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The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

**
1982

‘…neither Parton nor Reynolds seem comfortable with the enforced intimacy….’

Yikes! It’s hard to know what angle to come at this one from. It’s a Burt Reynolds movie for sure, with the star in uniform, driving police cars at speed, and with support from the perennially unfunny Dom DeLuise and Jim Nabors. But it’s also an adaptation of a popular if now unfashionable Broadway musical theatre production, with songs by Carol Hall. And it’s also very much a Dolly Parton project, reuniting her with 9 to 5 director Colin Higgins, and featuring several Dolly songs including I Will Always Love You. The result was one of the most popular musicals of the 80’s, if not the most enduring. In 2021, is there anything to love about The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas?

It’s a mixed bag. This IS a proper musical, with singing leads, lots of dramatic scenes which feature abrupt breaking-into-song, and plenty of dancing hookers and football players. It’s also a big advert for Texas, with full stadiums, crooked politicians, packed tv auditoriums, and lots of down-home humour. And it’s based on a true story, with the Chicken Ranch raids of the 70’s the subject. The key difference is that Parton re-imagined the central relationship; rather than Madam Miss Mona (Parton) and cop Ed Earl (Reynolds) being on opposite sides of the dispute, they’re a couple. If you’re going to add songs like I Will Always Love You, then the central relationship has to be a love story, but that element jars with the concept of the stage show, and neither Parton nor Reynolds seem comfortable with the enforced intimacy. When Charles During shows up as a dancing lawman, performing The Sidestep Song, it’s something of a relief to anyone comfortable with what they’re doing

Parton has had a steady hit-rate as a performer since, and this and Rhinestone are her two major debacles, each pairing her with a rugged male co-star that she somehow didn’t gel with. But songs like Hard Candy Christmas are a good match for Parton, and she’s the one central element that’s just right here. The wholesome nature of the film, given that it’s dealing with prostitution, is decidedly off; money is never seen changing hands, and the girls all seem to engage in sex work as it’s something they just love to do. That it all makes money for the local community is seen as the clinching vindication; this kind of prostitution is seen as nothing but a good laugh.

In 2021, the plight of today’s sex-workers doesn’t chime with the content of this film. Unprotected, exploited and exposed to the worst elements of a society on the plunge, there’s little of the glitzy bonhomie featured here. The dance scenes feel like a sex-themed end-of-the-pier show, which is what they are in a glorified way. The reason that this film has gone down and stayed down is that the notion of the happy hooker didn’t last; we might want to celebrate Parton, but her role in getting this shonky project to the big screen is probably best forgotten as a blot on her copybook.

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  1. This is a movie that’s been on my “to watch” list for years, maybe decades. I like Parton, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. Someday, I will!

    • New on Prime in the UK, but that’s no real incentive. I’m a Dolly fan, and can make a case for everything from 9 to 5 to Joyful Noise, but this is not her finest hour. Always good to see her, but you can skip this one.

        • It’s heavily featured in my Complete Cinema of Dolly Parton imaginary book that I’m yet to write.

              • You might have missed the comments section features my negativity towards Michael Deluise, who played the husband of Luke’s sister. Most annoying character, and that includes Kirk! I’m keeping a Gilmore Girls slant to my writing, even indirectly.

                • Haha I will have to go back and read more carefully. Yes, TJ and the sister were not particularly inspires characters. But APRIL! I reserve my deepest loathing for Luke’s surprise daughter!

                  • Yes, that was a plot line I’d prefer to forget. And yet Luke is a great character, so it’s something of a mystery why these details are so poor. Rory and Mrs Gilmour’s trip to Paris may also be the tattiest set piece in the show, the view of the Eiffel Tower from their window is a disgrace. And that is absolutely not how a student newspaper is run, even with Paris involved. But I digress….

                    • Oh, I could go on with you about GG all day. As with any show, the early seasons are divine and that after about 4 the plots get increasingly ridiculous!

                    • Rory stealing a boat was a shark jumping moment from me, and I think the show misjudged my enthusiasm for Lane’s band. But I’d say that there was a strong enough through line to keep me going until the end. Let’s save our powder for a full discussion!

            • If one person is interested, it’ll be worth it! Joyful Cinema; The Films of Dolly Parton is in production!

  2. For some reason Delouise and Reynolds were thought Box office gold for a while. Dom had a cute moment in Top Secret! but he’s usually a groan. Has sex work ever been treated with anything but the extremes of horror or amusement? Again it’d be nice to have adult behavior treated in an adult fashion instead of all the weight we always manage to drown it with.

    • I can almost see how this could work on stage as a forbidden true story, but it’s Disneyfied beyond belief here. Not sure what Parton feels about this now, but not sure this film has anything useful to say about sex work. Actually, it’s one of Dom’s better ie straighter roles, less Captain Chaos…

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