Bedtime Story is one of a string of movies produced by Marlon Brando’s Pennebaker Productions, a company run by Brando’s father, Marlon Sr, and named after his mother, Dorothy Pennebaker. They didn’t all feature Brando Jr. 1961’s Paris Blues was a vehicle for Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier and Louis Armstrong. 1959’s Shake Hands with the Devil starred James Cagney. 1964’s Man in the Middle was a courtroom drama set during the Second World War and handed a lead role to Robert Mitchum.
You’ve probably not heard of any of them, and apart from One Eyed Jacks, Pennebaker Productions’ hit rate wasn’t astonishing, though the films they turned out did generally feature good actors doing good work.
You might not have heard of Bedtime Story either. There’s more chance you’ve heard of the 1988 remake, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which teamed up Steve Martin and Michael Caine for a story about two crooks trying to outcrook each other in the South of France. Or the 2019 remake of the remake, The Hustle, starring Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway, about which the least said the better.
Here, David Niven takes the Caine role, as the suave conman who loves to separate rich American widows from their money with extravagant stories featuring himself as a deposed prince trying to raise the funds to free his benighted country.
Brando takes the Steve Martin role, as the low-class grifter using tales of his poor sick grandmother to get into the pants of pretty young women, and also relieve them of any loose change while he’s doing so.
Bedtime Story and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are essentially the same film, and both hit the ground running with quick demonstrations of how these guys operate in their different spheres, before throwing them together for a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” wager – who can relieve the latest rich foolish mark of her money. Winner gets the loot, loser has to leave the Cote d’Azur watering hole where moneyed New Worlders come to drink in the Old World ambience.
Both films are funny in stage 1 (the set-up), funnier in stage 2 (the stand-off) and then slightly outstay their welcome in stage 3, as Freddy (Brando) and Lawrence (Niven) attempt to one-up each other to get to the heart and/or bank account of their target, sweet Janet Walker (Shirley Jones).
The screenplay is by Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning, who’d collaborated together on the Rock Hudson/Doris Day “sex comedy” (as they were called, though “no-sex comedy” would be nearer the mark) Lover Come Back, and the bright visuals and perky opening credits sell Bedtime Story as more of the same. As does the title, of course.
There’s an “only in the movies” aspect to the actual encounters between the conmen and their victims which requires an epic suspension of disbelief or the whole thing just will not fly. All the female victims in it are so gullible you wonder how they dress themselves in the morning.
At one point Freddy hurtles down in a hill in a runaway wheelchair, the background so obviously a rear projection that it’s unintentionally laughable. It’s the entire movie summed up in an implausible moment.
Niven and Brando bounce well off each other. Brando you wouldn’t have pegged as having a light touch and a knack for comedy, but he has. As for Niven, this is one of those roles he could do in his sleep – posh, smart, urbane, sly, a man who knows his way around a cocktail menu and a boudoir.
Bedtime Story is the connective tissue between all those late-1950s/early 1960s Doris Day/Rock Hudson films and wackier mid-1960s movies like The Pink Panther – bright, colourful, implausible, funny and forgettable, and with a European flavour to add a touch of class. It sets out to be light-hearted and entertaining and that’s what it is. Perhaps best of all, everyone involved seems to be enjoying themselves.
I am an Amazon affiliate