September 30, 2015

#SOTM - TCM's Star of the Month Oct. 2015 - David Niven

David Niven was a former British army lieutenant whose debonair charm conquered Hollywood and helped make him an Academy Award-winning star and a perennially popular character actor.

Slim, witty and lighthearted, Niven crowned two urbane decades before the film cameras with his Academy Award as the best actor of 1958, which came for his performance as a fraudulent British major in the drama Separate Tables.

He had important roles in many other films, including Samuel Goldwyn's Wuthering Heights (1939), in which he played the gentle husband of a restless Merle Oberon. And he starred as the adventurous Phileas Fogg in Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days (1958).

Niven's other major films included Dawn Patrol (1938), Stairway to Heaven (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), Enchantment (1948), Court Martial (1955) and Where the Spies Are (1966).

In an industry not known for traditional politesse, he sometimes astounded film critics by writing them thank-you notes after they had praised his work.

Such mannerly flourishes sprang naturally from Niven's upper-crust background. He was born James David Graham Niven March 1, 1910, in Belgrave Mansions, London, England.

His father, William Edward Graham Niven, was a British officer who died in the Gallipoli campaign of World War I. His French and British mother, the former Henrietta Julia Degacher, later married Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt, a Conservative Party figure.

The future movie star attended the Stowe School in Buckinghamshire and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. Commissioned a lieutenant in the British army, he saw service on Malta before resigning from the army in 1932 to seek his fortune across the Atlantic.

He drifted his way around the world, working as a lumberman, laundry messenger, news reporter, bartender, the representative of a London wine firm in the United States, and even a gunnery instructor to Cuban revolutionists.

Then his travels took him to Los Angeles.

Niven's film career began in the 1930s with work as an extra and in bit parts. It then ripened into solid featured roles in more than a score of pictures, including a part as a flirtatious major in Dodsworth (1936). But it was not until after service as a British army officer during World War II that Niven attained full stardom.

In 1939 Niven walked out on a lucrative contract with Samuel Goldwyn to become the first major star to enter the armed forces.  Briefly involved with British Intelligence, he transferred to the Commandos and landed on the beaches of Normandy in 1944.  He attained the rank of colonel and was awarded the American Legion of Merit.

Niven was given leave to appear in two British war propaganda films: The First of the Few (1942) and The Way Ahead (1944). The films were released in the United States as Spitfire and The Immortal Battalion.

While overseas, Niven met and fell in love with a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) named Primula Susan Rollo.  "Primmie" was the only daughter of Lady Kathleen Hill and Flight Lieutenant William Rollo. Niven and Rollo were married on September 16, 1940 at Huish Church on the Wiltshire Downs.  Their son David, Jr. was born December 15, 1942. He's a British film producer and film actor, with stints as an executive at Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures. James Graham Niven, called Jamie, was born three years later. He's Chairman of Sotheby’s The Americas.

At the end of the war, David brought Primmie, three-year-old David, Jr. and five-month-old Jamie to Los Angeles to resume his career. They were only in the States for six weeks when tragedy struck on May 20-21, 1946.

During a party at Tyrone Power's house, a terrible accident occurred. While playing the hide‑and-seek game Sardines, for which the lights had been switched off, Primmie mistakenly walked through a doorway thinking it was leading into a closet. The doorway instead led to the basement. Primmie fell head-first down a steep flight of stone steps into the cellar. She died the following day of a fractured skull and brain lacerations.

Niven recalled this as the darkest period of his life, years afterwards thanking his friends for their patience and forbearance during this time. He claimed to have been so grief-stricken that he thought for a while that he had gone mad. Following a suicide attempt involving a handgun that failed to go off, he eventually rallied and returned to filmmaking.

On January 14, 1948 he married Swedish model Hjördis Paulina Genberg Tersmeden. They adopted two daughters, Kristina in 1960 and Fiona in 1962. Niven’s second marriage was as tumultuous as his first marriage was content. Hjördis (pronounced Yer-diss), unable to achieve an acting career, had affairs with other men and became an alcoholic. She was especially cruel as he was dying of ALS, often mocking his slurred speech, shuffling gait and skeletal appearance.

In 1951, Niven made a brief detour to Broadway, starring in the farce Nina, which had 45 performances.

Niven realized the value of television and in 1952 co-founded the prosperous Four Star TV Production Company. He served as host of The David Niven Show from 1959 to 1964 and starred in The Rogues in 1964 and 1965.

Niven won a Golden Globe Award for his work in The Moon Is Blue (1953), produced and directed by Otto Preminger.

He gave what some film historians call one of his finest performances, in Court Martial, a British drama that drew some enthusiastic reviews when it appeared in 1955 but has since been largely forgotten.

The next year, in the box-office hit Around the World in 80 Days, Niven's acting attracted less attention than it otherwise might have, because the cast included many other stars in cameo appearances.

In later years, Niven appeared in such comedies as the entertaining Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960) and The Pink Panther (1963), which was the first of the Panther series.

Niven, whose characteristic querulous expression etched deep lines in his forehead, said once that one of his rules of life was to try to look as good as possible, but never to try to look younger.

"Mutton masquerading as lamb is always unattractive," he said.

Late in his career, Niven also gained success as an author. His best-selling volume of memoirs, The Moon's a Balloon, was praised in 1972 by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times for its "racy wit and fine sense of the absurd." His 1975 nonfiction work, Bring on the Empty Horses, was praised by William F. Buckley, Jr. in The New York Times as "a book about Hollywood and incidentally a masterful self-portrait."

And his best-selling 1981 novel of Hollywood and wartime London, Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly, was praised in The Chicago Tribune for its "wonderful anecdotes and escapades." He published the less successful Round the Rugged Rocks in 1951.

While Niven was co-hosting the 46th Annual Oscars ceremony on April 2, 1974, a naked man, Robert Opel, appeared behind him, "streaking" across the stage. Niven quipped, "Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?"

In 1980, Niven began experiencing fatigue, muscle weakness and a warble in his voice. His 1981 interviews on the talk shows of Michael Parkinson and Merv Griffin alarmed family and friends; viewers wondered if Niven had either been drinking or suffered a stroke. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease in the US and Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in the UK) later that year.

While appearing in his last films, Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), the actor's speech became so slurred due to his illness that his lines were later dubbed by impressionist Rich Little.

In February 1983, Niven went to London for treatment of his illness, and his wife reported that he was very weak and tired. After nine days in a London hospital, he flew to Switzerland.

Niven died July 29, 1983 in his Alpine chalet at Château-d'Oex, Switzerland, a nephew reported. He was 73 years old.

Niven's nephew, Michael Wrangdah, said at Château-d'Oex: "My uncle died peacefully and without pain. His last gesture a few minutes before he died had been to give the thumbs-up sign."

Shortly before his death, Niven allowed himself a nostalgic glance over his career and said: "The whole thing has been such fun, I always expect a little man to tap me on the shoulder and say: 'Sorry chum, you've been found out.'"

Biographer Graham Lord wrote that "the biggest wreath, worthy of a Mafia Godfather's funeral, was delivered from the porters at London's Heathrow Airport, along with a card that read: 'To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.'"

TCM's Star of the Month - October 2015

Raffles (1939)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Sam Wood. David Niven, Olivia de Havilland, Dudley Digges, Dame May Whitty, Douglas Walton, Lionel Pape. Niven is good but can't match Ronald Colman in this nearly scene-for-scene remake of the 1930 film about a gentleman thief (with a notably different finale). Medium-grade fluff. B/W. 72 mins.

Bachelor Mother (1939)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Garson Kanin. Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn, Frank Albertson, Ernest Truex. Rogers unwittingly becomes guardian for abandoned baby in this delightful comedy by Norman Krasna. Remade as Bundle of Joy. Also shown in computer-colored version. B/W. 82 mins.

Dawn Patrol, The (1938)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Edmund Goulding. Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, David Niven, Donald Crisp, Melville Cooper, Barry Fitzgerald. Remake of 1930 classic is fine actioner of WW1 flyers in France; Rathbone as stern officer forced to send up green recruits, Flynn and Niven as pilot buddies, all excellent. Insightful study of wartime camaraderie and grueling pressures of battlefront command. B/W. 103 mins.

Wuthering Heights (1939)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: William Wyler. Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Leo G. Carroll, Cecil Kellaway, Miles Mander, Hugh Williams. Stirring adaptation of Emily Bronte's novel stops at chapter 17, but viewers shouldn't despair: sensitive direction and sweeping performances propel this magnificent story of doomed love in pre-Victorian England. Haunting, a must-see film. Gregg Toland's moody photography won an Oscar; script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Remade in 1953, 1970, and 1992. B/W. 104 mins.

Splendor (1935)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Elliott Nugent. Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea, Paul Cavanagh, Helen Westley, Billie Burke, Katharine Alexander, David Niven. Familiar story of McCrea's family upset when he loves poor-girl Hopkins instead of upper-class young lady; script by Rachel Crothers, from her play. B/W. 75 mins.

Eternally Yours (1939)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Tay Garnett. Loretta Young, David Niven, Hugh Herbert, C. Aubrey Smith, Billie Burke, Broderick Crawford, ZaSu Pitts, Eve Arden. Way-out idea comes off fairly well; Young is married to magician Niven, thinks his tricks are taking precedence to their married life. Also shown in computer-colored version. B/W. 95 mins.

Dodsworth (1936)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: William Wyler. Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, Mary Astor, David Niven, Gregory Gaye, Maria Ouspenskaya, Spring Byington, Harlan Briggs. Superb adaptation of Sinclair Lewis novel about middle-aged American industrialist who retires, goes to Europe, where he and his wife find differing sets of values and new relationships. Intelligently written (by Sidney Howard), beautifully filmed, extremely well acted, with Huston recreating his Broadway role. John Payne (billed as John Howard Payne) makes screen debut in small role. Won Oscar for Interior Decoration (Richard Day). Unusually mature Hollywood film, not to be missed. B/W. 101 mins.

Charge of the Light Brigade, The (1936)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Michael Curtiz. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Patric Knowles, Henry Stephenson, Nigel Bruce, Donald Crisp, David Niven, C. Henry Gordon, Robert Barrat, Spring Byington, J. Carrol Naish. Thundering action based on Tennyson's poem, with immortal charge into the valley of death by British 27th Lancers cavalry. Lavish production values accent romantic tale of Flynn and de Havilland at army post in India. Max Steiner's first musical score for Warner Brothers is superb. Balaklava Heights charge directed by action specialist B. Reeves Eason. Also shown in computer-colored version. B/W. 115 mins.

Prisoner of Zenda, The (1937)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: John Cromwell. Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., C. Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, David Niven, Montagu Love, Alexander D'Arcy. Lavish costume romance/adventure with excellent casting; Colman is forced to substitute for lookalike cousin, King of Ruritanian country, but commoner Colman falls in love with regal Carroll. Fairbanks nearly steals the show as villainous Rupert of Hentzau. Screenplay by John L. Balderston, from Anthony Hope's novel. Also shown in computer-colored version. B/W. 101 mins.

Rose Marie (1936)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: W. S. Van Dyke II. Jeanette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy, Reginald Owen, Allan Jones, James Stewart, Alan Mowbray, Gilda Gray. Don't expect the original operetta: story has opera star Jeanette searching for fugitive brother Stewart, as Mountie Nelson pursues the same man. The two fall in love, sing "Indian Love Call," among others. David Niven appears briefly as Jeanette's unsuccessful suitor. Retitled Indian Love Call; previously filmed in 1928, then again in 1954. B/W. 111 mins.

Feather in Her Hat, A (1935)
D: Alfred Santell. Pauline Lord, Basil Rathbone, Louis Hayward, Billie Burke, David Niven. A female shopkeeper sacrifices everything to give her son a theatrical career. B/W. 72 mins.

Matter of Life and Death, A (1947)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger. David Niven, Kim Hunter, Raymond Massey, Roger Livesey, Robert Coote, Marius Goring, Richard Attenborough. Powell and Pressburger manage to straddle reality and fantasy in a most disarming manner in this unusual story of a pilot during WW2 who claims he was accidentally chosen to die, and must now plead for his life in a Heavenly court. Like most films by this writer-director team, an absolute original--and a gem, too. U.S. title: Stairway to Heaven. Color. 104 mins.

Bishop's Wife, The (1947)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Henry Koster. Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester. Christmas fantasy of suave angel (Grant) coming to earth to help Bishop Niven and wife Young raise money for new church. Engaging performances by all--and fun to see children from It's a Wonderful Life, Karolyn Grimes and Bobby Anderson, appearing together. Also shown in computer-colored version. Remade as The Preacher's Wife. B/W. 109 mins.

First of the Few, The (1942)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Leslie Howard. Leslie Howard, David Niven, Rosamund John, Roland Culver, Anne Firth, David Horne, J. H. Roberts, Derrick de Marney, Bernard Miles, Patricia Medina. Howard plays R.J. Mitchell, who developed the ace fighting plane Spitfire which later became one of the Allies' most valuable WW2 assets. Good biographical drama. Howard's last screen appearance. U.S. title: Spitfire. U.S. version cut to 90m. B/W. 119 mins.

Way Ahead, The (1944)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Carol Reed. David Niven, Stanley Holloway, James Donald, John Laurie, Leslie Dwyer, Hugh Burden, Jimmy Hanley, Billy Hartnell, Raymond Huntley, Reginald Tate, Leo Genn, Penelope Dudley Ward, Renee Asherson, Raymond Lovell, Peter Ustinov, Trevor Howard. Exhilarating wartime British film showing how disparate civilians come to work together as a fighting unit; full of spirit and charm, with an outstanding cast, and fine script by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov. Film debut of Trevor Howard. Originally released in the U.S. in a shortened, more serious version called The Immortal Battalion (with an introduction by journalist Quentin Reynolds). Original British running time 116m. B/W. 88 mins.

Enchantment (1948)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Irving Reis. David Niven, Teresa Wright, Evelyn Keyes, Farley Granger, Jayne Meadows, Leo G. Carroll. Weepy romancer with elderly Niven recalling his tragic love as he watches great-niece Keyes' romance with Granger. B/W. 101 mins.

Kiss in the Dark, A (1949)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Delmer Daves. David Niven, Jane Wyman, Victor Moore, Wayne Morris, Broderick Crawford, Joseph Buloff, Maria Ouspenskaya. One-note farce about uptight concert pianist Niven, who loosens up when his business manager uses his savings to purchase an apartment building--where one of the residents is perky model Wyman. B/W. 88 mins.

Kiss for Corliss, A (1949)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Richard Wallace. Shirley Temple, David Niven, Tom Tully, Virginia Welles. Puffed-up comedy of teenager Temple convincing everyone that she and playboy Niven are going together; nave fluff. Limp follow-up to Kiss and Tell with Shirley as Corliss Archer; this was her final film. Retitled Almost a Bride. B/W. 85 mins.

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Michael Anderson. David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Newton, Buster Keaton, Jose Greco, John Gielgud, Robert Morley, Marlene Dietrich, all-star cast. Oscar-winning favorite has lost much of its charm over the years, but even so, Mike Todd's version of the Jules Verne tale offers plenty of entertainment, and more than 40 cameo appearances offer plenty of star-gazing for buffs. Great Victor Young score was also an Oscar winner, as was the screenplay (James Poe, John Farrow, S. J. Perelman), cinematography (Lionel Lindon) and editing (Gene Ruggiero, Paul Weatherwax). Remade as a 1989 TV miniseries, and in 2004. Todd-AO. Color. 182 mins.

My Man Godfrey (1957)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Henry Koster. June Allyson, David Niven, Martha Hyer, Eva Gabor, Jeff Donnell. Shallow compared to original, but on its own a harmless comedy of rich girl Allyson finding life's truths from butler Niven. CinemaScope. Color. 92 mins.

Moon Is Blue, The (1953)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Otto Preminger. William Holden, David Niven, Maggie McNamara, Tom Tully, Dawn Addams, Gregory Ratoff. Once-saucy sex comedy about a young woman who flaunts her virginity now seems tame, too much a filmed stage play, with most innuendoes lacking punch. Adapted by F. Hugh Herbert from his stage hit. Hardy Kruger (who has a small part here) played the lead in a German-language version that Preminger filmed simultaneously. B/W. 99 mins.

Bonjour Tristesse (1957)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Otto Preminger. Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Jean Seberg, Geoffrey Horne, Mylene Demongeot. Teenager does her best to break up romance between playboy widowed father and his mistress, with tragic results. Francoise Sagan's philosophy seeps through glossy production; Kerr exceptionally fine in soaper set on French Riviera. CinemaScope. Color. 94 mins.

Toast of New Orleans, The (1950)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Norman Taurog. Kathryn Grayson, Mario Lanza, David Niven, Rita Moreno, J. Carrol Naish. Lanza plays fisherman transformed into operatic star. Rest of cast good, and Lanza sings "Be My Love." Color. 97 mins.

Happy Go Lovely (1951)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Bruce Humberstone. David Niven, Vera-Ellen, Cesar Romero, Bobby Howes, Diane Hart, Gordon Jackson. The charm of its three stars uplifts this otherwise minor musical-romance, set in Edinburgh, with chorus girl Vera-Ellen getting the lead in a show when the director (Romero) thinks she's about to wed a millionaire (Niven) she's never met. B/W. 97 mins.

Happy Anniversary (1959)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: David Miller. David Niven, Mitzi Gaynor, Carl Reiner, Loring Smith, Monique Van Vooren, Patty Duke, Elizabeth Wilson. Funny but strained comedy of married couple Niven and Gaynor being embarrassed by daughter Duke telling nation on TV that father was indiscreet in his younger days. B/W. 83 mins.

Little Hut, The (1957)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Mark Robson. Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger, David Niven, Finlay Currie, Walter Chiari. Busy husband Granger takes sexy wife Gardner for granted. Will her friendship with Niven stay platonic when all three are stranded on an island? Static, flat, talky sex farce, from the Andre Roussin play. Color. 90 mins.

Tonight's the Night (1954)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Mario Zampi. David Niven, Yvonne De Carlo, Barry Fitzgerald, George Cole, Robert Urquhart. Good British cast bolsters appealing comedy about house in Ireland which natives claim is haunted. Original British title: Happy Ever After. Color. 88 mins.

Soldiers Three (1951)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Tay Garnett. Stewart Granger, Walter Pidgeon, David Niven, Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Greta Gynt, Robert Coote, Dan O'Herlihy. Boisterous action-adventure with light touch; Gunga Din-esque story has three soldiering comrades in and out of spats with each other as they battle in 19th-century India. Loosely based on stories by Rudyard Kipling. B/W. 92 mins.

Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960)
Leonard Maltin Review:
D: Charles Walters. Doris Day, David Niven, Janis Paige, Spring Byington, Richard Haydn, Patsy Kelly, Jack Weston, Margaret Lindsay. Bright film based on Jean Kerr's stories about a drama critic and his family. Doris sings title song; her kids are very amusing, as are Byington (the mother-in-law), Kelly (housekeeper), and especially Paige as a temperamental star. Later a TV series. CinemaScope. Color. 111 mins.

Impossible Years, The (1968)
D: Michael Gordon. David Niven, Lola Albright, Chad Everett. A psychiatrist's mental health is tested when his daughter starts dating. Color. 98 mins.

55 Days at Peking (1963)
D: Nicholas Ray. Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven. An American major leads the defense against Chinese revolutionaries in 1900 Peking. Color. 154 mins.

Best of Enemies, The (1961)
D: Guy Hamilton. David Niven, Alberto Sordi, Michael Wilding. Rival British and Italian troupe leaders carry their friendly competition into a POW camp. Color. 104 mins.

Murder by Death (1976)
D: Robert Moore. Peter Falk, Truman Capote, Alec Guinness, David Niven. A criminal madman invites the world's greatest detectives for a night of dinner and murder. B/W. 95 mins.

Eye of the Devil (1966)
D: J. Lee Thompson. Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Donald Pleasence. A French nobleman deserts his wife because of an ancient family secret. B/W. 96 mins.

Where the Spies Are (1965)
D: Val Guest. David Niven, Françoise Dorléac, John Le Mesurier. A country doctor dabbles in espionage to get a new car. Color. 109 mins.

Guns of Darkness (1962)
D: Anthony Asquith. Leslie Caron, David Niven, David Opatoshu. A businessman and his wife are caught in the turmoil of a South American revolution. B/W. 102 mins.

Lady L (1965)
D: Peter Ustinov. Sophia Loren, Paul Newman, David Niven. A beautiful laundress rises through European society. Color. 109 mins.

Before Winter Comes (1968)
D: J. Lee Thompson. David Niven, Topol, Anna Karina. A World War II refugee serves a British officer as interpreter. Color. 103 mins.

David Niven on the Radio

"The Courtship of Miles Standish" on The Hallmark Playhouse: November 24, 1949 - David Niven, William Conrad

"Cavalcade" on Lux Radio Theatre: December 28, 1936 - Herbert Marshall, Madeleine Carroll, Una O'Connor, David Niven, Douglas Scott

"The Gilded Lily" on Lux Radio Theatre: January 11, 1937 - Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, David Niven, George Sanders

"The Sisters" on Lux Radio Theatre: October 9, 1939 - Irene Dunne, David Niven

"Frenchman's Creek" on Lux Radio Theatre: February 10, 1947 - Joan Fontaine, David Niven

"The Bishop's Wife" on Lux Radio Theatre: December 19, 1949 - Tyrone Power, David Niven, Jane Greer

"Stairway to Heaven" on Lux Radio Theatre: April 12, 1955 - David Niven, Barbara Rush

"Bachelor Mother" on The Screen Guild Theater: May 6, 1946 - David Niven, Ginger Rogers, Francis X. Bushman

"The Bishop's Wife" on The Screen Guild Theater: March 1, 1948 - Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven

Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and David Niven in The Dawn Patrol (1938)

The Dawn Patrol is a 1938 American war film, a remake of the pre-Code 1930 film of the same name. Both were based on the short story "The Flight Commander" by John Monk Saunders, an American writer said to have been haunted by his inability to get into combat as a flyer with the U.S. Air Service.

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