Film and Society

Bedtime for Bonzo’s Behaviorist Bent

February 07, 2011

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Reagan then has a brainstorm: He”€™ll borrow a baby chimp from the college’s Viennese animal researcher and raise it like a human child to prove that “€œenvironment is all important”€ and “€œheredity counts for very little.”€

The ideological irony is funny enough, but the really funny thing about Bedtime for Bonzo is Bonzo. That little monkey is a riot!

There’s a standard joke that Reagan gets out-acted by an ape, but there’s no shame in underplaying in the presence of such an extraordinary scene-stealer. Screenwriter Ted Berkman explained that Bonzo was trained to respond “€œpromptly to some 502 instructions”€”or, as a passing director sourly observed, “€˜about 500 more than a lot of human actors.”€™”€ Director Fred de Cordova supposedly stopped giving instructions to Bonzo’s trainer and simply explained directly to the ape how to play each scene. The director couldn”€™t afford to use a lot of cuts, which merely makes Bonzo’s performance even more amazing as de Cordova just lets the film roll.

Tragically, young Bonzo died in a fire three weeks after his only film’s premiere, leaving him the James Dean of monkey movies. (Of course, with chimps, the older they get, the cuter they ain”€™t. One day he’s a cuddly ball of fur doing backflips, the next he’s ripping your face off.)

In the 1980s, liberals constantly denounced Reagan as a terrible actor who was fooling the public with his acting genius. On the other hand, Reagan often struck his conservative supporters as worrisomely old-looking.

In contrast to the uncannily unchanging Cary Grant, Reagan’s most obvious weakness as a leading man was that his rather fleshy face aged at the normal rate for a human being. In Bonzo, he looks like what he was, a handsome 40-year-old man, not the perpetual 35-year-old that audiences want as their male stars. Reagan’s Hollywood career wound up a little like the short baseball career of slugger Hank Greenberg, also born in 1911. Both lost crucial years to the Army during WWII.

Johnny Carson made endless Bedtime for Bonzo gags, in part because de Cordova, the Tonight Show‘s legendary producer, had directed it. De Cordova became the inspiration for perhaps the most stupendous supporting character in the annals of sitcoms, Rip Torn’s Artie, the producer on The Larry Sanders Show. Artie protects his star like a showbiz samurai. But it’s fun to wonder who was the top banana on de Cordova’s 1951 set”€”the president or the primate?

 

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