A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven). 1946. Great Britain. Written and directed by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

David Niven (1910–1983) was an actor of such diverse talents and charm that he is often categorized using clichéd phrases like “urbane light comedian” or “leading man.” These descriptions are indeed accurate, but one does not survive before the camera for a half-century on charm alone. The problem—if you can call it that—is that Niven made it all look too easy. Like Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, he took everything in stride, unflappably and (seemingly) effortlessly playing his part, always prepared for whatever came his way. He was, after all, originally a military man by profession. He then chose to “bum” around America, eventually winding up in Hollywood. Just as his film career began to blossom, he was one of the first to answer Britain’s call when World War II broke out, serving on active duty for the duration and rising to the rank of colonel. He even made two propaganda films during brief leaves, including The Way Ahead, which is included in this series. After making his return in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven), he resumed a glorious career in film, theater, television, and writing with his typical debonair insouciance. This series aims to recapture some of the special glory that was David Niven.

Organized by Charles Silver, Curator, Department of Film. Special thanks to James Niven, The Film Foundation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and The Library of Congress.

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