David Niven looked and sounded like the ultimate English gentleman. And he may have been. He was one of the wild young Hollywood boys, along with Errol Flynn, who partied, drank, bedded lots of women, and fought. He was in the military twice, first after college and again when Britain went to war in WWII. Of the second stint he is known to have been part of a behind the lines unit that saw a great deal of action, along with spending time making propaganda films. His rebellious side did not counter his charm, and unlike many of his colleagues, he was known to be easy to work with, professional, and friendly on set.
He was an actor who was better than his filmography. He was in a few disasters, such as the pitiful remake of My Man Godfrey in 1957 and the fascinating train wreck that was Casino Royale in 1967. While he had many lead roles, he was often cast in supporting parts; he’s the unquestioned lead in only two of his best films.
An honorable mention for the wonderful beginning and ending of Wuthering Heights (1939), though it suffers from everything inbetween. Also an honorable mention to the Ernst Lubitsch-directed/Gary Cooper-led romantic comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and the Michael Curtiz-directed/Errol Flynn-led The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936).
David Niven’s top 8:
#8 – The Pink Panther (1963) — The first Pink Panther film, intended as a vehicle for Niven’s jewel thief, ended up creating a franchise around Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau. It’s an uneven film, clearly changed during production, but it’s fun.
#7 – A Matter of Life and Death (1946) —Niven, in the lead, plays a pilot who is put on trial in a spiritual court where he has petitioned to be allowed to return to life. As a whole it’s a mid-level Film Blanc that can’t match the likes of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, but it crushes the competition on cinematography and color. It’s not a great film, but it’s a beautiful one.
#6 – The Guns of Navarone (1961) — A wartime, behind-enemy-lines, action film based on an Alistair MacLean novel. Niven is part of an ensemble, and while he acknowledged he was far too old for the part, he later decided it was one of his better performances.
#5 – Appointment with Venus (1951) — Given the drab title Island Rescue in the US, this is a charming, quirky comedy with thriller aspects. Niven, in one of his few starring roles on this list, is a British soldier sent to a small island during WWII to swipe a cow from the Nazis. Costars Glynis Johns and Kenneth More are as good as Niven.
#4 – The Moon Is Blue (1953) — A romantic comedy of words. Niven, as the the playboy father of William Holden’s ex girlfriend, finds he’s interested in Holden’s new flame. It’s a smart, fun film that gets too conventional in the end. Many consider this to be Niven’s finest performance.
#3 – The Bishop’s Wife (1947) — A Christmas classic. Niven is a bishop who has lost his way and Cary Grant is the angel who comes to help, but also makes things uncomfortable.
#2 – The Dawn Patrol (1938) — One of the finest war pictures, with Niven, Errol Flynn, and Basil Rathbone as WWI pilots in horrible situations, having heroism forced upon them. [Also on the Basil Rathbone list and the Errol Flynn list]
#1 – The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) — A magnificent swashbuckler, easily intertwining romance, humor, and heroics. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., playing one of the great cinematic villains, almost steals the show… almost. Ronald Colman stars as the twin to a king-to-be and Niven is loyal to the king, and thus, the twin. (Full Review) [Also on the Ronald Colman list]