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Star of the Month: David Niven
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David Niven Profile

Handsome, debonair leading man David Niven was the very essence of "good breeding" throughout his career, though the screen never quite captured his actual vigor, epitomized by his service in first the Highland Light Infantry and later the Commandos, or his wit displayed as a writer of two novels and two amusing autobiographies. The son of a British Army captain, he followed in his father's footsteps but found the routine of military life between the wars so dreadfully boring that he resigned his commission and crossed the pond in search of adventure. Once in Hollywood, he worked as an extra and came to the attention of Samuel Goldwyn who signed him to a contract with MGM, and he rapidly graduated from bit parts to supporting and lead roles which showcased his polished British diction and his lighthearted yet sincere manner. Niven's first major success came with Edmund Goulding's The Dawn Patrol (1938), in which he played a courageous, devil-may-care WWI pilot friend of Errol Flynn.

Niven's years with MGM were sometimes stormy, as when he initially refused to take the thankless role of Edgar Litton, second-fiddle to Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) for the affections of Cathy (Merle Oberon) in Wuthering Heights (1939). He was also loathe to suffer the dictatorial ways of director William Wyler, experienced first-hand during the filming of Dodsworth (1936), but acquiesced rather than suffer MGM's threatened suspension. Niven, who returned to military service during World War II, eventually becoming a lieutenant-colonel, was at the bottom of MGM's list after the war, and Goldwyn's loaning him out to other studios boded well for the actor. Before the war, audiences knew him primarily as the "hero's best chum", but the British directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger finally nailed down the charming Niven persona in his best starring performance to that time, A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (1946). Although he continued to star in films, it would be another decade before his career would receive a comparable bump.

Playing intrepid traveler Phileas Fogg in the Oscar-winning Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Niven came off as the perfect stereotype of the unruffled English gentleman, and quite intentionally a caricature of 19th Century British propriety, his star quality enhanced exponentially by the 46 stars providing able support in the Mike Todd-produced extravaganza. By this time, he had also become a TV executive, having formed Four Star with Dick Powell, Charles Boyer and Ida Lupino, and the success of its projects probably had as much to do with his ever-present smile as anything. 1958 saw him star opposite Deborah Kerr in two movies that revealed the inadequacy beneath the charm and banter (a frequent theme running through his movies). Separate Tables earned him the Best Actor Oscar for his phony British major, with a made-up Sandhurst background and boring lies of WWII adventures, exposed when he's caught molesting a woman in a theater. Niven definitely profited from arguably the best script of his career and a more sympathetic role than his character in Bonjour Tristesse, who proposes marriage to Kerr but continues to philander, ultimately driving her to an apparent suicide.

Much of Niven's work over the last two decades of his career was slight, particularly during the period between 1965 and 1975 when he continued to cash paychecks for forgettable nonsense (i.e., Prudence and the Pill 1969, Vampira 1975), but movies like Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960, opposite Doris Day) and The Pink Panther (1964, with Peter Sellers), in which he played one of his many ultra-sophisticated thieves, enhanced his reputation as a fine comic actor. As for drama, The Guns of Navarone (1961), in which he played an explosives expert, and 55 Days in Peking (1963), as the unusually observant British ambassador quietly stealing the show, helped dispel his image as weak and morally unreliable, casting him for the popular consciousness in the heroic mode. Maintaining his blend of politeness, stoicism and good humor to the end, Niven delivered some late gems to enliven average Disney projects, essaying the granddad in No Deposit, No Return (1976) and sparkling as the butler of many disguises in Candleshoe (1978), though the trademark charm was also solidly on display in the ensemble of slightly better movies (i.e., Murder by Death 1976; Death on the Nile 1978).

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