In 1988 I went to the movies to see the hilarious comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Shortly after that I read a review for the film and learned that it was a remake of a 1964 film called Bedtime Story starring David Niven and Marlon Brando. Ever since then I tried in vain to find a copy of the film. It had become my white whale that I chased for years round perditions flames. Keep in mind that in the days before the internet became a big deal it was fairly difficult to find obscure movies. Even Turner Classic Movies never seemed to show this film. So, after nearly 3 decades, Bedtime Story finally turned up on YouTube.
I think the elation I felt at finally being able to see this rarely seen film mixed with my decades long need to compare it with its 1988 remake helped to offset any disappointment that it wasn’t nearly as good as its 88 counterpart. However, it’s still a testament to the films inherently funny premise that the 88 version changes very little of the original script. And therein lies the entertainment value of Bedtime Story.
Like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Bedtime Story is about two con men. Lawrence Jameson (David Niven in the role that Michael Caine reprises) and Freddy Benson (Marlon Brando in the role that Steve Martin would reprise). Jameson is a classy con man who preys on rich married, morally ambiguous American women on vacation in the French Riviera by posing as a deposed prince trying to help his downtrodden people. Freddy is a crude but charming American who takes women for anything he can get ranging from a free meal to cash to sex(and on a good day, all three). Lawrence takes Freddy under his wing at first, teaching Freddy how to be a great con man. Then the two become rivals and try to out wit each other by seeing who can be the first to con an American woman named Janet (played by Shirley Jones and by Glenne Headley in the 88 remake) out of 25,000 dollars only to find out she‘s not rich at all but simply kind hearted.
Unlike the 88 remake, the 64 film lets us see some of Freddy’s backstory by showing us his cons prior to meeting Lawrence. And some of them are pretty funny. Such as when Freddy gets caught using a tried and true con on a Burgermeister’s daughter. When confronted with his crime by his commanding officer, Freddy actually blackmails his commander by threatening to tell his commander’s superior that he runs a corrupt division even though Freddy is solely responsible for all of the corruption. The commander gives Freddy an honorable discharge and cash to keep quiet and then finds out that Freddy pulled the same con on his daughter that he did on the Burgermeister’s daughter!
From that point on, the film is surprisingly similar to the 1988 remake and in some cases it’s almost a scene for scene remake with Freddy asking Lawrence to teach him, playing Lawrence’s mentally challenged brother to scare off female marks who want to marry Niven. It was so strange to see Niven and Brando play these parts. But it was especially strange to see Brando play a role that I’ve seen Steve Martin play on dozens of viewings. Both films also have almost the same exact dialogue as well.
Along with getting some extra backstory for the Brando/Martin character, we also get a very different and far more traditional ending in the original film. Keep in mind that this is a 60s sex romp and full of the usual sexism of the time. The endings of such films usually had the man winning the woman, giving up their flirtatious ways in exchange for married bliss and a home in the suburbs. At the end of Bedtime Story, Brando wins Jones but bemoans the loss of his freedom as he has always feared marriage and commitment. Niven reflects thoughtfully that Brando might be the real winner as he is now married to a good woman. Then Niven see’s an attractive woman walk by and realizes that he might be the real winner after all. In Bedtime Story, Shirley Jones is simply a woman who is nothing more than a prize who is manipulated and tricked.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels turns the sexism of Bedtime Story on it’s head by having Glenne Headley’s Janet turn out to be a notorious and renowned con woman on a scale that dwarfs even Lawrence’s high stake swindling. Janet turns out to have been on to Lawrence and Freddy from the very beginning and ends up conning them out of more than they tried to get from her. In a terrific and hilarious surprise twist at the end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Freddy and Lawrence are recruited by Janet and we can easily see her being the brains of their newly formed operation. Even in scenes that both films share, Headley makes more of the role than Jones does. Headley has great timing and funny facial expressions and does a lot with what she’s given while Jones is generic and feels almost superfluous. Jones feels less like a character and more like a plot device. That’s not really the fault of Jones as she’s a great actress who can be very funny. Bedtime Story just doesn’t give Jones that chance. The ending of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the revelation of Janet being an empowered, clever con woman who is clearly smarter than either of her two male counterparts is one of the things that makes Dirty Rotten Scoundrels the superior film.
The other thing is Steve Martin and Michael Caine. It’s clear that Martin owns this role. Brando is not a comedian and doesn’t have Martin’s magical comic timing but he is funny on occasion. But the true test is a scene for scene, comedic smack down where Brando/Martin is pretending to be paralyzed from the waist down and Niven/Caine tests the paralysis by whipping his legs and tickling his feet while Brando/Martin pretends not to feel it. It’s a scene that almost always has me in tears with laughter when watching Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Bedtime Story not so much. But Martin is just so brilliantly funny in the scene, along with Caine that it’s really no contest at all. The same scene in Bedtime Story is still sort of funny but it’s due more to the scene’s premise than to any comedic skill on the part of Niven or Brando.
When it comes to which film is funnier, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the clear winner hands down. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is clever, funny and is more comfortable and relaxed with it’s jokes making for a funnier payoff. Bedtime Story is a shorter film and gives more back story for Freddy which means not as much time is spent setting up the comedic scenes that both films have in common. This takes the edge off the effectiveness of the jokes and makes the comedy feel rushed and awkward.
If you haven’t seen either film then you might find Bedtime Story quite funny. It’s surprisingly bold even by the standards of 60s bedroom comedies. Brando, even though he’s no comedian, has some fun scenes and Niven is always enjoyable as the Raffles-like con artist.
For a fun comparison, here’s a link to a trailer for Bedtime Story…
and here’s a link to the trailer for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels…
and here’s the link to the full film for BEDTIME STORY…
I’d love to hear thoughts on which film you like better so feel free to leave a comment.