“I was asked to say ‘Good-bye my dear’ to some lady getting on a train” he remembers of his first role as an extra. “And I was such a smash in that that they hired me to say ‘Hello my dear’ to someone getting off a train.” In just a few words, Niven had distilled onto celluloid the perfect English gentleman – suave and cheerful, sleek and charming. His success skyrocketed overnight, and it echoes still today. Even now, when we think of the quintessential Englishman, it is Niven’s smiling face, pencil moustache, and effortless attire that flashes into view. Here is our tribute to the many lives of the inimitable David Niven.
Niven often joked that his upbringing was perfectly calibrated to produce the “ideal Englishman”. He was born in Scotland, attended Sandhurst, went off to make his fortune building bridges in Canada, failed, speared shark for a living in the Caribbean, tried his hand at bootlegging in prohibition-era New York, found work as a gun cleaner in Mexico, attempted to join Batista’s militia in Cuba, and then shared a house in Hollywood with Errol Flynn called “Cirrhosis by the Sea.”
Far from diluting his English habits and manners, however, these years of international dalliance seemed to have honed Niven into the very model of a modern Englishman. And It was a persona that would soon catapult him into the spotlight of an industry desperate for second-hand sophistication.
The Screen Titan
On his first application to Central Casting, the great Hollywood recruitment agency, Niven was registered simply as “Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2,008.” In his early screen roles, however, it soon became clear that the actor could not be defined by this generic tag. A smallish role on Mutiny on the Bounty quickly brought Niven to the attention of film producer Samuel Goldwyn, who signed him to a contract and resolved to make him a star.
The work pretty much did itself. Niven scooped up parts as Bertie Wooster in Thank You, Jeeves!, and as a British Officer in The Charge of the Light Brigade opposite Errol Flynn, deploying his English charm to devastating effect. Soon he was established in a clique known as the Hollywood Raj – a group of British actors in Hollywood which included Rex Harrison, Boris Karloff, Stan Laurel, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, Leslie Howard, and C. Aubrey Smith. But it was the role of Raffles, the eponymous gentleman safe cracker, that officially launched Niven into the ‘A’ list in 1939.
After the war, Niven showed that his acting ability was not simply based on looks and smiles alone. Remarkable turns in The Perfect Marriage and A Kiss in the Dark gave way later to a romp of a performance in Around the World in 80 Days, the role for which Niven is perhaps most fondly remembered.
The Lieutenant Colonel
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Niven decided to return to Britain and fight. He was largely alone among British Hollywood stars in doing so – the British Embassy advised most actors to stay put.
Niven was soon drafted into the Commandos and assigned to a training base in the Western Highlands. The actor commanded “A” Squadron GHQ Liaison Regiment, better known as “Phantom”, and led them into the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
The details for the rest of his time in service are patchy. For all his reputation as a raconteur of the first order, Niven decided very rarely to speak about the war. His only published words on the matter is a moving testament to a gentleman’s discretion:
“I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others. And I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.”
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