Sometimes pure star power can overcome the dodgiest of projects, and it's easy to imagine that the faux-wholesome prostitution musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas might have become a ludicrous and/or sleazy train wreck if not for the easy, perfect chemistry between two of the biggest stars of the era: Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton. Reynolds was coasting off of his blockbusters Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run, and I sometimes forget just how big of a star Parton was, but her 1976 TV variety show was a staple in my house during my earliest period of recollection, Nine to Five was an enormous hit in 1980, and her pairing with Reynolds in this controversial comedy was major news. In a year that included blockbusters like E.T., Tootsie, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Rocky III, Best Little Whorehouse managed to sneak in as one of the Top 10 box office hits of the year by appealing to what must now seem like a peculiarly early-1980s style of sincere country charm and credulously decent naughtiness.
Parton stars as Ms. Mona, the latest madam of the Chicken Ranch, a bordello that has proudly served the randy men of East-Central Texas for generations. When a showboating TV crusader (Dom Deluise) targets the ranch as a symbol of moral turpitude, there's little that Mona's boyfriend, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Reynolds), can do to to protect her and the institution in her charge from a wave of manufactured political outrage.
The entertainment industry's obsession with a sanitized form of prostitution is one of its strangest affectations, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, based on a hit Broadway play, is surely one of its fluffiest incarnations, protesting the honor of the oldest profession's traditions right up front with a lively early number emphatically announcing that "There's nothin' dirty goin' on!" If you can allow that spirit — fresh-faced call girls happily high-kicking up and down staircases in negligees — to grab on and hold tight for the next two hours, you might think that director Colin Higgins has concocted an almost improbably fun parade of mostly tame sexual indulgence with a strong sense of down-home righteousness on the side of the sinners. If you ever stop and contemplate the seamy flipside of Best Little Whorehouse's plot — that so many men in this county visit prostitutes with such regularity that the women of the Chicken Ranch are respected as citizens of good standing — it might start to seem kind of gross, but Reynolds, Parton, Deluise, Jim Nabors and Charles Durning are all at their absolute best, making it very difficult to discern an underbelly concealed by all the frilly dancing and winking joy.
Reynolds spent a lot of the 1980s looking like he did not give one shit for acting, but was just on camera to have a good time with his buddies, and boy does it work him for once again here. There's never a moment in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas when either of the two lead performers sheds their star persona and disappears into character, and that's one of its strengths. Higgins smartly focuses on multiple seemingly meandering scenes of Parton and Reynolds having casual, flirty and introspective conversations, allowing us to bask in the glow of their natural chemistry and genuine charisma. As a result, when the Chicken Ranch hits tough times, and Mona and the Sheriff face obstacles, there's a surprising emotional weight that's been quietly building up behind their usually confident mugging and mischievous smiles.
Higgins, though his meagre filmography of somewhat forgotten comedies may at first appear insubstantial, had a considerable impact on me personally from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. I never missed a TV-broadcast of his directorial debut, the 1978 Goldie Hawn/Chevy Chase comedy-thriller Foul Play, and he wrote two earlier movies that made significant cultural impacts, the 1972 counter-culture romance Harold and Maude, and the first movie to team Gene Wilder with Richard Pryor, the Hitchcock-lite 1976 mystery Silver Streak. Higgin's second movie in the director's chair, Nine to Five was such a huge success that my parents took me to see the PG-rated workplace sex comedy even though I was only 8 years old. While I wasn't afforded the same opportunity two years later for the R-rated The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, I still remember it as a sizable event — it was even promoted with a prime-time TV special. However, I don't think I ever realized just how seriously good a director Higgins was until this viewing of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. As he proved in Foul Play and Silver Streak (which paired Wilder, effectively, with Jill Clayburgh), Higgins knew his way around palpable romantic chemistry and put that talent to work again here. Higgins also fills every nook and cranny of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with a generous and engaging spirit, from the neat opening sequence showing the changing of the eras through the clientele at the Chicken Ranch, through the broad comedy of Deluise fopping around in his bad wig and tight jumpsuit, and in every one of the lively musical numbers. In a film that is remarkably light on plot — and yet nearly two hours long and dubious in many respects — it never feels out-of-control or saggy. It took a special attention to tone, pacing and balancing a precarious premise, to make this movie as delightful as it remains today, and Higgins pulled it off with seeming ease.
While most of the songs in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas came straight from Carol Hall's Broadway score, Parton added a few of her own, and they all range from fun to great. Big production numbers include the opening "A Lil' Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place" and the startlingly robust "The Aggie Song," which packs more beefcake into a single song than any movie has dared since Jane Russell sang "Ain't There Anyone Here For Love?" to a team of Olympic athletes in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Parton and Reynolds share a more intimate, if silly, duet with "Sneakin Around," and although it takes Durning nearly 90 minutes to make his Oscar-nominated appearance, he is amazingly spry and lively with his political shuffle "The Sidestep." the two best songs, however, are saved for last, with Parton and the women of the Chicken Ranch singing the wistful "Hard Candy Christmas," and there's nothing better than Parton performing her song "I Will Always Love You" (which, a decade later, became a smash for Whitney Houston on the soundtrack of her movie, The Bodyguard). It seems ridiculous, in retrospect, that such a light and frivolous movie was able to earn the delicate sentiment of Parton's climactic serenade, but it does, wonderfully.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter David Conrad, who can be found on Flickchart under the username DavidConrad. He ranks it on his chart at #372 / 1674 (78%), where it's his second favorite out of five movies about prostitution. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ranked on my Flickchart at #775 (80%), ranking at #8 on my chart of 24 movies about prostitution.