THE LOVELIEST JOKE: David Niven

In a legendary career that spanned 50 years and nearly 100 movies, David Niven had ample opportunity to become who he was: the Englishman abroad. Still, you got the impression that he couldn’t believe his luck.

One bright, balmy Hollywood morning in the mid 1930s, David Niven presented himself at Stage 29, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for a screen test, “made up like a Piccadilly tart” and feeling ridiculous. When his turn came, he recited — “out of my panic” — an old schoolboy limerick featuring an old man of Leeds who swallowed a packet of seeds, with unfortunate foliage-bearing results for his nether regions. It wasn’t exactly a Hamlet soliloquy, but Hollywood had a vacancy for a stiff-upper-lipped Brit — the society hostess Elsa Maxwell had urged Niven westward, saying “nobody out there knows how to speak English, except Ronald Colman” — and a few weeks later, he was enrolled at Central Casting as “Anglo-Saxon Type No.2008”.

 

Contributor

Stuart Husband

Published

April 2020

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