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If the plot of the 1964 David Niven/Marlon Brando film Bedtime Story seems familiar, it's because it was remade nearly 25 years later as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), both written by Stanley Shapiro. The story of two con men fleecing rich women in Europe allowed Niven to yet again play the suave, sophisticated rogue - something he did better than anyone else in Hollywood. It also gave Marlon Brando a rare opportunity to play in a comedy, which he found difficult for an unexpected reason.
Brando wrote about the experience in his autobiography Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, "Some of the pictures I made during the sixties were successful; some weren't...What I remember most about the pictures during those years was the fun of traveling to different places and making new friends. Bedtime Story, my first movie after The Ugly American , was the only one I ever made that made me happy to get up in the morning and go to work. I couldn't wait for the day's shooting to begin. I've never been a comic actor and am not very good at it, but this script about a couple of con men who happily preyed on women for money and sex on the French Riviera was hilarious, and working with David Niven was a treat. How he made me laugh. David was one of those British actors who, like Laurence Olivier, refused to play down - that is, use an accent beneath his station. He was a wonderful, understated sophisticated wit that reduced me to a guffawing bowl of Jell-O. The first day on the set, I noticed that David seemed nervous, when he read his lines, his hands were trembling so much that the pages of the script were shaking. I asked him about it later; but instead of admitting that he was nervous he responded with a hilarious zinger that bowled me over."
"I think Niven was born with a curse, a voice in his head that constantly told him, "You'd better make everyone laugh today and charm them too, because if you don't, you're dead." He wanted to be thought of as an aristocrat, and he liked to hang out with the sort of gentry who owned chalets in Gstaad and berthed their yachts in Nice. In some funny way, I think he felt inadequate, and his ability to charm and make people laugh gave him confidence and strength. His humor was very English. I couldn't act well on that picture because I was always breaking up. Together we wasted a lot of film. After I blew six or seven takes in one scene I tried looking over his shoulder so I couldn't see him, but I still couldn't deliver my lines. Out of frustration the director went to a close-up of David and put me off camera; even then I couldn't stop laughing, so he pleaded with me to go to my dressing room; I did, and put my face into a pillow to stifle the sound, but David told me later that on the set he could still hear me laughing." Writer Robert Aiken was also on the set and later wrote, "Brando had a wonderfully giddy time with the very sophisticated and clever David Niven on Bedtime Story. I frequented the set and also knew the director Ralph Levy. I watched Marlon flub line after line after line. Nobody seemed to care. He could get away with practically anything (including reading his lines from notes pasted on fellow actor's foreheads). He would have to squint. Very near-sighted. He had his own ever-ready makeup man...was insecure about his appearance at that point."
Despite the laughs on the set, David Niven revealed another side of his nature to co-star Shirley Jones. While out walking one day, the conversation took a serious turn as Niven spoke of the death of his first wife, Primmie, who had died from the result of a tragic accident at Tyrone Power's house in Beverly Hills. During a party, the guests decided to play a hiding game and Primmie, attempting to hide in a closet, mistakenly opened the door to the basement and fell down the stairs. The resulting head injury was fatal and left Niven with two small boys to raise alone. Shirley Jones recalled, "One Sunday, David rang and said he wanted to take me to Amalfi Drive, where he used to live, and so we walked around up there and he talked about his first marriage. He said that when Primmie died he really didn't think he'd be able to go on with his life; he said that when she walked into a room you felt you'd been touched by an angel. I think there had been a lot of sadness and loss in his life, but he never made anything sound too heavy. Most comedians turn to comedy because they've had sad lives. I think that was true of David, but now he said that at last with the girls and Hjordis [Niven's second wife] he'd found a kind of happiness again. He said he had always loved the American way of life because it was so much more open and honest than the English; but I think by now he'd settled for another kind of life in Europe with the family, and the career really no longer mattered to him so very much. Acting was just what he did to pay for everything else."
Producer: Stanley Shapiro
Director: Ralph Levy
Screenplay: Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning
Cinematography: Clifford Stine
Film Editing: Milton Carruth
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Marlon Brando (Freddy Benson), David Niven (Lawrence Jameson), Shirley Jones (Janet Walker), Dody Goodman (Fanny Eubank), Aram Stephan (Andre), Parley Baer (Col. Williams)
by Lorraine LoBianco
Sheridan Morley, "The Other Side of the Moon"
Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey, "Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me"
Robert Aiken, "I Never Slept with Brando", North Shore News, Sep. 22, 1999.