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Movie Musical Monday, May 14: “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”

May 14, 2012

Good morning, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

Today’s film is Universal’s 1982 production of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. 

This musical is actually (strangely) based on a true story.  In 1973, the Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas, a brothel that had been in operation since 1905, was closed down after reporter and TV personality Marvin Zindler began a campaign to put it out of business.  Larry L. King wrote an article for Playboy about the closing in 1974 and somehow decided this would be a great subject for a musical. (Go figure.) Carol Hall, a Texas girl herself, was brought on to write the songs, and King co-wrote the book with Peter Masterson.  What resulted was a strangely charming musical that won two Tonys and was nominated for six, including Best Musical.  The original stage production was also directed by Tommy Tune–crazy, right?  For a great resource about the show, check out this killer dramaturigcal blog for it on the Interweb.

Sadly, the musical did not survive well its transfer to film.  Or rather, the original through line/POINT of the musical doesn’t exactly make it to film.  King, Masterson and Hall wrote a non-apologetic piece about women who are living the best they can at the best way they know how, and not making any gripes about it.  The town they live by accepts them as part of life, and that’s that.  Miss Mona is a business woman who pays her taxes and has a familiar detachment to her girls and her customers–she’s responsible to and for them, but she’s always an outsider, structuring her work and her actions in response to what society creates around her.  She never appears deeply emotional on stage, except perhaps briefly when recalling to the sheriff the one night they shared fifteen years previous, and the final song she sings before she heads to the bus alone to leave town for good.  However, the movie, which creates a tender, romantic relationship between Reynolds and Parton, undermines some of the strength and forthrightness of Miss Mona (and indeed all of the prostitutes), by ending on a damsel-in-distress note.  Just wait and see.


In a Texas whorehouse (the hint is in the title) called “The Chicken Ranch,” the glamourous gamine and greatly endowed Miss Mona houses several girls who make their living having sex for money. (What did you think happened in a whorehouse?) Their place is called the Chicken Ranch because during the Depression when things were tough, a chicken was accepted as payment for every lay (this is actually why the true Chicken Ranch acquired its name as well).  Miss Mona and the girls explain their way off life in a song that tells us its just good clean livin’.

But before we get to the clip, I want to call your attention to Dolly Parton’s wardrobe throughout the film.  At first I felt the costumes conjured up Mae West, but as the movie went on, I realized they were also somewhat reminiscent of Miss Piggy’s style as well.  LOOK:

Everything we do creates a ripple.

Can you really tell me, after seeing pantyhosed-toes peeking out of those shoes that you didn’t expect Miss Piggy to be at the top of that initial pan?  Come on.

Miss Mona is not only the proprietor of the Chicken Ranch, she also has a behind-closed-doors-sex-only relationship with town Sheriff Ed Earl.  Here’s a lovely duet that Dolly Parton wrote for the movie, “Sneakin’ Around.”  There are moments where Burt Reynolds just screams Flight of the Conchords. (I wish FotC would write a song about Burt Reynolds.  I bet it would be fantastic.)

That was Jim Nabors (Gomer from the Andy Griffith Show) as Deputy Fred.  He also serves as the narrator for the movie–another structural addition for the film.
The reason Deputy Fred showed up at such an inopportune moment was because Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLuise–WHY IS HE IN THIS MOVIE?), a sensationalist consumer advocate TV personality, has decided to wage war on the Chicken Ranch, which he believes should be closed down because of its illegal practices and downright lack of morality.  Ed Earl heads to Houston to speak to Thorpe before his TV show taping.  In the dressing room, the sheriff watches the toupe-ed Thorpe put on a girdle, shoulder pads, some kind of jock strap, and run a rolled up sock down the leg of his pants.  He also finds out that Thorpe, who is billing himself as a good ol’ boy, is actually from New Jersey.  He makes nice with Ed Earl, telling him he wants to interview the sheriff and get his side of the story, then invites him to sit in a private box to watch the taping.  Once Thorpe gets on air, it’s clear this was all an ambush.  He berates Ed Earl and announces on television what everybody already knew. (Sorry about the quality.)
The next day or so Melvin P. Thorpe shows up in town with his camera crew and dancers to impose some morality directly onto the townsfolk.  He gets a few choice words thrown at him from Ed Earl, who tells him to skat, before chasing Thorpe into a fountain after getting his gun out and shooting into the air a couple times.  That night after a sweet date where they admit they’ve stopped sleeping with other people (must mean they’re in love!), Mona and Ed Earl are interrupted in bed again by Deputy Fred, this time over the telephone, and are told to watch Melvin P. Thorpe’s broadcast which features a cutting together of Ed Earl’s threats and bleeped profanities.  We understand this to be quite the blow to Ed Earl since a few scenes prior he had expressed interest in running for state legislature in the future.  And who’s going to vote for a man who swears, threatens violence, and is friendly with whores before they’ve been in office for at least two terms?  No one.
Due to more political pressure, Ed Earl asks Mona to close down for two months, just until everything blows over.  She agrees–because she loves him, not because it makes good business sense–but then remembers that the next day is Thanksgiving.  Every Thanksgiving, the winning football team of A Game I Can’t Remember The Name Of gets treated by a SENATOR OF THE STATE to a night of pleasure and education at the Chicken Ranch.  Miss Monda decides that one more night couldn’t hurt, as it would be a shame to break with tradition and disappoint the kids.  Because that’s what Thanksgiving’s all about, the kids.
The Aggies win the game, and celebrate in the locker room.  (NOTE: If I knew football players did this, I would probably have an interest in sports.  Also, I would still be confused at people scoffing at the idea that football has latent homosexuality undertones running all over it.)
 Look at how excited they are to have sex with women!  Now that’s some good acting.
The footballers eventually make it to the Ranch and proceed to have a strip-ho-down quite literally, and then all go to bed with someone(s).  But unbeknownst to them all, Melvin P. Thorpe is in town.  He breaks into the Chicken Ranch, and has his crew take as many pictures as possible.  The girls and Miss Mona are able to kick them out of the house as the Aggie boys run, and the cops drive up but they are too late.  Thorpe has what he came for, and escapes with the last damning evidence to broadcast against the Ranch.
Ed Earl and Mona fight: he’s angry she didn’t close down immediately and tells her he can’t trust her.  She’s upset because he wasn’t there to protect her when she needed him.  Then EE does the unthinkable: he calls Mona a whore.  Now, you can date a whore, you can dine a whore, and you can even love a whore.  But one thing you must never openly do is call a whore a “whore” to her/his whore face.  That is just not allowed.  It also undermines any emotion that MM thought EE may have had for her, calling her a thing that’s only seen as a commodity.  He’s immediately sorry for what he’s said, but (being a man) can’t bring himself to apologize and instead runs away from the damage he has inflicted.
Fortunately, even though Ed Earl is not a man of many words (and some of which are very poorly chosen ones), he is a man of action.  He drives to Austin to get the governor to hear him out and keep the Chicken Ranch from closing.  This song is called “Sidestep” and it’s one of my favorites from the musical that made it into the movie.  It’s also extra brilliant because CHARLES DURNING IS SINGING AND DANCING.  And Charles Durning is fucking awesome.  Listen to how much the governor says in this song, and yet how little he says:
Charles Durning was NOMINATED FOR AN OSCAR for this role.  Besides probably two reaction shots in montages that come earlier in the film, that musical number is literally all he does.  AN OSCAR.
So the Chicken Ranch is to be closed.  Miss Mona is bemoaning the state of things and is still upset with Ed Earl when the girls tell her that the sheriff had gone all the way down to see the governor on her behalf.  Then they all sing a song that’s title doesn’t make any sense contextually since the dialogue describing what a ‘Hard Candy Christmas’ is that’s present in the stage musical was cut from the film script.  Basically it means that times are so tough all you can give or all you’re gonna get for Christmas is hard candy.
So finally, after about eighty minutes, we finally hear from the prostitutes again.  This is a drastic change from the stage musical, where we meet a couple of the girls on their first day, watch them expand or fail in their enterprise, and get to know some of the other girls who have been their longer through other songs that were also cut from the film.  The movie doesn’t do a great job of creating a relationship between the girls and the viewers, aside from seeing them dolling out their trade.  In the stage musical, they’re women, who end up at the Chicken Ranch for various reasons, who take advantage of their one day off a week to spend time with their beaus, who live this kind of life the best they can.  We worry about all of them when the Chicken Ranch closes on stage.  But we only worry about Miss Mona in the movie, and what’s going to happen between her and EE and his mustache.
Well, I’ll tell you: It all works out. (As if you didn’t know.)
Miss Mona is packing up the last of her stuff, when Ed Earl shows up and finally proposes.  But then Dolly Parton sings him a song she wrote herself a few years earlier, that would become even more amazingly popular when covered by Whitney Houston ten years later:
 Told you.
So yes, Ed Earl takes Miss Mona off and marries her, and still ends up getting elected to the legislature.  Hooray.  But I’m still not satisfied.  You see, in the stage play the relationship between Miss Mona and the sheriff is romantically underdeveloped for a reason–because ultimately she is a stronger person than him, and there’s something about that the sheriff could never deal with.  That’s why they don’t get together.  She attempts to connect with him right before she goes by reminding him of the one night they shared together, but he doesn’t remember it right.  This sheriff, the stage sheriff, also never has the guts to tell Mona that he does have feelings for her, despite it all.  He can’t admit it to himself.  And so she leaves, because she realizes what she wants isn’t here.  Miss Mona is a survivor first and foremost, and nothing about her straight-shooting nature in the stage musical leaves room for romantic notions.  But that’s also how she was able to run a successful business for so long.  It’s a necessary trade off.
Ultimately, here’s the thing: there are whores out there in the world.  Not all of them need or want to be saved.  That basic fact–the idea some women choose to make their living this way, are good at it, are happy doing it, or couldn’t be bothered to try another profession–that’s what this movie takes away from the audience by giving us this ending.  Instead of showing real woman who are doing what they can to get by (which on some level, is a very American story), it tells us instead that every girl–even a whore–can get her prince if she just holds out hope long enough.  And that will take care of everything.  Every woman can be saved, if she lets a man save her.  And that’s what every woman–especially whores–want.  Right?
I don’t know.
That’s a pretty feminist reading, I’ll admit, but I think it’s justified.  This is an issue with musicals, though.  You can’t over-think them, or it ruins the whole effect.
I’m faced with another movie musical where many of the good songs didn’t make it through the adaptation process.  Here are some favorites:
  1. “Girl, You’re a Woman”–There are definitely some 36 bar cuts you can mine out of this song.  However, it’s more of an actor’s song than a singer’s song, if that makes sense.
  2. “Twenty Four Hours Of Lovin'”–MY FAVORITE SONG from this show.  Totally rock out, soul song.  Great choice for an audition for HAIR or Dream Girls, or The Wiz.
  3. “Doatsy Mae”–An uneventful song melodically, but a decent choice to show off some acting.  And it has a gradual climb to a belted C, so it’s good for showing that off.  An easy 16 bar cut from this can show off enough of your range to let people know you exist.
  4. “The Bus From Amarillo”–Great choice for any country-western audition.  Bonus points if you can accompany yourself on guitar. (I’m giving out the points so they’re only worth so much, mind.)
  5. “Good Old Girl”–I think this is a great song for anyone auditioning for Joe Boyd in Damn Yankees because it aligns really well with “Goodbye Old Girl.”
That’s all for now.  Have a wonderful week and Happy Movie Musical Monday!
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