This July, Establishing Shot presents It’s Revived!, a miniseries celebrating some of our favorite (or at least some of the more fascinating) movie remakes out there in anticipation of IU Cinema’s fall film series Re:Made. Today, Michaela Owens compares a comedy classic from Steve Martin and Michael Caine with its 1960s original, starring… Marlon Brando?!
A sophisticated thief who woos money away from wealthy women by pretending to be troubled royalty, Lawrence Jamieson (David Niven/Michael Caine) has it all: an exquisite villa on the French Riviera, beautifully tailored clothes, a flawless operation that rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars, a corrupt police inspector as a loyal friend and accomplice… And then one day, he slithers in—Freddy Benson, crude, brash, not-too-bright Freddy Benson (Marlon Brando/Steve Martin). A small-time crook with a schtick about a perpetually ill grandmother in need of an expensive operation, Freddy doesn’t recongize how prosperous his cons could be until he happens upon Lawrence. When a partnership between them doesn’t work, Lawrence comes up with a wager: whoever can get $50,000 out of a mutual target first gets to stake the Riviera as their territory. Their mark? Janet (Shirley Jones/Glenne Headly), a naïve heiress with a heart of gold. Nothing is off-limits: kindly grandmothers, paralysis, emotional trauma, Sunday school, attempted suicide… it’s all part of their hilarious, vividly fun game of one-upmanship.
Made in 1964 as Bedtime Story (dir. Ralph Levy) and again in 1988 as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (dir. Frank Oz), the story of these two smooth criminals and their battle for dominance has an originality and cleverness to it that makes its history of remakes and adaptations understandable. (In addition to 2019’s gender-swapped film version The Hustle, there was also a Broadway musical that opened in 2005.)
A typical ‘60s romp—replete with a jazzy score, gowns by Jean Louis, and gorgeous European locales photographed in color—Bedtime Story was written by Pillow Talk scribe Stanley Shapiro and Beverly Hillbillies creator Paul Henning, who had previously collaborated on the Oscar-nominated script for the sublime Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedy Lover Come Back. In the increasingly liberated Swinging Sixties, many comedies had a wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of obsession with sex and Bedtime Story is no different, with sex suggested right there in its title (which also lends itself to a weird fairytale-like framing device at the beginning as a narrator introduces Niven’s phony prince and Brando’s leering Big Bad Wolf).
To me, though, the most fascinating aspect of Bedtime Story is Marlon Brando. Known more for tortured, anguished “are men okay?” films like On the Waterfront, The Men, and The Young Lions, Brando’s rare comedic performance here is bewildering to see because it is so unexpected. Pulling silly faces, goofily doing exercise drills in his underwear, fake crying, imitating a British accent, being buried in sand with only a seagull he names Harriet to keep him company… All of these are things I would expect from Steve Martin, but to know that they actually originated from Brando—and that he actually does a decent job of pulling it off—is what breaks my brain.
That being said, Brando and Freddy Benson are not a perfect fit. While the character’s womanizing should go hand in hand with one of the cornerstones of Brando’s persona—his embodiment, exploration, and inspiration of voracious lust—the star’s primal quality brings out a sliminess in Freddy that feels too mean-spirited and dangerous to be in such a lighthearted movie. (You also just want to cringe every time Brando calls someone “dad” or “daddy” as a way to let the audience know how cool and hip he is. You could make a lethal drinking game by taking a shot after every variation of “dad” he utters.)
Sex is integral to Steve Martin’s persona, too, but because his pursuit of it is often tinged with absurdity, awkwardness, and desperation and because we don’t see his Freddy blatantly tricking pretty young blondes into bed like we do Brando’s, the character is softened enough to make him and the 1988 film more palatable. Director Frank Oz said about Martin, “Steve’s talent really lies in doing the unpredictable. If certain comedians or actors go for this particular way or that way, Steve will be the one person going the other direction.” To experience a Steve Martin performance is to experience pure, uncut joy and his work in Scoundrels is unsurprisingly excellent. Whereas Brando imbued Freddy with his cool charisma and flashes of eccentricity, Martin throws his whole being into the character, his physicality and ridiculousness unmatched.
While Brando and Martin is oddball recasting, the line from David Niven to Michael Caine is easy to trace: both are cultured Englishmen with Oscar-winning dramatic chops, a riotous sense of humor, and an unparalleled gift for storytelling. Oozing charm and wit, Niven and Caine are impeccable as suave con artists, with Caine even kicking things up a notch by doing a German and an Australian accent at various points.
Although it can be hard to forget the delights of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels when you’re watching Bedtime Story, especially if it’s your first viewing, you start to realize what a strong structure and situations Shapiro and Henning’s original script offer. So much of Bedtime Story is repeated in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, from character names to lines of dialogue to the Beaumont-sur-Mer setting; even the opening scene where Lawrence dupes a woman into giving up a pricey pearl necklace is the same. What sends the 1988 version into the stratosphere, though, is its polish, its leads, and, most importantly of all, its ending.
Leaning into the misogyny of Brando’s character, Bedtime Story gives Freddy his comeuppance in the form of the one thing he spends the entire movie deriding: marriage. When Janet realizes that Lawrence isn’t really who she thought he was, she tells Freddy that the two of them have been tricked and he, despite never demonstrating a shred of empathy before, feels so guilty that he realizes he might love Janet and they wed. As they set sail for America, Janet, oblivious to the truth about her new husband, prattles on about their new life and the house her mother has found for them and how she will always let him be “the man of his own castle,” all while he flatly responds, “Yes, dear.” Meanwhile, Lawrence moves on to his next job, happily unattached and undomesticated—his reward for trying to end the wager and get Janet away from Freddy once he realized that she was just a contest winner and never an heiress.
It’s a resolution that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and thankfully Dirty Rotten Scoundrels doesn’t replicate it. According to Frank Oz, the film didn’t have an ending for the first two months of production until he and Steve Martin finally cracked it with the help of Michael Caine’s suggestions and Glenne Headly’s wonderful acting. Rather than Janet discovering that Lawrence is a fraud, the men realize that this entire time Janet was fleecing them. A week after taking off with $50,000 of their money, she returns to Lawrence’s villa with a Long Island accent and a million-dollar con. As the credits roll and the three thieves walk arm in arm towards their new targets, the film firmly rejects the traditionalism of Bedtime Story and instead chooses the far more interesting twist of sweet Janet being the true mastermind, demonstrating control and earning the men’s respect all the way to the very end.
In his memoir Blowing the Bloody Doors Off and Other Lessons in Life, Michael Caine said about Bedtime Story, “You should really only remake bad movies. It’s easy to improve on failure.” While the 1964 film isn’t faultless, I’m not sure I would call it bad, either. I would think of it more as a dingy piece of jewelry you find in a vintage shop: a little rough with some imperfections, but still quite attractive with hints of bygone elegance. Scoundrels is that same piece after a careful scrubbing: the stone and the setting haven’t changed, but it sparkles more and uncovers things that were hidden under the dirt, revealing a more exciting piece than you anticipated.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of Establishing Shot, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Communications and Outreach Media Specialist. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture and an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.