Bring on the Empty Horses (1975) – David Niven

Title: Bring on the Empty Horses
Author: David Niven
Date Published: 1975
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Star rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I recently read The Moon is a Balloon (1972) and fell in love with David Niven’s writing style. I am loathing admitting that I had never heard of him in any context other than his connection to two dusty paperbacks that sat on my father’s bookshelves. I had no idea that he had been involved in some of Hollywood’s greatest films, and that he had managed to befriend so many people that were a huge part of Hollywood’s so-called ‘Golden Age’.

In his first memoir Niven discusses his childhood and goes into detail his time spent in the military, and how that coincided inconveniently with his career as an actor. This first memoir is heartfelt and brutally honest and told in a humorous fashion. Niven gave the reader a small taste of what we would get to read more about in his second memoir, Bring on the Empty Horses (1975) which has been earmarked as one of the best memoirs of the old Hollywood.

Having read a few books on film history and taken a few classes at university I was well aware of how the major studios essentially ‘controlled’ Hollywood and its players. What I did not know was just how powerful they could be. In all fairness though being a member of a major studio enabled many actors and writers a sense of job security. Once you were ‘owned’ by one of the main studios you received a weekly wage and had access to the perks of being a star. Niven’s memoir however is not a criticism of the studio system. Instead it is filled with charming anecdotes of his experiences  with huge stars like Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant to name a few.

I am a huge fan of film history and Niven’s intimate connection with certain actors, actresses, directors, producers and writers makes his memoir not just a flippant account of Hollywood gossip. He has a sentimental attachment to the people he wrote about because they were not just his colleagues. They were his friends and neighbors and who offered support when he lost his first wife in a sudden accident and who gave him invaluable advice over the years regarding his acting career and how to be a ‘celebrity’ when celebrity itself was still a very new concept.

Some of my favorite anecdotes involved his roommate and fellow actor Errol Flynn. Even though he was disliked by many members within the film industry he was by no means one of the most talented actors of his generation, as well as notoriously devilish and unbelievably instrumental in many of Niven’s successes.

As a British citizen David Niven struggled to adapt to the America he came to before World War Two. As he started out selling wine to merchants and restaurateurs and later began working as an extra in whatever film would hire him, he still did not realize that this was the profession he would end up pursuing until he came back to America after the war. Of course by that time he had already been in several pictures including The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). It is from this film that he derives the book’s title: in one of his many on set memories David describes a scene in which the director of the film, an Hungarian immigrant, Mike Curtiz, whose English was sparse, called for riderless horses to enter a scene, and “yelled into a megaphone – ‘Bring on the Empty Horses!’” This turn of phrase so amused Niven and Errol Flynn that after their uncontrollable laughter at the director’s expense he promptly replied with another brilliant quote of which I never knew the origin, until now:

“You lousy bums,…you and your stinking language… you think I know fuck nothing… well, let me tell you – I know FUCK ALL!”

Niven also gives us brilliant insight into the rise of the original gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons whom I had no idea even existed. He describes his experiences visiting the famous W.R Hearst who was the owner of a vast publishing empire, but was perhaps more known for the massive estate he owned in the hills of California, Hearst Castle, but known affectionately by his staff as ‘The Enchanted Hill’, his alcoholic wife who was 34 years his junior and for the fact that he was the inspiration for the Orson Welles biopic Citizen Cane (1941). ‘The Enchanted Hill’ much like the fictional ‘Xanadu’ in the film was even home to an epic zoo in which exotic animals roamed the property.

Other fascinating revelations include his close friendship with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart who went boating with Niven quite regularly, and it was Niven that Bacall leaned on when Bogart passed away from cancer in 1957. He had close friendships with several of Hollywood’s greatest players, and even Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn and director Cecil B. De Mille earned a place in his memoirs despite their hardheadedness. These were the biggest Movie Moguls in Hollywood. These were the creators of this extraordinary business we call show, and David Niven was there to see it all begin.

The memoir also includes personal photos of the actor’s family and the actors and actresses he was close to and worked with over the fifty odd years he worked in the film industry.

In closing I would like to mention that I have been watching a ton of his interviews on YouTube, and for me this was important because I felt after reading his books that I knew him. His writing is that good and that personable. This is quite rare in the usual ‘celebrity’ autobiographies I have read over the years, and I have read quite a few. It was important  for me not only to watch his films but also to see him as he was –  a man of integrity and not someone who had been overly enamored with the arrogance that consumed so many of his peers. Niven was often accused of not taking his career seriously, and I guess that is a simple mistake to make. Personally I think he took his work seriously, but life in general was a different issue altogether. He loved his work, but he loved life more, and that is why I think he took it less seriously. If that makes any sense.

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