First of all, hats off to one of my favorite blogs: The Automat | In which the unqualified gentleman looks at art. And, thank you Mr. Whittington for reminding me about Mr. Niven’s wonderful autobiography.

Ernst Lubitsch… wanted me to start immediately at Paramount in a very good part in “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife with Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert.

Working with Lubitsch in the company of such professional experts and such privately wonderful human beings as Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert was a joy that lasted about three months.

The screenplay was by another expert – Billy Wilder.

Lubitsch sat, like a little gnome, beside the camera, perched on a step ladder, giggling and hugging himself at all his own wonderful inventiveness. A vast cigar was always in his mouth. He was patient, understanding and encouraging: what more could an actor ask?

I learned major lessons about playing comedy during that time and will forever remember a statement of his: “nobody should play comedy unless they have a circus going on inside.”


Irving (Thalberg) and Norma (Shearer), like all the top movie people, had a private projection room in their home. One night Lubitsch brought down a print of “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” and they ran it after dinner for their friends.

I sat squirming with embarrassment throughout the showing but after it was all over, everyone, with one exception, was overly flattering and enthusiastic. Fairbanks and Sylvia, Merle, the Astaires, Paulette Goddard, and Frederick Lonsdale, all puffed me pleasantly. One guest sat silent in his chair. Finally, I could stand it no longer.

“What did you think, Mr. Chaplin?”

His answer constituted the greatest advice to any beginner in my profession.

“Don’t be like the majority of actors… don’t just stand around waiting for your turn to speak – learn to listen.”

“The Moon’s a Balloon” by David Niven

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  1. George Kaplan
    March 10, 2013

    David Niven, one of the great gentlemen of Cinema and a funny man off-screen to boot. Interesting the best picture he ever made and, arguably, best performance he ever gave was back in Blighty in A Matter Of Life and Death for Powell and Pressburger. Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Kathleen Byron, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey, a supreme cast in a glorious movie. Reality and fantasy intermingled perfectly with beautiful photography, visual effects that put some later films to shame with their elegance (compare the luminous “time freeze” scenes with the “bullet time” nonsense in The Matrix and Matter is so far superior it isn’t true), and Niv at the core.
    Niven may not have been as accomplished as Grant (but though I’m a fan of quite a few Grant movies and appreciator of his performances there are plenty that I don’t care for!) in film but he was always a likeable presence while his writing is deliciously witty, he seemed that rarity a genuinely nice person. It was such a shame to read in the biography that he was treated badly in his final years. Unthinkable to one who gave so much pleasure. Oops. Downer. Sorry! Best to remember all the good. Lovely piece.

  2. March 10, 2013

    “A Matter of Life and Death” and one of the most dramatic opening sequences ever filmed, and it’s basically two talking heads — oh, I feel like pontificating this morning, so I will, it’s so dramatic because of the story and the characters and the special effects are zip, zero, nada! It’s all in the narrative and the relationship of the characters. Translation, I just agreed with everything you said. Here’s the twist, isn’t it interesting that Powell and Pressburger’s vision of heaven was so regimented, and stiff upper lip, and… dare I say it? British?
    I’m sorry to hear Mr. Niven was treated shabbily while he was ill and dying. That is very distressing. If you haven’t read his two autobiographies, check them out 🙂

  3. March 10, 2013

    I am listening…….

  4. George Kaplan
    March 10, 2013

    Thanks, V. I love your “pontificating”, you really got to the core of the film. Wonderful. “It’s all in the narrative and the relationship of the characters”. Yes, yes, and yes. *Sigh*, Vickie, your scintillating mind does my heart good!
    Love your observation about AMOLAD’s heaven. I think the Archers’ best movies are about the intersection or contrast between restraint/duty/stiff-upper-lip and the romance/longing/ passion underneath. Now, I know *that’s* pontificating! You spark my imagination. Conversing (or, er, y’know talking) with you is like breathing the purest air… Huh, what’s that? Too much?! Robert the Never-Knowingly- Understated 😉

    • March 10, 2013

      Well I wouldn’t exactly call it pure, laden as it is with Streptococcus… My favorite Archers movie has to be “I Know Where I’m Going”, a perfect example of what you just mentioned!

  5. George Kaplan
    March 10, 2013

    What’s a little strep between friends?! Yes, “I Know Where I’m Going!”, I love that movie. Kiloran, the isle of Mull, the whirlpool, Wendy and Roger! Impeccable choice, milady.

  6. March 10, 2013

    You are pressing the Dandy’s buttons today.
    ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ is, if you’ll excuse the pun, just heavenly!!!
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  7. March 10, 2013

    I have always been a diehard David Niven fan! So I think it’s a shame there is no “Love” button! Great post mate!!

  8. March 12, 2013

    He’s a terrific storyteller, isn’t he? A few weeks ago, I finished re-reading his “Bring on the Empty Horses”. Not only is he a good storyteller, he’s a gracious one as well.

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