in 1961s The Guns of Navarone.  It was a massive hit with the public and I'm not so sure Niven didn't deliver the best acting among a glittering ensemble. 

While he was in a gun mood, he made The Guns of Darkness (1962), a small little thriller with Leslie Caron, with whom he was less than fond.  The following year he made 55 Days at Peking, a massive undertaking that left him weak for the effort.  Neither film was successful.

Then came the film for which Niven, I think, will be the most remembered, The Pink Panther (1964).  He hoped his role as Sir Charles Lytton, jewel thief, bon vivant, ladies' man, would give his career a boost that would take him through the rest of his life. And good as he was as Sir Charles and as fine a comedy as The Pink Panther is, perhaps no one reckoned for the onslaught that was Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau.  If you think you need to read more about it, you know how

In the 60s he started to look older than he really was and perhaps that didn't do him any good in the notice-me industry he played in. And there was always life with Hjőrdis, which took him down.   In 1970 the Nivens adopted a Swedish girl, mainly because Hjőrdis wanted to.  Taking a page from his old girlfriend Loretta Young's life, the girl was actually Niven's illegitimate daughter although no one else knew it until the actor's final year.

If Niven thought The Pink Panther would restore some lustre to his career, he couldn't have been more mistaken. Death on the Nile (1978) was fun but the fact was he never made another great movie and many of them were not even good.  He seemed to leave films in the same way he began them... a bit unnoticed.

Toward the end of his life he developed Motor Neuron Disease (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and looked 10 years older than he was.  He lost control of his facial muscles and he wouldn't speak a great deal.  He died in Switzerland in 1983 at age 73.

Movie Review


  1. Niven was a great and underrated comic actor...perfect in Pink Panther, but my all-time favorite is Neil Simon's Murder By Death...he and Maggie Smith are a scream as the Nick & Nora Charles characters...

  2. You know, I had actually typed something like this: and how could he and Maggie Smith have not been quite worth watching in Murder by Death although I haven't seen it... and I deleted it before publishing. But thanks to you, C, I will check it out.

  3. Ialways considered Niven a very good actor even though a little underrrated. I liked his talent, his appearance and his smile. I think I saw most of the movies You mention. My favorite one is Pink Panther. I also remember a fil of many years ago -I must have been ten- In this film he was a pilot that dies and goes to Heaven where he says and does something and then sent back to Earth to his girl ( Kim Hunter?). I always loved this kind of movies such us Mr Jordan and another one with Tracy, Dunn, Johnson and a little bit of Esther Williams. Nothing more for now. Hope You'll receive this message. All the best

  4. Carlo, I am pretty sure the movie you're speaking of is called "Stairway to Heaven" (1946), although I've never seen it.