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Bedtime for Bonzo
Remind Me
,Bedtime For Bonzo

Bedtime For Bonzo

Ronald Reagan is a monkey's uncle – or, more properly, a foster father to a young chimp – in Universal's low-budget comedy Bedtime for Bonzo [1951]. Famous as the monkey in Reagan's closet when the actor and one-time president of the Screen Actor's Guild turned his attentions to national politics, the title was trotted out for easy jokes and the film played as a camp oddity at fundraising events by his opponents. With such a reputation, you might be surprised to discover that the modest little comedy is actually an enjoyable piece of light entertainment. Even without the kitsch factor of the future President of the United States playing house with a scene-stealing chimpanzee.

The premise for the screenplay came from a real-life study by Yale professor of psychology Robert Yerkes, who specialized in the development of primates. Screenwriter Ted Berkman, who helped develop the story with his writing partner Raphael Blau, had wanted Cary Grant to play the college professor and was more than a little disappointed to find Reagan cast in the lead. Reagan's film career was on the downhill slide by the late 1940s. Substantial supporting parts in major productions such as Kings Row [1942] and Santa Fe Trail [1940] (playing General George Armstrong Custer to Errol Flynn's Jeb Stuart) had failed to launch him into anything but bland leads in indifferent studio programmers.

The light comic role proved to be a perfect fit for Reagan. He brings an amiable presence to the part of Professor Peter Boyd, a genial psychologist at a small college, and makes a memorable entrance by talking a laboratory chimp off a building ledge using "inverse psychological dominance" and "gestalt theory" (two terms I'll bet you've never before heard from the mouth of Ronald Reagan). When it's revealed that Boyd is the son of a convicted criminal, a "nature versus nurture" controversy develops with the college dean, who has a personal stake in the argument: Boyd is engaged to his daughter. To prove that environment is more important than heredity in moral development, or in his own words, that "even a monkey brought up in the right surroundings can learn the meaning of decency and honesty," Boyd embarks on an experiment with playful lab chimp Bonzo as his test subject.

To create a stable home environment for the energetic little monkey, he hires a perky young woman, Jane (Diana Lynn), as a nanny, and proceeds to create a little nuclear family in his suburban home: "Poppa" Peter Boyd, "Momma" Jane, and baby boy Bonzo. Diana Lynn was a child prodigy pianist who made her film debut playing piano in the 1939 They Shall Have Music; most of her early Hollywood features cast her as sharp, sardonic juvenile leads, a girl usually more mature than the adults around her in such films as The Major and the Minor [1942] and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek [1944]. She brings a sweet and spunky energy to the part of the play-acting "momma" who slowly falls in love with the brainy "poppa," a decent, good-natured man so caught up in his study that he fails to notice her adoring smiles.

Walter Slezak, an Austrian-born actor with a long Broadway career before he settled into Hollywood character parts, plays Professor Hans Neumann, Boyd's colleague and best friend. Usually cast as bumbling authority figures or menacing bad guys, including a number of Nazi roles (as in Hitchcock's Lifeboat [1944]), this is one of his most likable roles.

The break-out star of Bedtime for Bonzo, however, was the animal act. In Reagan's own words: "I fought a losing battle with a scene-stealer with a built-in edge – he was a chimpanzee." Bonzo sits in a high chair and plays with his food, makes faces at the dinner table, has a slapstick run-in with a vacuum cleaner, and leads his momma and poppa up a tree for a comic chase. He's adorable and he exudes as much personality as any of the non-simian cast members. According to Berkman, "The talented chimp, though not a Method actor, could reportedly weep on command or laugh, snarl with hate, smooch affectionately or stand on his head, responding promptly to some five-hundred-and-two instructions – or, as a passing director sourly observed, 'about five hundred more than a lot of human actors'."

The film moves smoothly under the direction of reliable studio hand Frederick De Cordova, a journeyman with dozens of films to his credit (including the Ozzie and Harriet big screen feature Here Come the Nelsons and the Elvis Presley film Frankie and Johnny, 1966) but famed for his legendary TV work as the producer of The Jack Benny Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Bedtime for Bonzo was a box-office hit that momentarily boosted Reagan's career (he starred opposite Doris Day in The Winning Team [1952] the next year), but he was soon back in B-westerns and TV work and soon left acting for good to concentrate on politics. Bonzo went on to a sequel, Bonzo Goes to College (1952), directed again by De Cordova but without Reagan or Lynn, or for that matter the original Bonzo. The talented chimpanzee died in a fire at the Thousand Oaks Zoo a few weeks after the premiere.

Producer: Michael Kraike
Director: Frederick De Cordova
Screenplay: Ted Berkman, Raphael Blau, Lou Breslow, Val Burton
Cinematography: Carl Guthrie
Film Editing: Ted J. Kent
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Eric Orbom
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Ronald Reagan (Prof. Peter Boyd), Diana Lynn (Jane Linden), Walter Slezak (Pro. Hans Neumann), Lucille Barkley (Valerie Tillinghast), Jesse White (Babcock), Herbert Heyes (Dean Tillinghast).

by Sean Axmaker