David Niven: More Than Just a Pencil-Mustached Face

04/14/2010 5:00 PM |

David Niven: A Centenary Tribute
April 12-23 at MoMA

Modesty, whether false or true, is an essential accomplice of charm, and David Niven was quick with it. He never got over having, as he put it in his autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon, “the good fortune to have parlayed a minimal talent into a long career.” On another occasion, he asked, “Can you imagine being wonderfully overpaid for dressing up and playing games?” This impish dismissiveness, this sort of tacit acknowledgment with the audience that he may be little more than a lottery winner but he’s loving it anyway, is a great part of Niven’s abounding appeal. But just because he cannot be classed with Olivier and Gielgud does not mean that the British actor lacked talent, and with time it’s become more obvious how much discipline and suppressed pain went into the perfecting of Niven’s elegant persona.

Around the World in 80 Days, in which Niven plays proto-Balloon Boy Phileas Fogg, hasn’t aged well, (though a family could do worse for a Sunday matinee), and his award-winning performance as a blustery closeted groper in Separate Tables now seems overlabored, but there’s plenty here to remind one that David Niven was more than the guy with the perfect comeback to a streaking Robert Opel. MoMA is offering nine films as grounds for the actor’s popularity among audiences and colleagues. The selections notably avoid gentleman thieves (the Pink Panther films, Raffles), favoring a small group that demonstrates Niven’s little-celebrated range. For, the man who was first accepted by Hollywood’s Central Casting in 1932 as “Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2008.” would have more to offer than mere utility as an “urbane Englishman.”

His background was military. After a dismal experience at various public schools, he joined the British Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant in 1933. But he tired of the interbellum doldrums, and with only a little military drama club experience under his belt, made his way to Hollywood. High society connections and relationships with actresses like Loretta Young and Merle Oberon eventually led him to Samuel Goldwyn’s office, where he inked a rare seven-year contract.

Niven rejoined the British Army after World War II broke out, serving for the Commandos and taking part in the invasion of Normandy, eventually earning a Legion of Merit from the U.S. Government. He saw far more action in front of cameras, playing military men regularly, including in five of MoMA’s selections. With Carol Reed, he made 1944’s The Way Ahead for Britain’s Army Film Unit. Ending with the words “The Beginning,” it’s a lively propaganda piece intended to boost troop stamina and improve U.S.-British camaraderie. The drawn-out, detailed conditioning scenes mark it as an influence on (the decidedly not pro-war) Full Metal Jacket, and for a decade after the war it was used as a training film at Sandhurst Military College, Niven’s alma mater.

In Hollywood before the war, Niven starred with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in a remake of Howard Hawks’s Dawn Patrol. Niven and Flynn play RAF buddies in France who participate in daring missions against the Red Baron and company, before both becoming tortured-with-guilt Commanding Officers. But they try to face doom by off-duty hard drinking, and rousing rounds of songs like “Hurrah for the Next Man That Dies”. It owes almost its entire screenplay to the 1930 film, and many of Hawks’s shots of expensive aircraft were lifted and spliced into Edumnd Goulding’s version, but the chemistry between the actors justifies the redo. It’s in these war movies, especially, that Niven represses his cocktail party, twinkle-eyed charm and reveals the leadership qualities (a stern deportment) he learned in the Army, and his emotional soft spots (his exasperation when his too-fresh brother is sent up on a fatal mission).