Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hollywood from the inside

Did you know that Bette Davis and David Niven were originally slated to star in The African Queen? Warner Brothers was all set to go in 1938 when Davis has second thoughts about working outdoors. Thankfully, director John Huston picked up the ball for 20th Century Fox 12 years later, and a film classic was born.
I have been enjoying the many inside scoops on Hollywood royalty served up in David Niven's Bring On the Empty Horses: True Tales from the Golden Age of the Silver Screen, so I thought I would bring you some show-and-tell highlights. 
Bogey and Bacall were close friends with Niven, and he shares a great deal about their marriage ... one of the most successful in Hollywood. I cracked up at this little vignette: "Charlie and Anne Lederer gave a party for the Shah of Iran. When the incumbent of the Peacock Throne complimented Lauren Bacall by saying 'You were born to dance, Miss Bacall,' she replied with gusto, 'You bet your ass, Shah.'"
To Have and to Have Not is where the Betty/Bogey chemistry ignited.
Here's how power-mad gossip columnist Hedda Hopper got her comeuppance from Joseph Cotten for slandering him:
"Probably because of her Puritan outlook, she attacked ferociously those she suspected of any extra-curricular activities. She infuriated Joseph Cotten, and greatly disturbed his wife Lenore, when she printed heavy hints that Joe had been caught by the Malibu Beach Patrol in the back seat of his car astride the teenage Deanna Durbin. Joe Cotten, the epitome of the Southern Gentleman from Virginia, warned Hedda that if she added one more line on the subject he would 'Kick her up the ass.' Sure enough, Hedda went into action again a few days later and the next time Cotten saw Hedda's behind entering a party, he lined up on the target and let her have it."
Another couple manifestly made for each other were Clark Gable and sublime comedienne Carole Lombard. Both hated phoniness and lived life to the hilt. Like Bacall, Gable lost his soul mate heartbreakingly soon. Niven describes the aftermath of the small plane crash that killed Carole:
Ice-cold and monosyllabic, Clark supervised everything himself, from ordering a hot meal for the exhausted search party on that dreadful night to choosing hymns for the funeral three days later. Then he went to the Rogue River, holed up at his favorite fishing camp, and for three weeks drank himself into a stupor.
M-G-M, with the soaring costs of an unfinished picture very much on their minds, dispatched mealy-mouthed emissaries to enquire as tactfully as possible when their star might be expected to return to work. Clark never saw them, he just roared through the locked door of his cabin, "I'll be back when I'm good and ready—now beat it!"
I was astonished to find that while they were making their smashes for RKO together, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the top box office attraction in the world! Niven says that Astaire dreaded "social" dancing: "An inhibited and self-conscious dancer in public, he would occasionally 'take off' in private. Coming home one night in 1950 and hearing loud canned music booming out of my house, I found Fred leaping from staircase to bookcase, to sofa, to floor, using my golf clubs as swords for a sword dance and Hjordis for a partner, and all the time, beating and incredible tattoo with his winged feet. If his timing was 'off' playing golf, he would rectify it by doing a few steps on the tee and hitting the ball as part of the rhythm."
"One was always getting caught short" muses Niven of the extravagance that Christmastime wrought in Tinseltown, "I once gave Miriam Hopkins half a dozen handkerchiefs and she gave me a Studebaker." He's pictured at right with his wife, Hjordis, and the family dog.
If you're interested in what life was really like at Hearst's castle San Simeon, why Bogie named his second child after Leslie Howard, and at at whose wedding reception tall, gaunt character actor Mischa Auer appeared from behind the giant cake and danced stark naked, then Niven's the man for you.


  1. Astaire an inhibited and self-conscious dancer?
    Imagine what he would've become with a little bit of moxie!

  2. Michael Caine’s autobiography What's It All About (1992), also very good, was said by one English reviewer to be written "with David Nivenish charm."

    If you're interested in this sort of thing, you might also look for Tales of Hollywood, a 2008 collection from Vanity Fair that I just read last week. It tells the backstory of 13 classic films including All About Eve, Rebel Without a Cause, Cleopatra, The Producers, Midnight Cowboy, and Saturday Night Fever. The chapter about The Graduate, one of the most interesting, can be found online.

    1. Very cool ... as always, thanks for the tips!! I just love Caine. His turn in the latest Batman movie really tugged at the old heartstrings. As for Alfie, well WOW!

  3. And if you just want a rollicking good read, try Errol Flynn's "My Wicked, Wicked Ways", which will strain your credibility until it breaks, and you find you're more comfortable without it.

    1. Plenty of Flynn shenanigans in the NIven book too ... one could hardly keep up w/ him apparently!