Sometimes in life, you just need an affectionate, gossipy Hollywood memoir. Or at least I do. I was certainly in need of one this weekend and nothing could have answered better than Bring On The Empty Horses by David Niven.
Bring on the Empty Horses is less a personal memoir than a professional one. Rather than focusing on his own life (which he did – wonderfully – in The Moon’s a Balloon), Niven provides portraits of his Hollywood friends and acquaintances. Some were good friends and major stars – Clark Gable and Errol Flynn both have lengthy chapters devoted to them – while others warrant only a few pages, in brief but wonderfully-drawn sketches of Hollywood figures both familiar and obscure. In all instances, this is a book about Hollywood as it was during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s:
Hollywood was a village, and the studios were the families. Everyone knew everyone else’s business, weaknesses, kinky leanings, and good points. We were all in the same boat, involved in the early years of a terribly exciting experiment; it was an international community, and there was the maximum of camaraderie and the minimum of bitchiness. At all studios, employees from the most glamourous stars to the lowliest riveters on the heavy construction gangs felt that they were members of a team, gloried in the success of their “hit” pictures, and occasionally indulged in college humour at the expense of their rivals. “In case of an AIR RAID,” – they chalked up on the main entrance at Paramount – “go directly to RKO…they haven’t had a hit in years.”
Hollywood was hardly a nursery for intellectuals, it was a hotbed of false values, it harboured an unattractive percentage of small-time crooks and con artists, and the chances of being successful there were minimal, but it was fascinating, and IF YOU WERE LUCKY, it was fun. And anyway, it was better than working.
Niven is unkind to no one. He is blunt about people’s vices – his friends were far too often hard-drinking, oft-married womanizers – but is sad for them rather than censorious. The most controversial of his friends was Errol Flynn and he is also the only one Niven seems defensive of. Though the two men were roommates during their early days in Hollywood, their lives followed very different paths. Niven returned to England at the beginning of the war and enlisted. When he returned to Hollywood in the late 1940s, he was a happily married father of two. Flynn was more reckless than ever, drinking too much, experimenting with drugs, and sleeping with women who were far too young for him. It is a fascinating but sad portrait:
The great thing about Errol was you always knew exactly where you stood with him because he always let you down. He let himself down, too, from time to time, but that was his prerogative and he thoroughly enjoyed causing turmoil for himself and his friends.
I loved the chapter on Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the rival journalists whose columns were read by millions hungry for gossip about their favourite stars, and was touched by the sympathetic chapters on the women who find themselves defeated by Hollywood: the sex bomb whose life begins to fall apart when she hits thirty or the fresh-faced girl who finds life as a high-class call girl more comfortable than sleeping with producers in hopes of getting an acting role. I was also affected by Niven’s recollections of how Clark Gable helped him through a difficult time after the accidental death of his young wife – an experience Gable had unfortunately been through himself.
Generally though, the book is full of amusing anecdotes (both first-hand and hearsay) about classic Hollywood. One of my favourites is Niven’s recollection of his interview with Sam Goldwyn in September 1939, when he told the famous producer that he was leaving to enlist:
He was very put out that I was leaving voluntarily and not waiting until I was called up, so he put me on suspension till the end of the war or the end of my life, whichever came sooner, and said, “I’ll cable Hitler and ask him to shoot around you.”
And, of course, there is Niven’s wonderful first meeting with the legendary and universally beloved director Ernst Lubitsch after being cast in his Bluebeard’s Eight Wife:
“I don’t think I can do it, Mr. Lubitsch,” I mumbled.
He looked at me, and his eyes shone with merriment. “Do I frighten you?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I said, “but I’m terrified of Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert…”
He jumped up and hooted with laughter.
“Do you know something?” He chortled. “Claudette is frightened of Coop because of his natural acting, and Coop is frightened of Claudette because she’s so expert and this is his first comedy, and both of them are scared out of their wits by the small part players Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, and Herman Bing, because they are supposed to be scene stealers…but d’you know who is the most frightened of all?…Me!”
He put his arm around my waist (because he could not reach my shoulders) and led me to the door.
“Everyone will be nervous on the first day,” he said, “even the electricians in case they set fire to the studio, but we’re all going to be together for many weeks, and I promise you it’ll be fun. Now run along to wardrobe and makeup, they have some fittings and tests set up for you…Drop in to see me anytime…We don’t start for two weeks – you’re a member of the family now!”
I couldn’t wait to start.
Whether he is talking about the biggest stars in Hollywood or now forgotten writers and society hostesses, Niven is a consummate raconteur. Always charming, always self-deprecating, and always surprisingly forthcoming with a racy story, I am sure he was a wonderful dinner guest, which no doubt explains how he was able to gather most of his material for this book! He certainly uses these gifts well as a memoirist and I had a lovely Saturday evening reading about his life on the edges of a fantastic, insular, and now long-gone world.