Memoirs of the Golden Age

I love a good memoir. I find it fascinating to read a thoughtful account of a person’s life, or a period of their life. It goes beyond chronology. If an author can only talk about what he did and when he did it, then I am almost immediately bored. Give me context in a greater setting. Give me insight into the times and people included in the book. I don’t want to merely know what happened, and when. I want to feel as if I’m just a little bit behind you, watching and hearing and feeling the events of your life unfold.

I also love many movies that came out of Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s. Casablanca. Gone With the Wind. Notorious. I love the actors of that era: Humphrey Bogart. Cary Grant. Lauren Bacall. Ingrid Bergman. I’m tempted to say that the glamour of that era was more substantial, but I’m probably wrong. That being said, it does feel like fame then was different from what fame and celebrity are today.

So. Combine these two things: a good memoir and the golden age of Hollywood. What do you get? Two marvelous books by David Niven: The Moon’s a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses.

Niven, while a recognized name, never reached the level of Hollywood royalty that actors like Bogart and Grant did. However, he was a part of an close circle of great actors and actresses, directors and producers, and all the hangers-on and wanna-bes. The stories he tells are the somewhat intimate accounts of the day-to-day lives of these friends. And all without stooping to gossip or mud-slinging, or worse, fawning.

He tells his stories not to expose, not to air anyone’s dirty laundry. On the other hand, he does not gloss over faults and flaws. He presents himself and those around him with a humble honesty. And humour. Niven, being a true Englishman, possessed a beautifully quick, dry wit and the book is great combination of sober introspection and insight, and side-splitting laughs.

It’s simple. If you enjoy well-written memoirs, these books are for you. If you’re into the films and actors of classic Hollywood, these books are for you. If you enjoy both, and you don’t already own these books, then I judge you. Well, not really. But I do insist that you obtain these titles. Now.

To close, I leave you with an anecdote about the great director  Michael Curtiz (1912-1962) that gives the title to Niven’s second book. I still remember reading it for the first time years ago, and laughing about it for days afterward:

Mike Curtiz was the director of The Charge of the Light Brigade and his Hungarian-oriented English was a source of joy to us all.

High on a rostrum he decided that the right moment had come to order the arrival on the scene of a hundred head of riderless chargers. “Okay,” he yelled into a megaphone. “Bring on the empty horses!”

[Errol] Flynn and I doubled up with laughter. “You lousy bums,” Curtiz shouted, “you and your stinking language… you think I know fuck nothing… well let me tell you — I know FUCK ALL!”

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5 Responses to Memoirs of the Golden Age

  1. that end bit is fantastic! literally made me laugh out loud. i’m a big fan of both old hollywood and memoirs, and you’ve convinced me i need to check these out, tout suite. adding them to the list now… and still laughing. 🙂

    • Ben Wiebe says:

      There is so much laughter in these books. They are simply written, but with a real beauty. Nothing pretentious (I think) and totally honest. Well, as honest as he can be. 🙂

  2. I need to add these books to my list. I’ve always liked Niven in films. He should have been as big as Bogart. 🙂

    • Ben Wiebe says:

      Did you watch the YouTube clip I linked? That is my favourite Niven moment. 🙂 And yes, he should have been a much bigger star than he was. Perhaps the studios were to blame?

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