No Rest For Bonzo

You know you’re reading an obsessive show biz blog when you arrive at a post that A) is your second entry noting the birthday of producer/director Fred de Cordova; and B) pays any attention at all to the Bonzo comedies. There were only two of these, released 70 years ago, Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) and Bonzo Goes to College (1952), but they gained outsized notoriety when the co-star of the first one, Ronald Reagan became a national politician, first as Governor of California, and then as one of the more transformative U.S. Presidents of the 20th century.

Bedtime for Bonzo was all too handy a vehicle for poking fun of Reagan, for it worked on multiple levels. On the one hand, it was cited to represent the mediocrity of Reagan’s film career, and was represented to be the lowest estate to which a Hollywood actor could fall. This was overstated, I feel. Nearly every major actor at one time or another was guilty of appearing in movies about as silly as this, sometimes even with chimps in them. As just one example Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business with Cary Grant came out the same year as Bonzo Goes to College. Of course Fred de Cordova was no Howard Hawks, but that’s a different issue from ridiculing the nature of the vehicle per se.

The other aspect of the film that made it a priceless tool for ridiculing Reagan was that you could conflate the man himself with the chimp. Reagan himself was often called Bonzo. His “gee whiz” nature and his simplistic political philosophy fueled much much comedy and commentary that painted the man as dumb and chimp-like. Also over-stated, and not only because America had seen nothing yet when it came to low IQs in high offices. Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump among them make Reagan seem like the Founding Fathers by comparison — and as a thinker, Reagan wasn’t fit to hem the Founding Fathers’ swallowtail coats. But that doesn’t make him a chimp, it just makes him an ordinary mortal. At any rate, for his day, a time when no one could dream how near to chimps future politicians would eventually become, Reagan was nicknamed Bonzo, and ridiculed as such by comedians, and punk musicians like The Damned, The Dead Kennedys, The Ramones, and Jerry Harrison of The Talking Heads.

For perspective, the movie itself was a light family comedy, no more stupid the kind of things Disney was soon doing like The Shaggy Dog and The Absent Minded Professor. It was produced by Universal, which at the time was known for producing comedy series starring the likes of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Francis the Talking Mule. Reagan plays a college professor at an institution not unlike his own alma mater Eureka College who sets out to prove that simians can be taught morality — an interesting thesis for a man with his conservative politics. Naturally, his test subject, the titular Bonzo, causes all manner of havoc, before eventually proving the truth of the professor’s theory. The other major character is a minder (Diana Lynn), whose name (Jane) seems a humorous nod to the Tarzan character who had much interaction with the chimp Cheeta. Also in the cast, well known character actors like Walter Slezak and Jesse White.

Interestingly (sort of), Maureen O’Sullivan, who had played Jane in the Tarzan pictures, is in the second film Bonzo Goes to College, though Reagan, Lynn, and Peggy, the chimp who played Bonzo, aren’t. Sadly, Peggy died in a fire after the first film came out. The chimp used in the sequel was simply named Bonzo, like the character. Reagan was uninterested in appearing in the second film, the premise of which was a bit more far-fetched, if you can believe it. In this one, Bonzo is not only sentient, but literate. he escapes from a carnival sideshow and actually does attend college, playing for several of the sports teams. (If THAT is a political commentary, it’s the sort that *I* would make!) The cast includes Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Irene Ryan, Frank Nelson, Guy Williams, and Jerry Paris.

Apparently, response to Bonzo Goes to College didn’t warrant any more films in the series. Bonzo pretty much went away, until a harsh spotlight was pointed at the series three decades later. Then, in 2016 America actually elected a President who could have learned a thing or two from either Bonzo.

For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.