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A wave of pre-war Anglophilia and producer Sam Goldwyn's need to keep one of his contract players in check provided the impetus for Raffles, a charming 1940 romantic caper film and the first to promote David Niven to star billing. The results were strong enough to make Goldwyn wait six years for Niven to return from service in World War II.
E.W. Hornung's 1899 novel The Amateur Cracksman had been a staple of the London stage since 1903, providing dashing young actors with a romantic role as the society jewel thief who steals for the thrill, often returning his booty right under the police inspector's nose just to prove he can do it. Goldwyn had already filmed it in 1930, with Ronald Colman as the thief and Kay Francis as the young beauty who inspires him to go straight. And that was already the third version. The story had also provided a silent hit for John Barrymore in 1917 and for House Peters in 1925.
Goldwyn decided to attempt a remake as pro-English sentiments began sweeping the country on the eve of World War II. It would be simple enough. He already had the solid screenplay Sidney Howard had written for the earlier version. All he had to do was update it, though that would require ten writers, with only John Van Druten getting credit.
Cary Grant pitched himself for the project, even offering to reduce his usual fee for the chance to play such a good role. Goldwyn was ready to sign him, when he started having problems with David Niven, whom he had had under contract for years. Like fellow independent producer David O. Selznick, Goldwyn was as much a talent broker as a filmmaker. Both maintained stables of contract stars despite producing only a limited number of films a year. They made money loaning their stars to other studios for more than they were paying them and pocketing the difference. Niven was beginning to resent this and had been complaining to his agent, Leland Hayward, that he was making all of his best films for other studios. Hayward agreed, but when he tried to renegotiate Niven's contract, Goldwyn barred him from the lot.
For the next few weeks, the producer refused to speak to his star. When Niven refused what he considered a poor script, Goldwyn put him on suspension and started feeding the press stories about Niven's expanding ego. To make up for the lost salary, Niven signed for some radio appearances, only to be informed that under his contract, half of his fees for outside work had to be paid to Goldwyn. When he got a food basket from Kraft for an appearance on Bing Crosby's radio show, he stayed up all night cutting each piece of cheese and every sardine in half so he could send them to Goldwyn with his check. That got the producer to speak to him.
At that point, Goldwyn told him he'd be happy to sign the actor to a new contract at better terms and cast him in Raffles to seal the deal. But Hayward warned him to hold out, thinking they could get an even better offer. Then Niven arrived at the studio for a costume fitting and noticed a young man dressed in a tuxedo and carrying a pearl necklace was tailing him. Finally, he confronted him and learned he was a recent Goldwyn acquisition, Dana Andrews, whose first assignment had been to dress as Raffles and make sure Niven saw him. Niven got the message -- he could be replaced -- and signed the contract immediately.
Director Sam Wood came to Raffles after an exhausting assignment filling in for an ailing Victor Fleming on Gone with the Wind (1939). With little energy left, he simply screened Goldwyn's 1930 version and copied as many set-ups as he could from the earlier film. When he became too ill to work, Goldwyn called in another contract director, William Wyler, to fill in without credit.
Goldwyn also hired F. Scott Fitzgerald to do re-writes on the set. This amazed Niven, who, like most in Hollywood, knew the writer less as one of the 20th century's greatest novelists than as a pathetic drunk who got fired from one film after another. When he asked Goldwyn's story department head why they had hired Fitzgerald, he learned that Goldwyn had done it as a favor -- to Hayward, Niven's agent. Hayward explained that Fitzgerald needed a break, even a few days work, to pay his bills while finishing his next novel. When Fitzgerald showed up on the set, he was stone cold sober. He sat in a corner with a briefcase full of Coca Cola until Niven offered him the use of his dressing room, which had a refrigerator in it. The two went to lunch a few times, and Fitzgerald was thrilled to learn that Niven had read and enjoyed his novel Tender Is the Night. Shortly after that, Goldwyn fired the writer, giving him a $1,200 payoff that at least allowed him to get his car fixed. A while later, he showed up on the set drunk to visit Niven, who hid him in his dressing room so they could get through the shooting. That was the last Niven would ever see him. A year later, Fitzgerald died of tuberculosis, leaving his final novel, The Last Tycoon, unfinished.
By that time, Niven had left Hollywood for a while. During filming, Germany had invaded Poland, starting World War II. As soon as Raffles was completed, the actor returned to England to fight for his country. Goldwyn promised to have a job waiting for him when the war ended, but privately groused, "Movies aren't enough! Now I've got the whole World War on my hands!" (Quoted in Berg, A. Scott, Goldwyn: A Biography).
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay: John Van Druten, Sidney Howard
Based on the novel The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Music: Victor Young
Principal Cast: David Niven (A.J. Raffles), Olivia de Havilland (Gwen Manders), Dame May Whitty (Lady Kitty Melrose), Dudley Digges (McKenzie), Douglas Walton (Bunny Manders), Lionel Pape (Lord George Melrose), E.E. Clive (Barraclough).
by Frank Miller