“Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going, don’t take anything too seriously, it’ll all work out in the end.” – David Niven
Remembered for his ceaseless charm and comedic energy, David Niven was a classic English actor of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ known for his seductive romantic lead performances and his time as a versatile character actor. The preferred actor for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the inaugural role would go to Sean Connery, with Niven settling to play 007 in the 1967 Casino Royale, a role which he is fondly remembered for.
Known as a genuinely kind soul, Niven’s acting career is a genuinely fascinating one, marked by a significant stint in the British Army and years of extra work before he would make it to the heights of Hollywood. It was in his youth in 1930 that he graduated as a second lieutenant in the British Army, though he quickly grew tired of his peacetime position in 1933, comically resigning from his post during a boring lecture about machine guns in which the actor asked: “Could you tell me the time, sir? I have to catch a train?”.
The act of insubordination was enough for Niven to head for America, resign from the British army and eventually end up in Hollywood. A sprawling start to the career of one of Britain’s finest thespians, let’s look into the six definitive films of David Niven’s career…
David Niven’s six definitive films:
Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd, 1935)
You’d be forgiven for not knowing David Niven was even in the Best Picture-winning 1935 classic Mutiny on the Bounty; after all, the actor appears only as an extra.
Only his seventh Hollywood role, Niven played one of many ‘Able-bodied seamen’ in the film starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, based on the 1932 Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel of the same name.
David Niven went straight to Central Casting upon his arrival in America from his stint in the army and was eventually accepted into the establishment as ‘Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2,008’. Though, of course, Mutiny on the Bounty would not be the film to catapult him to success, the film did bring him to the attention of independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn, who signed him to a contract and established the actor’s early career. Without his appearance in Mutiny on the Bounty, this chance encounter may never have happened.
Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)
Three years later, in 1939, David Niven continued his dogged persistence to reach the industry heights, working through Samuel Goldwyn to appear in multiple minor roles including John Ford’s Four Men and a Prayer, before finding success with Wuthering Heights.
William Wyler’s moody adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic novel starred David Niven, not as Cathy or Heathcliff, but instead the feeble Edgar, to which Niven wasn’t best pleased. Putting him through 40 takes of his first scene in the film, Niven’s time on Wuthering Heights would prove to be extremely valuable, learning considerably from director William Wyler.
Eventually, the film would prove a massive success.
A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1946)
The prominence of David Niven was growing, most notably appearing alongside Ginger Roger’s in his first major role as a leading man in the romantic comedy Bachelor Mother. This was joined by roles in The Real Glory, Eternally Yours and Raffles in 1939, before the outbreak of World War II.
Fascinatingly, on the day Great Britain declared war on Germany, David Niven returned home to rejoin the British Army, giving up his acting career. He would even meet Winston Churchill at a dinner party in February 1940, where the prime minister would single him out and state, “Young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country. Mark you, had you not done so – it would have been despicable”.
Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death was the actor’s first role following the war, with the film’s technicolour glory signalling a new dawn for David Niven and British cinema. An iconic fantasy drama that follows a British pilot who cheats death, the film would also be a wonderful ode to Niven’s time in the army.
Around the World in 80 Days (Michael Anderson, 1956)
It was on his return to Hollywood after the war that Niven began to experience industry troubles, inextricably tied to the tragic loss of his wife at a party in 1946. By the beginning of the 1950s, his career was in decline until his professional fortunes were changed with the release of the box office smash hit Around the World in 80 Days.
Depending on if you count Mutiny on the Bounty, in which Niven can only be glimpsed, Around the World in 80 Days was the first Best Picture win for the actors filmography, starring in the lead role as the iconic Phileas Fogg. Niven’s leading performance established him once more as a significant name in the film industry, quickly becoming known for his quick-witted comedy and adventurous spirit.
Separate Tables (Delbert Mann, 1958)
Perhaps his most critically poignant role, David Niven won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Major Angus Pollock in the adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s stage play Separate Tables.
Appearing alongside industry titans, Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster, Niven’s 23-minute performance in the film was enough to earn him the Oscar statuette, making his performance the briefest ever to win a Best Actor award. This fact should merely work to explain the true acting prowess of Niven however, whose performance of emotional anguish of life in jeopardy in Delbert Mann’s classic is worthy of recognition.
The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1964)
Whilst critically poignant, it was David Niven’s role in Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther that was commercially celebrated, starring alongside the great Peter Sellers in this comedy classic.
Playing the role of an English playboy leading a secret life as a jewel thief called The Phantom, Niven is able to perfectly express his comedy chops, even if he doesn’t hog the spotlight as Inspector Clouseau. The Pink Panther well illustrates just why David Niven was so widely appreciated in the industry, effortlessly pulling off a villainous role with a cheeky grin and sharp acuity.
Despite appearing as James Bond in the first unofficial 007 title, 1967s Casino Royale, the remaining part of the 20th century would see a slow decline for Niven, though this was no tragedy. In 1974 he would co-host the 46th Academy Awards when a naked man, Robert Opel, would streak across the stage. Niven sharply responded, “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?”.