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Movies of 1988 Bracket Game: A Fish Called Wanda Vs. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

We are kicking off the second round of our Movies of 1988 bracket game with two sublimely silly comedies about con men and criminals who are constantly trying to get one over on each other.  Both A Fish Called Wanda and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels feature dim Americans pitted against sophisticated Europeans and the culture clash that results generates a lot of laughs.  As does the ridiculous physical comedy.  While both movies are smart, neither shies away from low-brow humor.  As we keep saying, 1988 was a great year for comedy.  But there’s only room for one intercontinental caper comedy in the final four.  Which one will it be?

But first, let’s see who Twins fared against Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

This was our first real blow-out of the game.  While the general consensus was that the one-joke comedy, Twins, was at least built around a pretty funny visual gag, voters overwhelmingly preferred the antics of Roger Rabbit in Toontown by nearly 85%.  One of the difficulties of putting together these games is that even if you set up some really difficult decisions in the first round, the second round can lead to some lopsided pairing.  For example, I fully expect Working Girl to get stomped tomorrow.  But hey, you never know until the votes are counted.  So be sure to come back and support your favorites.

A Fish Called Wanda was written and directed by John Cleese and Charles Crichton.  Odds are you are familiar with Monty Python member, Cleese.  But you’ll be forgiven if Crichton’s name escapes you.  Crichton was an English filmmaker who did most of his work in the 1950’s.  After a few flops in the sixties, he moved into television.  In the late sixties, Crichton and Cleese tried to make a movie together, but it didn’t pan out.  Eventually, Crichton transitioned from television into directing corporate videos for Cleese’s video company.  Cleese suggested that it was time for the director to return to film.

Cleese and Crichton spent four years developing the script for A Fish Called Wanda.  Once they had assembled their cast, they spent a week rehearsing and then another two weeks polishing the script to incorporate any new ideas they liked.  The studio was a little uncertain about having Crichton direct the movie.  He was 77 years old at the time of filming and hadn’t made a movie in over twenty years,  In order to assuage their concerns, Cleese agreed to “co-direct” the movie though he had no idea how to do so.  Ultimately, Cleese got a credit, but Crichton directed the movie by himself.  According to Cleese, “That was a subterfuge. I knew the studio would be worried about Charlie’s age. I don’t know anything about how to direct, but that doesn’t stop one-half of the directors. I simply prayed that Charlie would be on the set every morning.”

On the set, Crichton wore a T-shirt given to him by Cleese.  It read “Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.”  The director went out on a high note.  After Wanda’s critical and commercial success, Crichton retired.  While fishing in Scotland, he liked to tell the tale of a Hollywood executive who called Wanda’s producers looking for a referral.  According to Crichton, the exec said “We’ve got a comedy we need a director for. Do you think your new young guy, Crichton or whatever his name is, would be interested?”  He wasn’t.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was directed by Frank Oz.   Even if you weren’t familiar with his work behind the camera, you most likely know Oz as Jim Henson’s right-hand man.  Oz performed as Bert, Fozzie Bear and Ms. Piggy.  He also gave life to Yoda in the Star Wars films.  As Henson was distancing himself from the Muppets, he and Oz co-directed the fantasy film, The Dark Crystal.  Oz made his solo directorial debut with the next Muppets feature, The Muppets Take Manhattan.  Oz’s experience with puppetry came in handy when he directed Little Shop of Horrors in 1986.  That movie’s success gave Oz the clout to make “real” movies with no puppets at all.

Prior to Michael Caine being cast as a slick European conman, Both John Cleese and Michael Palin were approached for the part.  Cleese reluctantly turned the part down and later expressed regret over it.  Palin flew to America to read for the role, but later decided he wasn’t right for it.  Originally, Steve Martin was supposed to read for Caine’s part but there was some kind of miscommunication with Richard Dreyfuss.  Dreyfus had been asked to read for the part of the American, but prepared for Jameson instead.  So Martin read the part of Benson with Dreyfus and Oz loved what he brought to the role.

Which of these comedies makes you laugh harder?

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Posted on January 9, 2018, in Bracket Game, Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I’m probably in the minority here, but I feel like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has aged more gracefully than A Fish Called Wanda. If you had asked me in 1988 I may have called …Wanda my favorite movie of the year Either way, the winner will probably get my vote in the next round.

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    • I have seen both movies within the last couple of years. Of the two, I have seen DRS more recently. My recollection was that Wanda did feel a little more like it came from the ’80s. I think it was the music that felt generically late ’80s.

      I think both movies have aged very well. I would be happy wither either one advancing to the next round, but I’m probably going to cast my vote for Wanda. (Like Ken Bone, I am still undecided.) I will be interested to see how either one fares against the juggernaut that is Die Hard. (I pity Working Girl tomorrow.)

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  2. I watched Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for the first time 2-3 years ago and found it quite good. However, A Fish Called Wanda has three of my favorite comic performers ever in Cleese, Curtis and Kline (and Michael Palin holds his end up extremely well), so it’s hard for me to vote against it.

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  3. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a remake of a 1964 film titled “Bedtime Story”. If you ever get a chance to see the movie, watch it. It is hilarious.
    David Niven effortlessly plays part which Michael Caine recreated.
    The big surprise is Marlon Brando plays the American con man Benson, and he brings as much idiocy to the role as Steve Martin. It is brilliant.

    Fun fact: While David Niven was filming this movie, Michael Caine was his roommate. In an interview during the release of the remake Caine mentions that he does mimic some of the mannerisms of Niven, because he remembers working through some scenes running lines with Niven.

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  4. Charles Crichton, who directed A Fish Called Wanda, was no stranger to heist comedies. He directed the Ealing Studio classic The Lavender Hill Mob (which the BFI ranked #17 on their 100 Greatest British Films list). It starred Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway, and had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo from a young Audrey Hepburn.

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    • I wasn’t at all familiar with Crichton prior to writing this entry. I knew Cleese was credited as a codirector on Wanda, but I had no idea who he shared that credit with or what the backstory was. I found the story really interesting and kind of touching which is why the Wanda portion of the write-up is his story. That set the tone for the round which will see write-ups focused on the directors of our competing films.

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  5. jeffthewildman

    Had to go with Wanda, since it was in my view the top film of 1988 and easily the best non Python/Fawlty Towers thing John Cleese ever did. When you put Cleese and Palin together along with Kline and Curtis, you got a triple play for comedy lovers.

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  6. A tough choice here as Wanda is also great, but I went with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Here’s a fun fact: Ian McDiarmid, who plays Michael Caine’s butler Arthur, also played Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. And of course Frank Oz is well known for playing Yoda in the Star Wars films, so in a way what we have here in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is Yoda directing the Emperor!

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