When recently writing about Preston Sturges’ The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek it was impossible not to tackle the very complicated subject of date rape, even if that’s something the film doesn’t actually address at all. And The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas has a similar problem, as it’s based around the idea of the happy hooker, and that there is absolutely no downside whatsoever when it comes to women selling their bodies.
The film does very vaguely address this in the opening number as Miss Mona (Dolly Parton) and her girls discuss Miss Mona’s rules, and it’s due to them all working for such a kind and considerate woman with no male pimps in the picture that they love what they do, but it’d be disingenuous to ever suggest that in reality such a perfect happy life where every single customer treated the women with respect led to orgasm filled romps each and every time is possible, and there’s no doubting that in reality – as this was based on a true story – I’m sure things were sadly very different indeed.
There is one minor comment from one of the women about over enthusiastic lovers that hints at a potential darkness to their world, but otherwise this is mainly a very lightweight romp, albeit one that will probably only be enjoyed by anyone who either doesn’t have a strong view on prostitution, or is actively for it, as it retells the true story of how a tv journalist Marvin Zindler (though called Melvin P. Thorpe here) was once responsible for closing down a Texas brothel called The Chicken Ranch. It’s also based on a stage show, which apparently Zindler approved of, but a lot of changes were made to the musical leading him to disapprove of the film, mostly because he claimed that he only shut down the brothel due to its links to organised crime, and not because he had any issue with sex work, though said links were never proven.
The biggest change of all however is the insertion of a central romance, with this part reportedly completely fictional. It gives the film a stronger narrative backbone however, as the local Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd is in a relationship with the brothel owner Miss Mona Stangley, and everything’s initially a-okay with the girls loving their work and the townsfolk appreciating the brothel’s existence, with that including some of the women as it means they don’t have to have to suffer through sex with their husbands themselves.
Narrated by Deputy Fred (Jim Nabors) who opens the movie with a long history of the brothel, Miss Mona launches in to the first song which stresses that while the brothel gives people a quick thrill, there’s “Nothing dirty going on” and the various prostitutes who work for her get the odd line or two as well. That applies with the rest of the movie too, and it feels a little odd that a film about sex workers hardly features them, I mean they’re often physically present but rarely get the chance to speak, and this is an issue as they’re barely one dimensional characters, let alone two.
The main storyline is all about Sheriff Ed and Miss Mona’s relationship though, and how that is threatened when Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLuise) announces on tv via the use of a very angry but very catchy song that he plans to run an expose on Miss Mona’s house of ill repute. He’s a hypocrite of course, and only in it for the ratings, which is exactly what he gets when he arrives in town to cover the story only to be screamed at by a very angry Sheriff Ed, who calls him “You fancified fart! and “You over-padded televised turd!” before thrusting him in to the town fountain and firing his gun in the air.
This being Texas in the eighties he isn’t fired and the town folk applaud his actions, but an enraged Thorpe plans revenge. Before that occurs things slow down for a short while to establish more of Ed and Mona’s relationship, as they talk about God, religion and morality in a quite sweet scene, with Mona wondering why people aren’t very God-like and kind and all that sort of thing, which hammers home the idea that prostitution really doesn’t harm anyone. But soon after this, thanks to another tv appearance from Melvin, Sheriff Ed is pressured in to suggesting Mona close the brothel down for a couple of months, until this all blows over, and Mona reluctantly agrees.
Unfortunately a big football game is due to take place just as they wish to close, and it’s tradition for the State’s Senator, Wingwood (Robert Mandan) to take the winning team to the brothel afterwards. Persuaded by her maid Jewel (Theresa Merritt) Mona decides to allow the place to open for the players only, which leads to a very long drawn out song and dance number from the football players who can’t wait to go there, coming out with worrying lines like “Those little girls won’t ever never be the same” and how they will “Show them all a thing or two”, in the only part which suggests just how creepy / fucked up men can be. That’s forgotten about when they arrive at the brothel, where there’s another a big old dance sequence with the players and sex workers all dressed up to the nines, though their clothes don’t stay on for long, and soon there’s a whole load of fucking going on.
Naturally this would be the very worst time for Melvin P. Thorpe to return to town and so it’s no surprise to anyone who has seen a film before that of course he does. Oddly it’s here which the film contains its first and only burst of female nudity, where Thorpe and his camera crew burst in on various bouts of sex, catching the ladies topless though this was the eighties so sadly there’s no male nudity bar the odd buttock. Mona and Jewel manage to throw Thorpe and his cronies out, but by this point the damage is done, especially as Wingwood was caught in flagrante too.
This leads to the lazy bit in rom-coms where Mona and Ed have a fight and say things they don’t mean, but at least it’s over with quickly and the next segment contains the movies funniest moments where the townsfolk discuss the closure of the brothel, with Wingwood declaring that “I have no independent recollection of going to the Chicken Ranch” and that “I must have been drugged by communists or communist sympathisers”, while the local newspaper editor claims that whatever your sexual peccadillo he doesn’t care, saying “I don’t give a damn if folks want their ass tickled with a feather. I kinda like to think that’s what Heaven is all about”.
Best of all is the song from the state Governor (Charles Durning) delighting in never giving a clear answer to journalists, singing “Ooh, I like to dance a little sidestep”, it may not be the most vicious of political satires but boy is it fun as Durning sings it with a big dopey grin on his face, and the dance number accompanied by it is the most enjoyable too, even if it’s one of the simplest. It’s briefly interrupted by Sheriff Ed doing his best to persuade the Governor to let Mona stay open, but after the polls come in the brothel is damned, the Governor sings a reprise and as Melvin P. Thorne arrives Ed storms over, steals his wig and punches him in his face, and surprisingly though the punching bit didn’t happen, the wig did bit, which makes me like this part of the story rather a lot.
With the brothel closed by the Governor there’s no happy ending for our happy hookers, and each sings a line suggesting where and what may happen next, it’s a forlorn number not exactly offering a lot of hope. Indeed it looks like it’s going to be a sad ending for everyone involved when Sheriff Ed apologises to Mona and finally declares his love for her, and she sings the classic “I’ll Always Love You” but turns down his proposal, suggesting she’ll be bad for his career. Fortunately Ed doesn’t care, and marries her anyway, because this was Hollywood after all.
Despite my issues with it there’s an awful lot to to enjoy here, the light satire of the media and politics has a good few funny moments, the script is a damn great one with lots of very memorable lines, it’s undoubtedly a sex positive movie, and hell, even Burt Reynolds sings a song that is genuinely sweet, even if I suspect his vocals were heavily modified in the studio. The pace is fast, the songs rather catchy, and the choreography is impressive too, and if you can get past the thorny subject matter and aren’t bothered by the idea that this is an impossibly idyllic view of prostitution then it’s a really fun musical, though if you don’t think you can this is definitely best avoided.