The Rules of Hollywood (and Style) According to David Niven

The life story is that of a raconteur, a British, a soldier, a gentleman, an actor. The sense of humour is the best kind of British humour. The name dropping is not callous (would you rather not find out his stories about his friends, Bogie, Errol Flynn, Noël Coward, Tyrone Powell, Sinatra, Ida Lupino, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, etc., or his honest, never defamatory, opinion about the big Hollywood studios bosses?). The sense of style ensuing from the storytelling has nothing to do with the sartorial wit (although he had that to spare, too). The honesty is that of a man who counted good luck and good contacts as big part of his path towards a career in the movies. The view on Hollywood stretches from its Golden Age to the radical transformations that arrived with the advent of television and it is well worth the reading. Here are a few take-away words from David Niven’s autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon.



“There was an excitement and generosity of spirit in Hollywood – a minimum of jealousy and pettiness, everyone felt they were still pioneering in a wonderful entertainment medium.” (about Hollywood in the 1930s)

“Hollywood has changed completely. The old camaraderie of pioneers in a one-generation business still controlled by the people who created it, was gone. The mystique had evaporated.” (about Hollywood in the 1960s)

“This was the completely honest expression of a completely honest man and a breath of fresh air in a place where the empty promise was the easy way out.” (about Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)

“The word ‘playwright’ is spelled that way for a very good reason. Shipwrights build ships, wheelwrights fashion wheels, and playwrights construct plays. If they construct them badly, they quickly fly apart at the seams.”

“Hollywood is like a bird dog. When things are going badly, it teases and sniffs at you. It scrapes away at the camouflage. It knows.”

“Don’t be like the majority of actors… don’t just stand around waiting your turn to speak – learn to listen.” (talking about Charlie Chaplin’s advice to him)

“Nobody should try to play comedy unless they have a circus going on inside.” (talking about Ernst Lubitsch in one of their conversations)

“Television, in the early fifties, had begun to rear its ugly head. The major film studios, instead of grabbing it and making it their own, decided first to ignore it, then to fight it and wound up, a few years later, being swallowed by it.”

The Rat Pack

Niven was friends with Frank Sinatra, of whom he says, “So much has been written about Sinatra, […] that I can contribute nothing except to say that he is one of the few people in the world I would instinctively think of if I needed help of any sort.” And he gets the record straight about the group that originally formed The Rat Pack, named by Lauren Bacall (‘You look like a Goddamn Rat Pack!’) on a trip to Las Vegas accompanying Frank Sinatra and Nöel Coward, after surveying the outcome of a few days of partying. “The group consisted of Betty and Bogie, Mike and Gloria Romanoff, Ernie Kocacs and his wife, ‘Swifty’ Lazar, Sid Luft and Judy Garland , Angie Dickinson, Hjördis (ed. note: David Niven’s wife) and myself.”

Marlene Dietrich

“Marlene, the most glamorous of all, was also one of the kindest.”

Humphrey Bogart

“It took me a while to realise that he had perfected an elaborated camouflage to cover up one of the kindest and most generous of hearts.”


“The beauty came from within because each and every one of them was filled with concern for others, and kindness, and generosity.”

Teenage hood

“Instead of sitting around and looking inward, we rushed about noisily and happily extroverted.”


“The front door of the Montclair was in Lexington Avenue, exactly opposite the back door of the Waldorf-Astoria, so during that miserable cold winter, I made a point to come out each morning from the Montclair, carrying my bag of samples, cross Lexington, climb the long stairs at the rear entrance of the Waldorf, wend my way through the vast gilded lobbies of the most luxurious hotel in New York, descend the steps to the front entrance, pass through the revolving doors and issue on to Fifth Avenue to start my day…
‘Good morning, Mr. Niven,’ said the doorman, saluting deferentially.
‘Good morning, Charles.’
Very good for morale.”

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