Lone Star Cinema: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
The level of camp in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is obvious from the start. Jim Nabors narrates its opening sequence as the amiable Deputy Fred, and he explains the history of the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel as we watch an overview of prostitution through the ages. Everything is fabulously, raucously choreographed -- and the choreography and camp never end in this endearingly goofy movie.
The 1982 film is mostly faithful to the hit musical of the same name, which is somewhat less faithful to the real story of the Chicken Ranch and investigative reporter Marvin Zindler's crusade to close it.
Set in the mid '70s, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is the saga of an iconic brothel in the fictional southeast Texas town of Gilbert. (The real brothel's home was La Grange.) Madam Mona Stangley (Dolly Parton) and her employees go about their business with plenty of support from the townspeople, and Miss Mona is a generous and respected member of the community. Even the law is on the brothel's side; this is not surprising, given Mona's longtime affair with Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Burt Reynolds).
All is well until Houston TV reporter Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLuise) decides to do an exposé on the Chicken Ranch as a ratings ploy. Sheriff Dodd tries to intervene by paying Thorpe a friendly visit, but to no avail; as Dodd watches, the self-aggrandizing Thorpe announces on his show that "Texas has a whorehouse in it."
In desperation, the sheriff convinces Mona to shut down the Chicken Ranch until the unwanted attention fades away, hoping to foil Thorpe's plans to catch the working girls at work. Mona agrees, but then keeps the place open for one more night for some of her best customers -- the Texas A&M Aggie football team, seeking their traditional reward for defeating the University of Texas Longhorns. (The Longhorns earn the same reward when they win.)
Thorpe ambushes the Chicken Ranch and catches the Aggies in flagrante delicto, infuriating Sheriff Dodd and creating a scandal that ultimately involves the governor of Texas (Charles Durning).
Does the Chicken Ranch survive? If you know your Texas history, you know the answer; if not, you'll have to watch The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas to learn the fate of Miss Mona and her girls.
And watch it you should, especially if you're looking for cheesy comic relief. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is no cinematic triumph, but who cares? It's an over-the-top hoot, made all the hootier with its catchy musical numbers, deliciously satirical story (famed Texas author Larry L. King co-wrote the screenplay and musical book) and hilariously overcooked performances.
In a serious film, Parton and Reynolds' complete lack of chemistry would be a disaster; their relationship is meant to anchor the film, but doesn't. Eh, no matter -- we're so distracted by their constant preening and sheer star power that their emotionally flat romantic scenes are forgivable. (The film's weakest moments are when the singing and dancing give way to serious conversations. Actually, Reynolds' singing isn't so hot, either.)
The supporting cast is just as bad and therefore perfect. DeLuise was never sillier, chewing the scenery in a mop-top wig and bizarre Old West and Napoleonic outfits. (He looks like the pudgy love child of Emperor Bonaparte and any Beatle circa 1964.) Durning seems to be challenging DeLuise to a camp contest neither should want to win; every bit as self absorbed as Thorpe, the evasive governor takes no actual political positions while singing and dancing his way around the Texas Capitol rotunda.
Nabors is, well, Nabors. He's Deputy Gomer Pyle, which is just fine for the film's yee-haw milieu.
My one major beef with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is that much of the story's point is lost in the translation from stage to film. The plot is almost the same in both versions, and both are farcical romps. But the stage version is a romp built on underlying social commentary about society's sexual and moral hypocrisies. This commentary is missing in the film; it's more of a glammed-up star vehicle for Parton and Reynolds, a good time without gravitas. The star vehicle approach paid off, as the film rang up $70 million (twice its budget) at the box office and another $47 million on home video.
But hey, if you want cinematic gravitas, watch a Michael Moore documentary. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is about Burt Reynolds singing into a vacuum cleaner hose, dancing Aggie football players, Eighties-style gratuitous nudity and Dolly Parton warbling "I Will Always Love You." Also, Dom DeLuise stuffs a sock in his crotch. You really shouldn't miss this iconic celluloid moment.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is available online and on DVD. The DVD includes some great extras, including hilarious outtakes and The Making of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a documentary short featuring cast interviews and footage of Zindler, who shows us that Melvin P. Thorpe isn't much of an exaggeration.
Austin/Texas connections: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was filmed in many Texas places. The Chicken Ranch exterior is a farmhouse in Pflugerville, which still stands. (The interior scenes were filmed at Universal Studios in California.) The film's climactic scene was filmed in the Texas State Capitol. Scenes around Gilbert were filmed in Pflugerville, Victoria and Hallettsville. The football matchup in the film is an actual game at Kyle Field in College Station.
Lamesa-born character actor Barry Corbin plays C.J., a pillar of the Gilbert community. Former Dallas sportscaster Verne Lundquist appears a football announcer. Austin musical patriarch Kenneth Threadgill plays Gilbert resident Nester, and several Texas-born actors appear in minor roles.