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Niven, David (1910-1983)


Main image of Niven, David (1910-1983)

An international star of famously debonair manner, which, however, was capable of enough mutation to keep him interesting to filmgoers for 40 years.

Born of a well-to-do family, he trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and followed a picturesque range of occupations after discharge from the army and before becoming an extra in Hollywood in 1935. He looked well in a dinner-jacket, had enough polished charm to ensure his entrée to smart parties, and actually became an established, middle-rank Hollywood star before World War II.

His credits then included costarring roles in The Charge of the Light Brigade (US, d. Michael Curtiz, 1936) and Wuthering Heights (US, d. William Wyler, 1939), as weak Edgar Linton, a role he hated but played intelligently.

One of the first Brits to return home and to active service when war was declared, he served as a Lieutenant-Colonel and was twice, and not willingly, seconded to film-making in the interests of national propaganda.

He was the pilot who first flies the Spitfire in The First of the Few (d. Leslie Howard, 1942), and he gave one of his finest performances as Lieutenant Jim Perry in The Way Ahead (d. Carol Reed, 1944); in the latter, he plays a garage mechanic who is commissioned and put in charge of training a bunch of raw recruits, and, as well as never striking a false note in his role, he was a crucial technical adviser to director Carol Reed.

Postwar, he starred for Powell and Pressburger in the ambitious fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), as an airman who is shot down and over whose fate there is heavenly debate.

He returned to Hollywood where he made undistinguished films for the rest of the decade, but they were as nothing compared with the awfulness of his British venture, Korda's ill-starred Bonnie Prince Charlie (d. Anthony Kimmins, 1948), tedious and ridiculous in equal proportions.

However, he survived and passed urbanely through about sixty further, often US films, very few of which rise above the level of pleasant time-passer. Exceptions are Asquith's court-martial drama, Carrington VC and Mario Zampi's very funny Irish-set comedy, Happy Ever After (both 1954); the popular, star-laden Around the World in Eighty Days (US, d. Michael Anderson, 1956); Bonjour Tristesse (d. Otto Preminger, 1957), in which his ageing roué is acutely observed (or neatly tailored to his persona); and above all the US-made Bournemouth-set Separate Tables (US, d. Delbert Mann, 1958), for which he won a deserved Oscar, as an ex-Major accused of sexual misconduct. The pain behind the fake polish was moving to observe.

His technique was such that he never fell below a certain competence, in whatever surroundings he found himself, and he remained a star to the end, though one might have expected his "type" to have faded with the war. He also starred in the US caper series, The Rogues (1964) and several other TV dramas, and wrote two entertaining volumes of autobiography.

Autobiography: The Moon's a Balloon (1971), Bring on the Empty Horses (1975). Biography: The Dark Side of the Moon by Sheridan Morley (1985).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Elusive Pimpernel, The (1950)Elusive Pimpernel, The (1950)

David Niven stars in an entertaining tale of revolutionary France

Thumbnail image of First of the Few, The (1942)First of the Few, The (1942)

Moving wartime biopic of R.J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire

Thumbnail image of Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)

Romance fantasy bridging the gap between two worlds

Thumbnail image of Way Ahead, The (1944)Way Ahead, The (1944)

Inspiring propaganda film following the making of an Army unit

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