When I was young and it was time to go to sleep, my mom used to always say it was "bedtime for Bonzo." Sometimes, she would even sing it in this simple sing-song kind of way. At some point I got old enough for the curiosity to get to me, and I asked her just who Bonzo was anyway. She explained that it was an old movie starring Ronald Reagan and a chimp. "Ronald Reagan, our president?!" I exclaimed, like every other American kid in the 80s probably did at one time or another.
Fast forward many, many years later, and I decided to watch this film whose name I was so familiar with but otherwise knew nothing about. Since films starring animals are always shaky ground, I really didn't expect too much from this film, and that may be why I enjoyed it.
The plot is a lot like a romantic screwball comedy, if you can blend those two. Psychologist professor Peter Boyd, played by Reagan, is engaged to the daughter of the dean, whose main field of study is genetics. When the dean finds out Peter's father was a criminal, he can no longer approve of their engagement. So after helping to calm down the problem chimp in the psych department, Peter gets an idea - he'll bring it home and raise it in a normal family environment, to prove it's not your genetic makeup that makes you who you are, but the way you are raised. Then the dean will change his mind and let him marry his daughter. But in order to raise him in a normal family, he needs a mother as well, and instead of asking his fiancee for help, he hires a nanny, because his fiancee is rich, upper crust society and knows nothing about raising children.
That last part in particular dates this film a bit, putting it firmly in 1951 when it was made. I was rolling my eyes when they set up that particular angle. But of course it's needed to put the romantic angle in place, so I'm willing to overlook it even though I don't agree with it. The other side of the plot, the classic nature vs. nurture debate, is one I've always been fascinated with though, and it was neat to see it brought up in a lighthearted film like this. It grants it a bit of intelligence that comedies like this usually wouldn't have today.
The story plays out as you might expect, where the nanny shows up and helps him out, and of course she's a young beautiful woman. They determine they must use affectionate names for each other and act like a happy couple in order for Bonzo to grow up in a stable environment, and the young woman, Jane, ends up developing feelings for Peter. For him it's all science at first, but he eventually realizes he cares about her too. The chimp gets into a lot of antics along the way, but does learn manners and cares for his "parents" over time.
The chimp they used is well trained, and there aren't too many obvious tricks being deployed to get him to do what they want. The only obvious thing I noticed was when he goes to blow out the candles on his birthday cake, they used slow motion, I guess because he wouldn't actually do that one trick. But otherwise he's very good and absolutely adorable. The one thing that's a little annoying is they seemed to be dubbing a voice for him at times, making him whimper and such. I don't really know that that was necessary at all.
While the ending may be obvious, this is still a well done film in the execution. Peter admits to his fiancee what's going on earlier than you would expect, and there's a lot of twists and turns in the middle related to the fact that Bonzo has an attraction to shiny objects. Maybe it's just my own personal fondness for chimps and other primates, but I found myself emotionally invested in Bonzo's journey as he became a member of their little family. While he gets into a lot of trouble in the beginning, the slower pacing, lack of whacky music, and less exaggerated reactions from his human co-stars made this so much better than say Beethoven or Dunston Checks In. It's not a masterpiece of film-making but it is downright charming.
Being my first time seeing Reagan playing a lead role, I'd call him fairly average for the era. He's not too charming, but his character is meant to be a bit distant. I think the biggest thing for me is that his voice doesn't sound anything like the soothing old man voice I'm used to hearing from him in my youth. But if you're curious just what kind of actor our former president used to be, this wouldn't be a bad film to check out.
As for me, I'll probably be saying it's bedtime for Bonzo when it's time to go to sleep for the rest of my life, and now I know there's a charming little movie to go along with my childhood memories.