By Graham Lord (published in 2003)
Like any self respecting, self appointed film buff I knew the basic facts of the David Niven story and had read his two books, The Moons a Balloon and Bring On The Empty Horses. Like most others, I enjoyed them immensely. Who knows when I picked this bio up as I buy so many used copies in my journeys of hunting through second hand bookshops but I felt it was time to read someone else’s take on the career of the dapper Englishman. The fact that the author, Graham Lord had the co-operation of Niv’s friends including Robert Wagner and family make this not only a good read but a reliable window into the life of the one time Oscar winner.
The book recounts Niven’s troubled years as a youth trying to find his place in the school systems. His Father was killed during WW1 leaving his Mother to raise her children on her own though she would marry into wealth and nobility. A military career looked to be David’s future but he’d eventually give up the service looking to secure a career in acting. Of course my interest is the Hollywood years and the film career that lay ahead for young David. Success under the direction of Samuel Goldwyn began and with it a stormy relationship between the producer and actor. The Errol Flynn years, the women and partying are here though not in a gratuitous tell all way.
Just as Niven’s career was taking off WW2 began and David nobly headed back to England to reenlist, possibly giving up his movie career as did Leslie Howard, a friend of Niven’s who lost his life in a plane during the war against the axis powers. Even through the long war years, Niven’s sense of humor shines through and with quotes from fellow veterans and Peter Ustinov, the book does a good job at conveying David’s years in the service.
His first marriage to Primmie, the love of his life, who gave him two sons ends tragically and his second marriage to Hjordis by all accounts was a long term disaster. As a matter of fact it seems as if the author had to go out of his way to find anyone who had a nice thing to say about the woman Niven married in 1948 and remained with until his death in 1983. I kept waiting for Niven to end the marriage as if I was reading a novel but knew that he stayed married until the end.
The movies are covered from the early years to the successful run of the late 40’s into the downward spiral of the early 50’s. Then came the turnaround with Around the World in 80 Days, Separate Tables and The Guns of Navarone. Niven seemed to pretty much win over all his costars with his comical likability and hilarious storytelling that would ultimately lead him to writing his “slightly” exaggerated memoirs. The books alone made him a very wealthy man towards the end of his life let alone the acting fees.
His life is not without drama of it’s own between losing his first wife and the near fatal car accident of his adopted daughter before of course being diagnosed with the debilitating Lou Gehrig’s disease. A good read for those looking to turn the clock back and read about an actor who was immensely loved and seemed to live his life to the fullest and on the edge at times.
What do I think of when Niven comes up?
Suit and tie. Mustached. A proper gentleman with a mischievous glint in his eye and probably The Guns of Navarone if choosing just one movie to sit back and enjoy.
No poster of Navarone in the vault but here’s one of his later day Disney features that Brando and I wanted to showcase.