Is ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ the best book ever written about Hollywood? I really think it is.
It’s a book written from first-hand experience for starters. The author, British born movie actor David Niven arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930’s. He had decided to try his luck in the movie business and he had come to the right place because Hollywood, California was the centre of the film making universe.
Some years previously it had been a rural backwater of lemon and orange groves but the silent film pioneers had found it had the perfect climate for film making. Back then in the silent days films were made in the open air shot on sets with no ceilings to let in the abundant California light.
By the 1930’s, sound had well and truly arrived and the big studios all had their coterie of stars and David Niven has a pocketful of stories, anecdotes and sketches about them and the other bit players, extras, directors and writers who inhabited Hollywood between the years 1935 to 1960.
Working as a boat hand to make some extra cash, Niven came on board a small vessel one morning. His job was to mop the boat down, get the fishing rods and bait ready and make sure some coffee and breakfast was on the go. The charter that day was for a man known as the King of Hollywood, none other than Clark Gable. Gable turned out to be a friendly customer who enjoyed his fishing. Some years later when Niven had made his first forays into acting and had a seat at a table at the Oscar ceremony, he was understandably very happy indeed to find Gable greeting him enthusiastically, his stock at that particular table rising dramatically after Gable came over to talk about fishing.
Niven goes on to paint an affectionate portrait of Gable alongside some other essays on various stars of the time. My favourite must be the short chapter on Errol Flynn. Flynn and Niven shared a house at one time and Niven comments that Flynn was completely trustworthy in a way, because whatever happened, he would always let you down!
During the making of ‘the Charge of the Light Brigade‘ which Warner brothers decided to set in India rather than the Crimea, Flynn, the new star started to get a little big headed. One big brute of an extra decided to waggle a lance under the behind of Flynn’s horse to teach Flynn a lesson. The horse consequently threw Flynn off. He got up, dusted himself down and proceeded to teach the big guy a lesson of his own by beating him into a pulp!
Flynn had a yacht named the Zaca and weekends on the boat included sailing trips full of wine, women and song. Many young girls appeared on the boat, none of whom produced any ID which was unfortunate for Flynn as he was later charged with statutory rape. The accusing girls appeared in the courtroom wearing school uniforms and in pigtails but happily for Flynn the court saw through that and he was acquitted, although the image that the press painted of him was one that he was happy with.
In later life Flynn was bankrupt and became a floating shadow of his former self, sailing the seas in the Zaca. Later he made a great Hollywood comeback playing his great friend John Barrymore in ‘Too much Too Soon.’ He died in 1959 aged only 50 and in a poignant moment, Niven living then in the south of France, takes a walk along the French coast only to find the dis-masted remains of the Zaca lurking quietly in a boat yard.
Another great portrait is the one that Niven gives us about Prince Romanoff, known as Mike to his friends who ran the famous Romanoff’s restaurant on North Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills. He was also a former conman once known as Harry F Gerguson. Harry or Mike possessed an immaculate old Etonian accent and assumed the identity of the late Romanoff prince. His restaurant became a popular venue and by the end of the Second World War was a well-established Hollywood eating house. Niven tried to haggle with Mike many times and break down his stories of mingling with royalty, of Eton and Harrow and military academies like Sandhurst but to no avail. If he was a con man he was in the top echelon of his profession.
I’ve always loved George Sanders with his easy smooth talking suave style. Niven recounts various stories about him including some about his relationship with Zsa Zsa Gabor. During the break up of their marriage they stayed fairly friendly. However, George was well aware of the California divorce laws and decided that it was important to have evidence of Zsa Zsa’s relationship with her new lover. His plan was to break into his house –that Zsa Zsa had contrived to still live in- and photograph her in the arms of her new man. In case entry to the house proved difficult he took along his lawyer, a photographer and a brick with which to break in. Conscious of looking suspicious carrying the brick he gift wrapped it. On arrival at the lover’s nest the bedroom door was conveniently unlocked. They entered, took the appropriate evidentiary picture and then when tempers had cooled they all trooped down to the lounge. It was Christmas time and Zsa Zsa mentioned that George’s present was under the tree. Sanders passed her the brick, still gift wrapped and said ‘and here is yours!’
Many famous places appear in Niven’s book; the Brown Derby restaurant, Chasen’s and many other bars and restaurants frequented by long gone stars; Ava Gardner, Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Orsen Welles and many more. Niven also recounts a visit to some distant drinking den frequented by Robert Newton who appeared with Niven in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. Niven and Newton imbibed a generous amount of alcohol but when Newton began to disclaim various Shakespearean passages to the locals Niven realised it was time to leave. The pair had arrived straight from the studio and David had no money with him so it was with some surprise that he heard Newton hiss that he had none either. “We have a tricky situation here” observed Newton rolling his eyes.
Happily the two made a quick exit in Newton’s Chauffeur driven ancient Rolls.
The book tells of the big studios like Warner Brothers and MGM and their great back lots. There was little location filming in those bygone days and on the back lots could be found entire New York streets, French and Spanish villages, frontier towns, Indian camps, medieval castles, a railroad station complete with rolling stock, lakes with wave making machines and a Mississippi steamboat.
Small wonder then says Niven that ‘Gone with the Wind’ was filmed in Culver City, ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, just off Catalina Island, and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in the San Fernando Valley.
I actually own two copies of this wonderful book. One is a smart hardback copy for my bookshelf. The other is the copy photographed for this post, a well-thumbed tatty copy that I pick up and take to the garden now and again or to the dentist or whenever I have a spare moment to spend in Hollywood’s golden years.
Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.