Sex and politics: were there ever two more perfectly attuned commodities, except perhaps, prostitution and politics – the parallel between the two astutely pointed out in Collin Higgin’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982): both, screwing people for money. Beginning life as a book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, itself based on a real-life incident taking place at an old established bordello in La Grange, Texas, the Broadway incarnation would also include an ebullient score by Carol Hall; setting the precepts and preconceptions of public morality on end with a self-effacing ‘nothin’ dirty goin’ on’ pie-eyed attitude about the life of a small town madam and her most ardent client, the beloved sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd. With its shameless razzamatazz featuring high-stepping young bucks and bell-kicking broads leaping across the proscenium, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas on stage was proof positive even the most seemingly ‘unseemly’ subject matter could set toes tapping, enough to appeal to the secularist and more ‘morally high-minded’ among us. As if more proof were needed, the original 1978 Broadway spectacle, starring veteran actress Alexis Smith as the flamboyant Miss Mona and directed by Masterson, ran for a whopping 1,584 performances. As such, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood took an interest.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas really falls under the old rubric of ‘truth being far stranger than fiction’; the tale of a civic-minded madam and her rocky romance with the ever-devoted town sheriff, the stuff of legend, prominently featured in a 1970 Playboy magazine article; the story first brought to light by white-haired muckraking sensationalist, Houston’s KTRK-TV ‘watchdog’ reporter, Marvin Zindler. The real Chicken Ranch had a history perhaps even more ridiculous and striking than its filmic incarnation. The name derives from the ‘ranch’s need to accept live poultry in trade for services rendered during the Great Depression, the ranch’s income supplemented by selling surplus chickens and eggs – or, as the film’s opening narration charmingly puts it “one bird, one lay.”
Established in 1844, this house of ill repute achieved a new level of renown when its second proprietress, Miss Jessie Williams took over operations in 1908. From 1917 onward, Williams proudly advertised the Chicken Ranch as a respite for visiting servicemen. Outwardly, it resembled nothing more than a large farmhouse, its whitewashed siding frequently added on to handle the steadily increasing foot traffic. To ensure the safety of her clientele and her girls, Williams would patrol the hallways at night with an iron baton in hand, ready to strike if she heard murmurs of some ‘spurious’ activity threatening the welfare of her prostitutes from beyond the closed doors. In the evenings, local sheriff, Will Loessin would pay a ‘friendly call’ on Williams, gaining valuable insight into guests who often felt free to brag about their complicity in local crimes. Inadvertently, the brothel was responsible for decreasing the overall crime rate in La Grange and Fayette County.
In 1946, T.J. Flournoy assumed the role of sheriff, installing a direct line so he could pursue his predecessor’s policy of gaining information without actually driving out to the ranch. By the time Williams’ favorite working girl, Edna Milton assumed control of the property in 1961, the Chicken Ranch was one of Texas’ most profitable ‘institutions’, drawing a yearly income of $500,000 while blissfully flying under the radar of local law enforcement. It was also generally tolerated by the citizens of La Grange. Milton, in fact, became something of a respected business woman, supporting local charities, providing generous donations to the hospital fund and supplying the little league baseball club with its necessities to operate. She also maintained a strict set of rules for ‘her girls’; paying all of their living and medical expenses, plus a small stipend afforded each as spending money. Williams’ rules were simple: every girl working at the ranch would be a lady: no drinking, carousing or visits to bars. No tattoos either: brands belong on cattle and that ain’t what they’re sellin’ at Miss Mona’s! Each girl was fingerprinted and underwent an extensive background check, and every last one was required to submit to regularly administered health exams. A lot of this history is covered in the prologue to the movie version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and in the song ‘Twenty Fans’ that serves as a historical montage and bridge for the Chicken Ranch’s varied history.
Alas, Milton and her brothel were much too public to remain a secret for very long. Indeed, by the time Zindler broke his story, the Chicken Ranch had played host to scores of politicians; a nearby military base readily taxiing its personnel back and forth for ‘recreational purposes’ by helicopter, while Texas A&M University marked an annual tradition by sending its freshmen, graduating class and winning football teams there for exclusive ‘celebrations’. Despite Milton’s claim in later years, that the only part of this history the movie ‘got right’ was that ‘there was a chicken ranch in Texas’, a lot of the screenplay, co-written by the play’s originators, Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, with an assist from Colin Higgins, remains faithful to this vibrant memoir and lamentable downfall; adding music and comedy to its tapestry of life, while fabricating a ‘romance’ between its rechristened main characters, madam, Miss Mona (Dolly Parton) and Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd.
Perhaps Milton took umbrage to these artistic embellishments because they seemed so clearly to mirror Marvin Zindler’s flamboyant and ongoing exposé that had toppled her empire. Zindler had attempted to draw an amorous causal link between Williams and Flournoy, also suggesting to Govenor Dolph Briscoe that Williams was rolling in millions and heavily mobbed up with organized crime. Flournoy readily denied either he or his deputies had received payoffs or bribes to look the other way or to keep the peace at the Chicken Ranch. Despite his best efforts, Zindler was never able to prove any of his accusations; merely, exposing to the nation at large the ‘great shame’ of a bordello in operation for more than a hundred years. This, it seems, was enough to force Briscoe’s hand. He ordered the Chicken Ranch immediately shut down, despite Flournoy arriving at his offices with a hand-signed petition of 3,000 signatures to counter the closure.
Director/writer, Colin Higgins had seen The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas on Broadway; enchanted by its lighthearted approach to telling this tall tale. Higgins, who earned a Masters of Fine Arts from UCLA and had a pair of sizable hits under his belt with 1971’s Harold and Maude and 1980’s 9 to 5 would see his final flourish of success co-writing and directing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; a promising career cut short by the AIDS virus in 1988. In 1982, Higgins endured the slings and arrows of a more conservative mindset; the word ‘whorehouse’ actually considered an obscenity in parts of the U.S., necessitating the film’s title being changed in some print ads to ‘The Best Little Cathouse in Texas’. To help bolster public appeal, Higgins went for the high-gloss treatment; signing Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton and Dom DeLuise to helm the picture.
Even so, it became necessary for all three stars to go on an aggressive PR campaign to explain their participation on the project; Parton, the most outspoken of the group, saying “I think it’s a big responsibility we have to protect the public. So, I gave it a lot of thought. I talked to my folks…I saw it as a story about life…these people, have personalities and reasons for being who and what they are. I think I know what my audience wants from me. I depend on the audience a lot.” Both Reynolds and DeLuise backed up their decision by basically initiating the cliché that ‘hookers are people too’; Reynolds, drawing on remembrances of his own father, who was a Southern law man, in particular, defended Sheriff Dodd as a ‘moral man’ who cannot bring himself to propose to the woman he loves because of his own conflicted morality regarding her chosen profession – the second oldest one in the world! In reality, Reynolds’ apprehensions while making the picture had more to do with his lack of skills as a singer. His previous foray into musicals, 1975’s At Long Last Love, had been an unmitigated disaster. Yet, on The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, he almost pulls off the illusion of being a musical/comedy star; studying with a vocal coach for nearly two months who taught him to half-speak his lines on pitch, much in the way Rex Harrison had done for My Fair Lady.
In transposing the property from stage to screen, director, Colin Higgins thinned out Carol Hall’s song catalog considerably. He also made alterations to the remaining score, chiefly to ‘clean up’ its explicit and sexually charged references to avoid the dreaded ‘X’ rating; coming up with even more cleverly masked and subliminal double entendre and innuendo. Gone was the ‘prologue’, the song ‘Twenty Fans’ serving as the film’s opener, married to ‘A Lil' Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place’; both numbers providing a musical bridge to cover a vast spectrum of time and provide a lay of the land soon to be covered in greater detail. Also lost were several ballads including, ‘Girl, You're a Woman’ meant as a tender moment between Miss Mona and her girls, and ‘Twenty Four Hours of Lovin’ – another female bonding moment, between Mona’s cook, Jewel (Theresa Meritt) and the girls. The rambunctious ‘Watch Dog Theme’ and ‘Texas Has A Whorehouse in It’ were combined into a single number for Melvin P. Thorpe’s television broadcast.
Two more novelty songs, ‘Doatsy Mae’ and the ‘Angelette March’, plus Miss Mona’s introspective, ‘The Bus from Amarillo’ were left on the cutting room floor; Higgins showing no mercy to the slower paced ‘No Lies’ and ‘Good Old Girl’; the former a charmer featuring Mona, Jewel and the girls, the latter a farewell counterpoint to the triumphant ‘Aggie’s Song’ as A&M’s football seniors lament the passing of an era with the enforced shut down of the Chicken Ranch. To compensate for these omissions, Dolly Parton contributed four new songs to pad out the film’s score; one of which was a reprise of her 1974 smash single, ‘I Will Always Love You’. Another, ‘Down at the Chick-Chick-Chicken Ranch’ would be used for the film’s trailer only. Ultimately, ‘Sneakin’ Around’ was the only ‘new’ song to appear in the film, Parton’ s other contribution, ‘Where The Stallions Run’ recorded and filmed by Burt Reynolds but cut from the final print for time constraints before the general release.
Ironically, when the American censors had their way with the televised broadcast of the movie some years later, this latter song was reinstated into the picture to make up for the ruthless discrepancies in editing that had whittled down the movie’s 2 hr. run time to barely 88 minutes. For the cast album, contractual obligations necessitated the re-recording of two songs; a more complete rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ and a repurposed ‘Hard Candy Christmas’, featuring only Dolly Parton’s vocals. In the film, this latter number is sung by Parton’s Miss Mona and the departing prostitutes awaiting the bus to take them to parts unknown.
The Best Little Whorehouse is a charmingly bucolic piece of cinema escapism, beginning with its opener, relocated to the town of Gilbert, Texas. Deputy Fred (Jim Nabors) leads us through the movie’s prologue, touching upon some of the little house’s history already mentioned in this review. We’re introduced to Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Burt Reynolds), a beloved authority figure who likes himself just a wee too much. We also meet Miss Mona Stangley (Dolly Parton), the buxom proprietress of the bordello, her devoted cook and housekeeper, Jewel (Theresa Merritt) and ‘the girls’; an eclectic ensemble of taut bodies, peroxide blondes, raven-haired brunettes, and henna-colored harlots, wearing a stunning assortment of feather boas, halters, sequined panties and other sundry costuming, designed by Theodora Van Runkle that leave very little to the imagination.
Deputy Fred informs us of his predecessor’s quandary; namely, Ed Earl’s enduring passion for Mona. The two are having an affair. On the flipside, the sheriff is admired by café owner, Dulcie Mae (Lois Nettleton); a widow with a young son (Bobby Fite). Ed Earl enjoys being a weekend daddy to the boy. But he doesn’t love Dulcie Mae. And he is commitment shy too, fearing what marrying Miss Mona might do to his future ambitions to pursue a career in the state legislature. The town is quite contented to have Miss Mona and her girls living on the outskirts of their small hamlet. After all, most of the menfolk frequent the bordello. The girls are respectable and generate revenue by frequenting the shops and restaurants. And Miss Mona is a civic-minded and very generous philanthropist; even buy uniforms for the town’s little league baseball team.
Trouble arises when the town’s council gets wind of a news story about the Chicken Ranch to be broadcast from Houston as part of Melvin P. Thorpe’s (Dom DeLuise) Watchdog Report telecast. Ed Earl promises to make Melvin see things his way. Indeed, despite their hurried meeting inside Melvin’s dressing room as he prepares for the telecast by stuffing a sock down his underpants and strapping his formidable stomach girth into a girdle, Melvin seems to be a very congenial and accommodating sort; explaining the awesome power of TV as able to ‘get the mayor’s own children to throw rocks at him’, while promising Ed Earl he will be firm, but kind, in his assessment of the Chicken Ranch: all evidence to the contrary as the broadcast begins. Melvin turns on Ed Earl, whom he has ushered into the sponsor’s booth clearly visible by the audience, pointing a violent finger of blame and shame on him and the Chicken Ranch as blights on the good name of Texas.
A few days later, Melvin arrives in Gilbert to pursue a live follow-up. Ed Earl has had quite enough of Melvin, threatening him with his gun and sending the newscaster frantically scrambling for the relative safety of his truck after causing him to slip and fall in the town square’s lily pond. That evening, Melvin eviscerates Ed Earl’s reputation on air, heavily censoring the raw footage shot in Gilbert to present Dodd as a foul-mouthed dictator. Tensions mount as Texas A&M Aggie football game approaches. The seniors have already been promised a party at the ranch if they win. But Ed Earl encourages Mona to shut down for a few days – at least until the fervor created by Melvin’s broadcast can blow over. Mona agrees, but then remembers her commitment to the team and Senator Charles Wingwood (Robert Mandan) whom she has known for years. Electing to merely close the brothel to local traffic, but still entertain the Aggies; Mona’s decision proves fatal when Melvin assails the Chicken Ranch in the dead of night with his television crew, filming the footballers and Wingwood in various stages of undress and in the comfort of Mona’s girls; gleefully shouting, ‘Senator…the eyes of Texas are upon you’ and ‘Miss Mona? Gottcha!’
Ed Earl arrives too late to prevent the deluge, later confronting Mona about her betrayal of the promise she made to him to remain closed for a few days. As push turns to shove, Mona admonishes Ed Earl’s dreams for the legislature as just that – dreams – never to be fulfilled because Dodd is just a ‘chicken-shit sheriff in a chicken-shit town.’ “Maybe so,” he cruelly admits, “But it’s a hell of a lot better than being a whore.” Their personal relationship severed, Mona is wounded by Ed Earl’s accusation precisely because she has not been with any other man since having fallen in love with him. He, of course, does not know this. And she will also remain in the dark about his deep regret over their heated exchange; also, Ed Earl’s impassioned plea to the Governor (Charles Durning); filing a counter petition to keep the Chicken Ranch open. Alas, the Governor is dictated by the polls; the numbers suggesting more of Texas’ citizenry want the bordello shuttered for good. Ed Earl telephone’s Mona with the news without ever telling her of his valiant trip to Austin. Instead, she learns the truth from one of her girls. As each prepares to depart, Mona bids a bittersweet farewell to the lives they have all known with the film’s second-most potent ballad, ‘Hard Candy Christmas’.
After the bus leaves, Mona and Jewel prepare the house, selling off the fixtures and furniture, except for the few meager belongings they intend to take with them as they prepare to move in together in another place in another town. These plans are thwarted with Ed Earl’s arrival. He proposes marriage. Mona confesses her enduring love for him but also confides she has known all along Ed Earl’s aspirations for the legislature were feasible, if only he would forsake their romance and move on. We hear the most poignant ballad in the reprise of ‘I Will Always Love You’ – the song, Dolly Parton made famous in 1974. It would again rise in the top ten on the billboards after The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ debut. Ed Earl interrupts Mona. He does not give a damn about the future if she is not there to share it. Sweeping Mona off her feet – literally (in a chivalrous and spontaneous gesture that actually gave Burt Reynolds a hernia), Ed Earl carries Mona to his waiting truck, tossing her luggage into the back and tearing off across the open field toward parts unknown. In a voiceover narration, we learn from Deputy Fred that Ed Earl made it to the state legislature and that he and Miss Mona were eventually married – presumably, living happily ever after; marking an end to the legend of the Chicken Ranch.
In spite of its ‘R’ rating, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas went on to gross $69,701,637 in its initial release, a sizable hit for Universal who had initially tread very reluctantly on the project, despite Colin Higgin’s passion to direct it. Production designer, Robert F. Boyle’s quaint recreation of the sprawling farmhouse subbing in for the real Chicken Ranch has long since been a part of Universal’s studio tour, appearing slightly redressed in episodes of TV’s Murder She Wrote, The Ghost Whisper and Providence, as well as prominently featured in several movies shot on the backlot. The house is as much a character in this film as its flesh and blood inhabitants; a multi-room, cozily lit and welcoming series of interiors with a crooked staircase rising to its second floor of bedrooms. In the final analysis, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas lives up to its trailer’s invitation for ‘slick talkin’, quick walkin’ sexy good fun’; the lyrics to Parton’s song encouraging viewers to ‘come on down and get them some’…her final declaration in the actual movie, ‘Y’all come back now, y’hear?’ serving as a perennial RSVP to partake in its cheerful idiocy and countrified charm. As the original poster art suggests “With Burt and Dolly this much fun can’t be legal.”
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas has finally found its way to Blu-ray. It all looks very nice indeed, the 2.35:1 image exhibiting refined and bouncy colors, natural flesh tones, and, some solid contrast that will surely impress. I saw this film in theaters back in the day, but cannot recall if the residual image softness that continues to linger herein was evident back then. I have to say, film grain looks to have been marginally scrubbed, not to egregious waxy levels but nevertheless creating a sort of dreamy or gauzy quality to establishing long shots and flattering in close-ups of the buxom Dolly Parton who looks about as appealing as orange sherbet at a springtime country fair – two scoops, please! I’ve always loved Dolly and in Theodora Van Runkle’s cleavage-revealing costumes she bursts forth a bona fide and very glamorous musical movie star.
William A. Fraker’s sumptuous cinematography is solidly represented. We get some gorgeous aerial shots of Texas, burnt brown pastures and green foliage very expressively represented. Even better still, the age-related artifacts that were fairly distracting on Universal’s tired ole DVD have been completely eradicated; ditto for the ever so slight telecine wobble that intruded upon one or two sequences. The brand spanking new 5.1 DTS greatly benefits the score, but dialogue continues to sound a little on the tinny side, lacking bass. I’m pretty sure this is in keeping with the original thin Foley for which a lot of 80’s movies are guilty. Extras are limited to something Universal calls a ‘making of’ – actually a press junket slapped together at the time Higgins was shooting the movie to promote its upcoming release. We also get a few hilarious outtakes; the cast flubbing their lines, plus, the exceptionally badly worn trailer incorporating Dolly Parton’s unused song ‘Down at the Chick-Chick-Chicken Ranch’ initially planned as the musical prologue to the actual movie. Still missing is Burt Reynold’s solo number, Where The Stallions Run – excised from the film before it his theaters, but later reinstated for the network television debut of the movie – and sorely missed herein. I think if nothing else, Reynolds singing abilities in Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975) prove he was no Mario Lanza. But I fondly remember his solo from this movie as it had the right sad and far away reminiscences of an aging cowboy who suddenly realizes his life isn’t worth a damn without Miss Mona lying at his side. Again, not great in terms of musical range, but affecting nonetheless. Bottom line: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a joyously obtuse and highly enjoyable trip to the backwoods for a little R&R. This DVD transfer doesn’t do the film or that journey justice. We’ll sincerely wait in the hope of better things!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)