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.