who knows if the moon’s
a balloon coming out of a keen city
in the sky–filled with pretty people?
(and if you and I should
get into it if they
should take me and take you into their balloon,
we’d go up higher with all the pretty people
EE Cummings, The Moon’s a Balloon
If ever a moment summed up David Niven’s particular brand of suave, dry wit, it would be his reaction to a streaker who ran on stage behind him, as he presented the Best Picture Award at the 1974 Oscars. In the ensuing mayhem, Niven kept his cool, quipping
Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?
The incident became Hollywood legend, and even now is considered one of the Oscar’s most memorable moments, mainly because of Niven’s amusing off-the-cuff riposte.
That same dry wit and skill with a turn of phrase pervade The Moon’s A Balloon, the first of Niven’s autobiographies, which details his young life in boarding school, his time in the army and the heyday of his Hollywood career.
David Niven was born into a wealthy family in 1910 and as wealthy families were wont to do, he was shipped off to boarding school at a young age. A love of pranks led to his expulsion from school at the age of 10, but he eventually found himself at Sandhurst, before being stationed in Malta. There is a haphazard nature to his early army career, a theme that continues later, when he moves to New York and eventually tries to make it in Hollywood. Here is a man who relied on charm and connections to further his aims and he ended up being almost the first unknown star to sign a seven-year contract with Samuel Goldwyn who, it is said, kept a framed photo of his protégé on his grand piano.
The first half of the book concerns his youthful exploits and his military career and despite being worlds away from his life in Hollywood, still serve to be an entertaining and enjoyable read.
As a book, it is less soul-searching and more performative. Like the perfect dinner party guest, the feeling is that the best moments in the book are anecdotes that have been honed and told so much over the years that their link to the actual truth may have become quite tenuous. Niven’s story of falling as he went on stage to collect his 1958 Best Actor Oscar for Separate Tables is a clear embellishment, given that a quick watch on You Tube shows that it did not quite happen in the manner he describes.
Not that it matters at all when his stories are this entertaining. From bringing his first girlfriend, a London prostitute named Nellie, to meet his headmaster at his Stowe boarding school, to almost getting frostbite in a rather uncomfortable spot while skiing between takes on a movie shoot, his stories exist for maximum entertainment rather than factual veracity.
If as a reader, you have an objection to blatant name-dropping, then this might not be the autobiography for you. However, when the names are this famous and the anecdotes so entertaining, you might want to make an exception. As Niven himself says in his introduction,
I apologise for the ensuing name dropping. It was hard to avoid it.
People in my profession, who, like myself, have the good fortune to parlay a minimal talent into a long career, find all sorts of doors opened that would otherwise have remained closed. Once behind those doors it makes little sense to write about the butler if Chairman Mao is sitting down to dinner.
From Noel Coward to Winston Churchill, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to the Bogarts, they are all named because they were all part of Niven’s colourful and extremely social life.
That is not to say that everything in the book is played for jolly laughs. The chapters about his relationship with his first wife Primula are incredibly moving because of the poignancy of her early death and the details of that freak accident while playing hide-and-seek at a party have an emotional depth precisely because Niven does not embellish what happens.
He keeps details to a minimum again when depicting the notoriously difficult relationship with his second wife Hjödis Termeden and the adultery, which was common knowledge throughout their marriage, goes unmentioned.
On the other hand, Niven is surprisingly candid about his own shortcomings as an actor. He is clear-eyed about how much luck and good contacts played in getting his career off the ground and admits to not being overly fussy about the roles he took. For every A Matter of Life and Death or Wuthering Heights, there was Bonnie Prince Charlie and some disastrous Broadway plays.
John Mortimer once commented, ‘I don’t think his acting ever quite achieved the brilliance or the polish of his dinner-party conversations’ yet Niven went on to win and Oscar and become a beloved household name. It is also noteworthy that he risked everything to return to London and sign up for service during World War II.
What comes across most in The Moon’s A Balloon is Niven’s skill in networking, making useful connections and charming people. When times get tough and jobs are few, there is always someone who offers him their summerhouse, or puts a good word in for him with the big studios. This is a man who finds himself weekending with Winston Churchill, or bumping into wealthy family friends in Europe. It seems that his connected upper-class existence in England was the best preparation for a career in the movies during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
And just like EE Cummings’ balloon of the title, filled with all the pretty people, Niven takes the reader on an exhilarating flight through a gilded world to which he seems to have been delighted to belong. The book ends in the 1960s with the distinct feeling that Niven knows the world of cinema is changing and may not take him along. He was both right and wrong about that, but he cemented his reputation with this captivating autobiography.
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