The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)

Title: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)
Director: Colin Higgins
Writer: Colin Higgins

I have such an enormous amount of love for this little film, and I feel cheated out of a lifetime of joy due to my very late discovery of this gem. I am well aware that my love for musicals is not always shared by many, but I am shamelessly a fan of most musicals. The ability to spontaneously break into ‘song and dance’ is a magic power I dream about, and which I would pay good money for – if I had good money to spend.

Directed by one Colin Higgins (not very well known but apparently his last film as a director), the film stars two very special people; the late and great Burt Reynolds as the Sheriff of small town Gilbert in Texas, Ed Earl Dodd, and Dolly Parton as Miss Mona Stangley the owner of The Chicken Ranch, a famous local brothel. The brothel being a long-standing institution in the town of Gilbert was given its name long before Miss Mona during the Great Depression when patrons used to trade sexual favors for poultry. The brothel can be likened to a boarding house in which those working there are meant to uphold a certain set of rules and to remain as ladylike as possible. In one of the title tracks “A Lil’Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place” Dolly and the girls tell us exactly what goes on at the Ranch but make it very clear that there “ ain’t nothin’ dirty goin’ on”. Despite its functions The Chicken Ranch has a wholesomeness about it due most in part to the role of Miss Mona and her second in command Jewel (Theresa Merritt). In fact we know Miss Mona was once one of the working girls too, and we know what goes on behind those closed bedroom doors, but when Dolly is a part of something it really can only be goodness happening. That’s just the way I see it.

The real magic of this story is the love between Ed Earl (Reynolds) and Miss Mona (Parton). Their chemistry lights up every single scene they are in. Whether they are yelling at each other, lying under the stars drinking beer or “Sneakin’ Around” in the bedroom laughing with one another the combination of Reynolds and Parton is absolute dynamite. I love their love story. The genuineness of it is not something I have seen often (and especially not in a musical). Sure there are cinematic romances that have stood the test of time and have been all chemistry, but I feel as though there was genuine respect, admiration and love between the two leads (and not necessarily in a romantic way).

It is worth noting that this is no “Pretty Woman” scenario. Ed Earl is no ‘Knight in Shining Armour’ archetype, though the final scene in which he picks up Miss Mona and drives away from the Chicken Ranch with her in his truck could dispute that. Miss Mona was never ashamed of whom she was but her love for Ed Earl is so true that she admits she has taken no other lovers for three years. In the meantime Ed Earl has been ‘playing house’ when it mattered with a local widow and her son, but he only has eyes for Mona. Their ‘sneaking around’ seems only to be for the benefit of the town.

Gilbert seems to have turned a blind eye to the goings on at the Ranch because of Miss Mona’s kindness and sense of community, and also because of Ed Earl’s involvement with Mona. She is a genuinely likeable person and those that live there respect her. This all comes to an abrupt end when a TV evangelist running an investigative show on amoral behaviour called The Watchdog Report, discovers The Ranch and declares on national television that “Texas has a whorehouse in it”. Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLuise) who is the infamous ‘Watchdog’ visits the town of Gilbert and threatens to name and shame those involved in the running of the Ranch, as well as those who have chosen to keep quiet about its existence. This threat forces Ed Earl to visit the governor of Texas (Charles Durning) who prefers to stay out of seemingly any and all problems. When Ed Earl returns to Gilbert without any solution he suggests that Miss Mona shut down the Ranch for a couple of months in order to appease the public.

To digress slightly, there are some fantastic musical numbers in which Dolly often takes the lead, and there are two particularly great dance numbers. One involves the members of the senior high school football team who have just won their last game and are getting ready to visit Miss Mona’s (a yearly tradition for the team). The football players sing and dance around in their locker room after the game and even though the audience is well aware of the innuendos and the reason for the boy’s excitement (which is basically to all jump into bed with a prostitute), there is an innocence and sweetness to this because dancing football players are never threatening.

The second dance routine I particularly love is the one in which the boys have just arrived at the Ranch on the back of a pickup truck (after their school bus breaks down on the way there) and they have been met by Mona at the front door and are told to ‘go out back’ to see the girls of the Ranch put on a special show. Under the light of colourful Chinese paper lanterns the girls are all dressed in long dresses reminiscent of a bygone age. They appear on the railings and banisters of the house and descend the stairs in a swish of colour. All of a sudden the music starts and they all partner up and dance in the magically lit front yard. Layers of clothing are stripped off to reveal sexy negligees and be-ribboned stockings. This performance is exceptional, and magical, and ends with the coupled up partners dashing off to their respective rooms and the doors slamming shut for the evening.

To come back to the plot, it is the night of the football team’s visit to the Ranch and the Ranch is supposed to be closed. Unbeknownst to Mona and Jewel and the working girls, Melvin P. Thorpe and his camera crew have planned a raid on the establishment. They break in and snap photos of the girls entertaining their customers. The raid is soon on the evening news and Ed Earl is furious with Mona for lying to him and keeping the Ranch open.

The Ranch is forced to close down. The girls all say goodbye in a tearful song entitled “Hard Candy Christmas”. Ed Earl and Mona had said some pretty mean things to one another before and when he returns to the empty ranch and a very sad Mona, he tells her he loves her – finally. When Dolly Parton sings “I Will Always Love You” in response, my heart breaks. Every. Single. Time. I mean I shamelessly weep every time Dolly opens her mouth to sing, but this is something else. Burt Reynold’s death a few months ago makes this scene even more heart breaking I guess, but it’s also just a lot to do with the fact that I love Dolly! Always have, always will.

When Dolly and Burt eventually realize they’re meant for one another and drive off into the sunset in a pick-up truck it seems like everything is going to be okay. The Ranch didn’t have to open up again and that’s okay because Ed Earl and Mona have each other. Theirs is a romance that will live forever in this brave little movie that made me fall in love with onscreen romances again… Oh Dolly and Burt! I do love you both so!

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