What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)

SATURDAY!

I slept in this morning gloriously, and it is apparently already above seventy degrees outside; I see nothing but blue sky when I look up, and the sun is shining through my filthy windows. I will undoubtedly have to get out the ladder and do the windows today. My plan was for today to be my day off; cleaning, of course, doesn’t count because as weird as it sounds, I actually like to do it.

I might start some preliminary editing on the secret project as well. But don’t hold me to that, okay?

Yesterday, a conversation with friends somehow ended up on the subject of the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which I saw in the theater when it was first released but haven’t really seen much since then, other than the clip of “Little Bitty Piss Ant Country Place,” which was de rigeur at Lafitte’s on Sundays for tea dance. I liked the movie when I first saw it, and some of the music was quite catchy. But there was always something a bit off about it. Last night I decided to stream it, watch it from a modern-day perspective, and yes, the movie is quite disturbing on many levels.

It seems funny now, but back when the film was released many television stations couldn’t say the word “whorehouse” on air; many newspapers wouldn’t print the word, either. (I don’t know how they reported on actual whorehouses; I guess they called them ‘houses of prostitution’ or something like that) And the tone of the movie…well, I guess it could be best described as “Hee Haw, only with whores.”

And that was really what the problem was for me, on this rewatch. Prostitution is prostitution; whether you think it should be a crime or not (for the record, I think it should be legalized and taxed) turning it–and sex–into this ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge’ cutesy musical just doesn’t work. And there’s also an underlying cynicism to the movie that clashes with the cutesy-ness: the governor is a politician who doesn’t really care one way or the other whether the Chicken Ranch is breaking the law or is a boon to the economy of the town but only about popular opinion–making his decision only when the polls come in; Melvin P. Thorpe, the Houston news sideshow who breaks the story and gets the Chicken Ranch shut down is a snake-oil salesman of the worst kind–a phony and a liar and an anything-for-ratings shyster; likewise, the political structure of the town is perfectly fine with the existence of the Chicken Ranch and taking Miss Mona’s money until things go south and they all abandon her when the spotlight is shone upon the town; and so on and so forth. All along the whorehouse, Miss Mona and the sheriff trying to protect her as shown as the heroes/victims of the story while law-and-order/politicians/the news are shown to be slick hucksters and really of lower character than the whores–begging the question, ‘who are the real whores here? The girls are selling their bodies but the others are selling their souls.’

There’s also the political subtext of city vs. country; a very popular political subtext in our so-called liberal popular culture, in which city people are seen as buffoons and the country people are the voices of reason and common sense–this thread has frequently run through film and television and even in literature to the point where politicians will feed on it: Sarah Palin’s “real America”, etc., ignoring the fact that the urban centers are the engines that drive the economy and where most of the population live. In this story, the ‘city folk’ from Houston are seen as the villains, not understanding something that the ‘country people’ see as not a big deal, making a big fuss over something that doesn’t bother the country people, and ultimately, telling the country people how to live their lives.

The fact that this movie is based on a true story makes the fluffy film even more unfortunate. Looking into the original non-fiction piece “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” that ran in Playboy, the film pretty much actually follows the trajectory of the movie’s story. They did take poultry in exchange for services during the Depression; the business did exist as long as it did in the movie; the sheriff did refuse to close it down despite being ordered to by the Attorney General of Texas; the house operated pretty much the way shown in the movie.

As I watched the movie again, I couldn’t help but wonder not only what happened to the girls after the Chicken Ranch was closed, but where they came from to begin with. I almost wish the movie had been made based more closely on the original article rather than turned into a musical–although the musical was a Tony-winning hit on Broadway. Also, casting Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton in the leads was also a mistake. Dolly was coming off her debut in 9 to 5, which had made her a bona fide movie star, and Burt Reynolds was one of the biggest male stars in the world at the time, which resulted in a lot of sanitization, which kind of hurt the movie. Burt and Dolly have chemistry together, and charisma to spare…but you never forget it’s Burt and Dolly, rather than Sheriff Ed Earl and Miss Mona. Burt and Dolly being cast also resulted in an adaptation to the original story which turned them into romantic interests, and a schmaltzy scene where they go on a picnic and stare up at the stairs and Miss Mona talks about her religious faith–having to explain Jesus to the sheriff in such a basic way that makes it clear that Ed Earl has somehow, as a small town Texas sheriff, never set foot in a church or watched a religious epic movie. I find that rather hard to believe.

There’s also a delicious irony in the fact that in a movie about a whorehouse, there is only one brief flash of bare breasts. The majority of the nudity in the movie is male–and it’s all in the post-game locker room scene, where the Texas A&M football team, having won their annual rivalry game with Texas, is excited about going to the Chicken Ranch (the winning team’s seniors are rewarded with a trip there). There are lots of great bare dancer bodies, even bare butts as they perform “Aggie Stomp.” (When I first saw the movie, I greatly enjoyed this scene as there were very few places to see the bare male form in popular culture at the time, or that many bare male forms at the same time. But even then I thought the guys weren’t bulky enough to be football players, and there certainly were no men big enough to play on the line.) The song itself again is one of those ‘wink-wink’ things, because we are supposed, as an audience, to believe that for college football players, being taken to a whorehouse was a treat–because football players never had access to women’s bodies for sex otherwise.

Riiiiiiiiight.

Of course, the Chicken Ranch is supposed to be closed until things settle down, but Miss Mona risks opening for the football party–which is, of course, when Melvin P. Thorpe and his camera crew break in and film. There’s also, if you pay attention in this scene, some subversive sexuality going on during the Aggie party–we see two players in bed with one woman; two guys and two women together; etc.

The movie now seems much sillier than it did at the time; terribly dated, more than a little misogynist, and like I said earlier, that ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ approach to sex and sexuality now reads as annoyingly and insultingly coy.

I would actually love to read a non-fiction history of the Chicken Ranch, to be honest.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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