Movie Mayhem With Chimpanzee and Future American President!



No, grammatical ambiguity of the header aside, a chimpanzee did not become the American President, but on January 20, 1981, a former Hollywood actor who had once co-starred with a delightful chimp named Bonzo became the 40th President of the United States. Thirty years before the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, Universal-International’s Bedtime for Bonzo made its US premiere, following closely on the studio’s similarly high-concept comedy outings of 1951 like Ma and Pa Kettle on the Farm, Francis at the Races, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. And while Marjorie Main, Donald O’Connor, Bud Abbott, or Lou Costello never ran for public office, BfB‘s 39-year-old square-jawed and wavy-haired leading man, playing psychology professor Peter Boyd, at the age of near-seventy assumed the greatest role of his career, that of the leader of the free world.

In a similar bid for chimpanzee-level cheekiness, Kino Lorber Studio Classics releases a high-definition “brand new 2K master” Blu-ray of 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo, starring Ronald Reagan, Diana Lynn, Walter Slezak, and Peggy, a five-year-old female chimp, as Bonzo, on the day of the US midterm elections, November 8, 2022. An election upon which many of the questions raised by both Bedtime and its strange legacy will be decided! But without getting too partisan one way or the other at the outset, BfB is first and foremost a wacky mid-century comedy devised to broadly entertain. That it remains watchable and reasonably entertaining after seventy years is attributable to its game, talented cast, skilled writers, and canny director Frederick de Cordova – who would go on to produce two decades of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson – along with possibly the best performance by a non-human primate one is likely to see.

The movie mayhem (I will avoid saying “monkeyshines” throughout, as of course Bonzo is a chimp) begins on an All-American college campus with the title character having escaped the lab of kindly German professor Hans Neumann (Walter Slezak), and who we first encounter taunting a gathering crowd of co-eds from a third-story ledge. Neumann’s friend and colleague in the college’s psychology department, Professor Peter Boyd (Ronald Reagan), risks life and limb to venture out on that ledge and liberally applies a highly-technical and largely arcane approach known as “reverse psychology” to counter Bonzo’s joy in making a spectacle by actively encouraging the chimp to jump.

The incident lingers in Boyd’s thoughts when a heated discussion with the college dean (Herbert Hayes), to whose daughter Valerie (Lucille Barkley) Peter is uneasily affianced, turns to that venerable scholarly subject of heredity versus environment. Boyd’s late father had been a career criminal known as The Professor, a mustachioed con man who had spent Peter’s childhood years behind bars, so of course Professor Boyd has a vested interest in the environment side of that debate. But snooty Dean Tillinghast is having none of it, earning what we learn by a comic ellipsis was a job-threatening biff from Boyd on that collegiate snoot, and Peter Boyd soon devises an experiment with Neumann to teach unruly Bonzo “manners” in order to prove the dean wrong, and possibly save his job and reputation in the process.

Turning his modest suburban home into a domestic experimental laboratory, Boyd recruits pretty and perky Jane Linden (Diana Lynn) from the local nanny agency to act as “mother” while he himself assumes the role of “father”. But will this messy psychological exercise prove too real or not real enough? Will the chimpanzee become a normal, healthy child, and in effect learn and demonstrate moral reasoning? Can Peter and Jane successfully enact their parental roles and transform a chimpanzee into an active and responsible member of human society? These and many more questions, along with continued chimpanzee-related hijinks will be answered and satisfied by Bedtime for Bonzo!

Again, first and foremost, Peggy as Bonzo is a performer to behold throughout all 83 minutes of Bedtime for Bonzo. Gifted, or perhaps extremely well-trained, but in any event extraordinarily charming, Peggy/Bonzo holds the frame like no other – even his/her human co-stars – performing complicated, involved tasks like tree-climbing, ledge-hanging, eating with a spoon, opening and shutting doors, even disregarding a banana it knows is “Poppa”‘s special treat in one significant sequence. When Bonzo accidentally switches on a vacuum cleaner in reverse and shrouds the living room in a dust cloud, before leaping off the couch and out the window, the set-piece is astonishingly handled with few takes and one set-up. That’s real-time physical comedy, folks, and many seasoned human performers would be incapable of such.

Bringing out the best in Professor Boyd like no other character, including his nominal fiancee, Bonzo effectively thaws the initially stiff-necked academic. Whether jumping on electrical wires, riding a tricycle down the highway, or stealing a necklace for his “momma” at a local jewelers, Boyd’s growing patience and understanding in dealing with the particularly unruly “child” he and Jane have raised – complete with 1950s standard-issue juvenile overalls, cowboy hat, and striped t-shirt – broadens and even humanizes his character in direct relation to the more serious scientific issues underlying the film’s reel-to-reel slapstick and simian-related comedy. If only the future President Reagan had shown as much kindness and consideration towards welfare recipients, union members, working parents, family farmers, educators, schoolchildren, healthcare workers, the elderly, AIDS victims etc. etc., we might be now living in a very different present!

That was admittedly a cheap shot, but it does bring us back to KLSC’s Blu-ray upgrade of Bedtime for Bonzo with its usual gallery of vaguely relevant trailers and, more relevantly, a superb feature-length commentary from scholar, film historian, and (like Bedtime’s Peter Boyd) Doctor Eddy Von Mueller. Expertly tracing the career of its leading man from radio sports announcer, second-tier Warner Brothers contract player, Screen Actors Guild president (and secret informant on “Communist-related activity in Hollywood” to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI), corporate spokesman for MCA and General Electric, and eventually Governor of California, the meteoric rise of an actor/politician who once starred in a western titled Law & Order (1953), and then ran on that very platform a decade later, culminated in Governor Reagan calling out the National Guard on peaceful protestors at University of California-Berkeley in 1969. That such a movie-level political-action would endear RR to a significant portion of the viewing/voting public had already been borne out by the politically ambitious actor/spokesman having tried out, or ‘auditioned’ if you will, for the role of First American in a 1958 Thanksgiving episode of GE Theatre entitled, and I kid you not, “A Turkey for the President”.

Even more affecting and thought-provoking in Von Mueller’s commentary is his parallel tracing of Hollywood’s use of trained animals in films, from the shuttering of Universal Studios’ menagerie in the late 1920s to the rise of private trainers hiring out their animal performers to finally the zoo-holding companies contracted by productions like Bedtime for Bonzo that supplied highly-trained and specialized animal actors such as Peggy the chimpanzee. Peggy, as we learn, tragically died in a zoo-fire a mere two years after BfB was released, and the questions that Von Mueller raises about the animals’ agency and welfare in their procuring, training, and performing are worth considering, especially where those creatures are so genetically, socially, and psychologically close to us. (The relevancy and ethicality of their use in both biological and psychological experiments such as those depicted in Bedtime for Bonzo should similarly be obvious.) The use of non-human primates in movies and later TV continued seemingly unabated through the following decades, with highlights including B.J. and the Bear (1979-81), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), followed by a final spurt of bigger-budgeted broad comedies in the 1990s like Dunston Checks In and Ed (both 1996), and indeed broadly encompass in terms of  simian-themed entertainment what we might loosely define as the Reagan Era.

None of which takes away from the on-screen chemistry that survives on Kino Lorber’s pellucid presentation of Bedtime for Bonzo between Ronald Reagan and Peggy the chimp, though, even after eight decades of eventful human and non-human history. Riding with “Momma” Diana Lynn, Jane to both Reagan’s Peter Boyd and Peggy’s Bonzo, the roll-top of a postwar convertible flapping in the mountain breeze, all are equally on their way to some shining honeymoon idyll, comically-dramatically reconfiguring what we might think of in 1951 as the All-American Nuclear Family. There were many more parts to play for at least one of those riders, but the talent and personality of the most ill-fated and non-human among them at this moment significantly outshines her undeniably powerful yet all-too-human co-star.

The images in this review are used only as a visual reference to Bedtime for Bonzo and do not reflect the visual quality or formatting of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release.