Louella Parsons, 21st December 1955: “One of the most beautiful women in this town, or any other town is Hjördis Niven, wife of David. Yet Hjördis has never done anything professionally until right now.”
“This is how it happened: The Four Star Playhouse, of which David Niven is one of the leads, was casting about for an actress to play the role of a Scandinavian spy who gets involved with a British newspaper man behind the Iron Curtain. So, without David’s knowledge the casting office called Mrs Niven and she consented to make her first professional appearance in ‘Safe Keeping’, opposite David.”
‘Never done anything professionally’ (?) A bit over-dramatic from Ms Parsons.
Forced star playhouse
“I had a short spell of being interested in acting,” Hjördis mentioned in a pinch-of-salt interview from 1960. “David’s TV company was making a film and needed someone to play the part of a foreign spy. The day before they were due to shoot they still hadn’t found anyone for the part so they gave it to me.”
I’d take the “day before” bit as a dramatic exagerration.
Her 1964 account differs, but may be part of the true jigsaw of events:
“In view of David’s previous strictures I was very surprised when he came to me rather shamefacedly and asked whether I would like to appear in a film. Rather shyly, he explained that Four Star Playhouse hadn’t got a great deal of money so could not afford to hire a big star. But they wanted somebody to play the part of a foreign spy. With my slight accent [slight??] when I spoke English I would be ideal for the part.”
“‘Do you think you would like to do it?’ he asked anxiously. Of course, I leaped at the chance.”
Perhaps David felt that he had no choice but to back-up his casting office’s invitation, or he simply saw it as a one-off gesture to cheer her up and scratch her acting itch. Hjördis even suspected that it was done to reassure her after her shooting injuries.
Whatever the reason, almost exactly eight years after moving to Hollywood, she finally had a chance to star, in what was actually a 25 minute TV drama. It may not have seemed that big a deal to David, who described TV work as: “a test of stamina, not acting,” but for Hjördis it was hugely important.
Fetch the pills
“I appeared at make-up at daybreak, and by the time they finished with my hair and face my hands were shaking violently. ‘But, what are you going to do?’ the make-up man asked. ‘Do you have any tranquilisers?'”
“When it came near to the time for actually shooting the film I was paralysed with nerves. I appeared on set shaking like a leaf. And I didn’t stop shaking. The director was distraught and went round wringing his hands and muttering: ‘What am I going to do with her? We’ll just have to stop shooting.'”
“He came back to me and said: “Haven’t you got anything you can take to quieten your nerves?'”
“I’ve got some sleeping pills.”
“He threw his hands up in despair. ‘Sleeping pills! You can’t make a film when you’re unconscious!'”
“But I took them just the same and they calmed me down so that I was able to make the film. A fortnight later it was shown on TV.”
So, what’s it like then?..
Despite Hjördis acting under a pseudonym – ‘Tanya Borgh’ – TV listings on the evening of 9th February 1956 were fully informed of who she was:
“David Niven stars as a newspaperman who becomes dangerously involved with a beautiful spy while trying to smuggle an important letter out of a foreign country. The spy is played by Tanya Borgh (Mrs. David Niven in real life.)”
Along with many of the Four Star Playhouse productions, a recording of ‘Safe Keeping’ has survived. It is hard to analyse it fairly in 2020, it may have also looked creaky and rushed in 1956. Hjördis gets six minutes of screen time (with a few more stood in the background). She is…. OK. Sort of.
The other cast members put in varying performances which make comparisons difficult. David looks mildly involved, while Jan Arvan is cheesy and awful as an old university professor. The most natural performance comes from David’s sidekick in the show, character actor Herb Vigram, who was already a Four Star regular.
Hjördis survives her role. The character she plays is a cool, detached secret agent. Or maybe that’s just the way she was after taking her pills. As befits an ex-model, she looks stunning in every shot. Oh, and she has a distinctive smoky voice, a definite plus for Hollywood ladies. (Even when she was already a star, Gene Tierney took up smoking with the express purpose of lowering her voice.)
Positives aside, Hjördis’ delivery is uniformly, umm, uniform, and she doesn’t look at all comfortable hugging up to David in the main romantic scene. Mind you, for a first real acting job, placed among seasoned professionals, that’s not exactly the worst criticism ever.
Hjördis’ assessment of her performance pulled no punches: “I thought I was absolutely divine in the film,” she told The Daily Mail in 1960. “I loved myself.”
Family friends Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart regularly tuned in to Four Star Playhouse. Ms Bacall’s assessment of Hjördis’ acting, as told to Graham Lord, but certainly not Hjördis, was less complimentary: “She was disastrous as an actress. That she could think she could ever become a star! It was ridiculous!” However, there was positive reaction to the broadcast.
The prize out of reach
“The phone started ringing.” Hjördis recalled. “Some of the callers were kind enough to say I had made a good impression and that I should consider filming as a career. One of those who tried to persuade me was Grace Kelly; another, her fiancé (as he then was) Prince Rainier, who was over in America for their engagement.”
Both Grace and Rainier had been recent house guests, and during their stay had a party thrown in their honour. So, all very cosy, except for one unforeseen phone-call, which would end up leaving a permanent scar on the marriage.
“I was dubious about the praise because naturally I assumed my friends were biased,” Hjördis later explained. “So I was surprised and pleased when M-G-M phoned and said they wanted me to play opposite Robert Taylor in his new film. They realised I did not have a lot of experience, they said, but were willing to take a chance.”
In 1936 the same Robert Taylor had played opposite Greta Garbo in one of her most successful films: ‘Camille’. He was also known personally to David and Hjördis, having been a guest at their seventh wedding anniversary party in 1955.
The film that Hjördis was offered must have been ‘The Power and the Prize’, a melodrama in which Robert Taylor plays an American executive working in England who wants to marry a European refugee with a dubious career. The moments in ‘Safe Keeping’ between David and Hjördis have a similar look to the love story element of the movie. Hjördis also looked and sounded right for the part. An exciting opportunity for her…
But.. she never got the chance to try: “David said: ‘No, I married you as a wife, not as a part-time mistress. I’ve seen too many marriages break up when both parties film in different parts of the world.'” [Once again a bit controlling from our Dave]
“Soon afterwards they sent the script round for me to read and it was a tremendous part. But I sent it back,” she told Woman magazine. “I knew David was right. You just can’t combine two separate careers in the film business. When my big chance came I decided that I would rather be David’s wife and be loved by him than be a star in my own right and run the risk of breaking up our marriage.” Hmmm…
“Men need to feel important,” Lauren Bacall once said. “They feel better when they’re with younger girls or unknown girls.”
Hjördis however, had made an impression that left her frustrating millimetres from being known in her own right. On 14th October 1956, David appeared on the hugely popular US TV game-show ‘What’s My Line’. When series regular panelist Bennett Cerf was introduced his first action was to peer at David and say: “I wish you had your wife here with you.”
(Trailer for ‘The Power and The Prize’)
The movie role offered to Hjördis was not easily filled, and the producers ended up casting their net further afield. Swiss-Austrian actress Maria Schell was flown over from Europe, only to be replaced by a little-known Swiss actress, Elisabeth Müller. The movie came out later in 1956 and didn’t do particularly well.
He’s the man
So, why didn’t Hjördis just say: “Well, I’m going to do it anyway,” or words to that effect? In 1960 she was asked why David’s determination to keep her away from a Hollywood career – coupled with his old “one actor in the family is enough” mantra – won the day. After a prolonged pause, Hjördis gave her answer:
“One time I had to sit in Bromma [Stockholm airport] for several hours, waiting for a delayed plane. It was late at night and I was both tired and irritable. Then, along came a female reporter from a weekly newspaper who asked: ‘What do you like best about your husband?’ I could not help but answer: ‘That he is a man’. It looked silly next day as a headline, but it’s true. That’s probably your answer. David is a real man.”
Talking later about husband and wife relationships, she said: “I think English men make excellent husbands, but I am even more convinced that English women make fabulous wives. Continental women are too subservient to their men-folk.”
As for why she didn’t work for her husband’s production company again, the explanation Hjördis gave – or was given – seems very thin:
“You know it’s a funny thing,” she said in 1958. “From that show on Four Star has never used a foreign actress.” The reason presented wasn’t to do with her performance.
She said that in the aftermath of the broadcast: “The company received a note from a viewer who didn’t understand why Four Star used foreign actresses when there were plenty of good local products available.” Defeated by the power of a viewer’s pen? Not so sure.
“Starting a movie career is like a coconut shy,” David mused. “It looks great if you connect – but you look pretty damn silly if you miss.”
Some years later, David looked back on his days in Hollywood: “There certainly has been more unhappiness there than elsewhere, because the dice was loaded against success. Of course, the town was filled with attractive people. There wasn’t a beauty contest winner in the world who didn’t come to Hollywood sooner or later with a one-way ticket.”
“As I understood from my aunt,” Hjördis’s niece Anette remembers, “David did not want her to have her own career. She became a prisoner in a beautiful house. Her creativity disappeared. As the years went by she had nothing else to do apart from making herself and her home look good.”
Next page: Recuperating with Grace, 1956