Not as Terrible as I Was Expecting
This is the second Ronald Reagan movie I've watched more out of idle curiosity than any real interest in the qualities of the film; let's hope this review doesn't get deleted in the same ignominious way as that for [i]Knute Rockne, All American[/i]. I shall be shooing the cat away if he comes within two feet of the keyboard. The thing is, I think you could tell a great deal about a person's politics back in the '80s by which movie they thought of Reagan's starring in. Republicans thought of him as the Gipper. Democrats thought of him as his character here, the inept psychology professor raising a chimp. Though honestly, I didn't know the plot of this one until I took it out of the envelope from Netflix yesterday. "Huh," I said. "That's what that movie's about." Then again, [i]Knute Rockne[/i] was in my head under "You know, a football movie." And it's not as though any of us were evaluating the movies based on Reagan's skill as an actor.
So, then. He is, as I said, an inept psychology professor, Peter Boyd. He wants to marry the lovely Valerie Tillinghast (Lucille Barkley). However, her father, the dean of that fine institution (Herbert Heyes), opposes the match because Boyd's father had been a criminal, and of course all of that is inherited, meaning that the dean's grandchildren would be criminals. In order to show the dean the folly of his assumptions, Boyd hijacks Bonzo the Chimp from the lab for a psychology experiment. If he is able to instill manners in Bonzo and make him suitable for basic human interaction, that will mean that criminal traits aren't inherited. Of course. And he ends up hiring the also lovely Jane Linden (Diana Lynn) as his housekeeper and Bonzo's nanny. They pretend for Bonzo's sake to be a loving couple, giving rise to belief in family values Republicans would espouse for decades to come.
Really, it's hard not to be snarky about this movie, and Reagan's presence only makes it worse. This is because the psychology and biology shown here are simply terrible. After all, we've brought cats and dogs into our homes, but that doesn't mean their wild relatives are equally ready to move in with us. Bonzo is specifically stated to be about two or three (and the department would know, because it's relevant), and that's largely because older chimps are less cute. All the ones you see in movies are babies, really, or anyway very young, because full-grown chimpanzees, if they are roused, are not at home to Mr. Reasonable. A full-grown chimp can damage a human pretty seriously, if it has a mind. As it is, I wouldn't want to be around a riled Bonzo, because even as a juvenile, they're still awfully strong. In the movie, it is reduced to turning over his crib and other wackiness, but in real life, well, chimps have pretty vicious teeth and a heck of a lot of strength. Pretending to cry will avail you naught.
Oh, and ye Gods, the psychology. There is, after all, that whole pretending to cry thing. In the wild, chimps find smiling a threat--you're baring your teeth, after all--and have no concept of tears. It's also hardly doing something because you want to or think it's right if you do it to make someone stop crying. What's more, in the universe of the movie, nature versus nurture is seen as either-or, and the idea that nurture has anything to do with anything is shocking and radical. In this one, the nature/nurture debate has lasted for a very, very long time, and the general consensus has begun to be that the answer is yes. I'm aware that the movie was made sixty years ago, but that doesn't mean any of what happens in it was particularly valid psychology then. The idea that someone would prevent a man's marrying that person's daughter because his father was a criminal is more Victorian than anything. Any educated man of the twentieth century would be able to point to plenty of counterexamples to the very idea.
All in all, this movie would have been forgotten decades ago if it had starred someone else. My understanding is that it essentially was until Reagan became President. It's a pretty forgettable movie, really. It's wacky. Cary Grant did something similar in [i]Monkey Business[/i], though admittedly only similar, and that's only memorable for its cast. (Including a very young Marilyn Monroe!) Honestly, I don't think anyone at the time expected it to become a genuine classic. I think they probably expected it to be what it would have been--a movie which people went to, laughed at, and utterly failed to take seriously. Plenty of movies like that get made every year. Within ten years, the assumption would be that, if anyone watched it again, it would be on television, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon when nothing else is on. It would have been that way; it was that way for a lot of years. But Reagan became President, and he tried to teach the country the same values he tried to teach Bonzo.