Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Half a Story, but with Singing

Let's assume the argument about prostitution was settled hundreds of years ago, then let's make a musical comedy with an extremely superficial version of the argument. I can imagine this was the pitch for 1982's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and possibly for the stage musical it's based on, though apparently the film departs from its source in many ways to tailor it for its stars, Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. They do have nice chemistry, though it's largely Parton who carries it. As a whole, the movie has little islands of genuinely entertaining comedy in the midst of a hazy, unfocused story.

In the middle of the film, various average people on the street are interviewed to give an opinion on whether prostitution should be legal. Each gives a simplistic version of typical arguments--an old woman says it gave her essentially a night off when her husband went down to the Chicken Ranch (the place referred to by the title); a young man argues that it prevents rape. This all presumes that men need to have sex periodically. But okay, I do agree people should have the option to pay for or sell sex if they want to, I don't really agree with the implicit "necessary evil" aspect of these arguments.

But it's the fact that the movie broaches the arguments at all that sabotages it. As a simple hearted musical that just assumed everyone in it accepted prostitution, that would have been fine. But if you're going to portray the debate, you need to portray the debate, the topic is too sensitive. I don't know if I expect something like Mizoguchi's carefully thought out examination of the business in Street of Shame but there's far too much left unsaid in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. In narration at the beginning of the film, we're told that for generations, the people of the town have seen their sons go to the Chicken Ranch. I heard Chris Isaak in Fire Walk with Me in my head asking, "What's missing from that statement?" No, not the uncle, but the daughters. Where are these prostitutes coming from? Everyone in the movie talks about how it's okay to go to a prostitute, no-one mentions how they'd feel about their daughter becoming a prostitute. And aside from Parton's character, Mona, who is the madam and having sex exclusively with Reynolds' character for three years, we don't get to know any of the prostitutes working at the brothel. None of them become characters.

Reynolds plays the town sheriff, Ed Earl, who mishandles things when an over the top television crusader played by Dom DeLuise makes it his mission to shut the Chicken Ranch down. DeLuise doesn't make any arguments against prostitution, content just to announce over and over that the place exists.

Ed Earl and Mona have a nice rapport and there's even a nice duet between the two about how much they like sneaking around together. The movie makes some nice references to female libido as Mona convinces Ed Earl to wear some tiny leather briefs.

But as nice as their rapport is, there are many points where their relationship doesn't make sense, as when the two are just about to have sex and Ed Earl is distracted by police business. He comes back to find she's sneaked out of the house. Why? It's never explained but the scene is punctuated with Ed Earl's disappointment as though the audience would be too busy laughing at his frustration to think about the fact that Mona did something with no apparent motivation.

The songs aren't bad--I enjoyed a song from the governor (Charles Durning) that's about politicians giving a song and dance instead of directly answering questions. And of course, Dolly Parton outshines everyone whenever she starts singing--including poor Burt Reynolds having to duet with her. There are also several nice jokes, particularly from Parton, like, "It's always a business doing pleasure with you," or "You know what burns my ass? A flame about three feet high."

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