When I was a kid, David Niven (1910-1983) was in the midst of a so-called comeback period that had begun with Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and continued with a 1957 remake of My Man Godfrey, followed by Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Pink Panther (1963), Eye of the Devil (1967), Casino Royale (1967), Prudence and the Pill (1968), The Impossible Years (1968), Murder By Death (1976), and Death on the Nile (1978), etc. He was presented in a lot of these films as though his presence were hearkening back to a past era of stardom. Imaginatively bankrupt copywriters would invariably refer to him as a “suave, debonair Englishman” as though there was just one of those in movies, as opposed to a thousand. He seemed to be dining out on some spectacular record of achievement, a star of the first rank.
It was rather startling to me years later, when I started to unpack his body of work, and found that legendary career sort of…nonexistent. Don’t get me wrong — we’ll get to the accomplishments of his early career in half a tic, and it includes well known films. And naturally, he was charming, likable, handsome, smooth, funny, and what have you. What I mean is, from something like Murder By Death, which might be the first movie I ever saw him in, you got the, I hope, forgivable, sense that he’d had something like the Thin Man pictures in his dossier. But of course that was William Powell, and William Powell had many other major successes besides (including the original Godfrey). Powell was a movie star. Or Basil Rathbone, who’d not only been Sherlock Holmes, but the villain in Robin Hood, and a zillion other things. Next to them, Niven was minor. What you discover when you unpack it is that he enjoyed his greatest success at the back end. His supposed come-back was in fact, a late career peak.
The step-son of Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt, Niven served in the army and began working as an extra in British and American movies in the early 30s. This led to supporting roles in Hollywood films like Rose Marie (1936) and Dodsworth (1936). He was excellently cast as Bertie Wooster in Thank You Jeeves (1936) with Arthur Treacher as the title character. But such roles were rare. He returned to supporting parts in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), The Dawn Patrol (1938), and Wuthering Heights (1939). The title role in Raffles (1939) was another choice leading part. Niven served bravely with a British intelligence unit during World War Two, then returned to star as the title characters in Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) and The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), and to play a supporting part in The Moon is Blue (1953), which won him a Golden Globe for best actor.
Niven also amassed scores and scores of credits in radio and television over a 50 year period, and this, I deduce, is the source of his vaunted reputation. Frequency of appearance reinforces a desired impression. He developed a larger than life image…that was larger than his life.