Grade:  B-
Not rated (would be G)

Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) is one of those legendary movies that I hadn’t gotten around to seeing until Kino Lorber came out with this sparkling new 2K Master Blu-ray release.

As it turns out, Ronald Reagan was a better actor in the political arena than he was in movies. He’s out-acted in this one by a chimpanzee named Peggy, whose performance earned her a PATSY Award (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) from the American Humane Society. But it’s fun to watch a comedy starring the future 40th president of the United States, and this film was so much a part of the public consciousness that Reagan used a “Bonzo” campaign to help him win the White House in 1980.

The history of animals forced to perform in Hollywood movies is not a happy one that often involved beatings and other abuses. But according to numerous accounts, Peggy was a real pro who enjoyed working and was therefore not subject to some of the cruel treatments that befell other simian performers. PETA tells us that even as recent as a decade ago there were “at least a dozen” chimpanzees working in Hollywood.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, though, chimpanzees were extremely popular and appeared in such live-action films as Monkey Business (with Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe), Disney’s The Monkey’s Uncle (with Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello), the early Planet of the Apes films, all of the Tarzan features, every episode of the Jungle Jim TV series, and a 1961 series called The Hathaways, which was about a realtor and his wife, who happened to be the manager-owner of three chimps working in Hollywood.

Now there are none, thanks to the efforts of PETA and other groups, and CGI has forever removed the need to train animals for motion picture performances. That said, there is something fascinating about watching Peggy, who, as Bonzo, gets way more screen time than any of the human actors. We watch her climb up trees and buildings, steal and return jewelry, ride a tricycle, walk “like a person,” and act like a couple’s child throughout the film—as in a real, wholesome family.

That’s actually the premise of this film, the plot of which might remind viewers of My Fair Lady without the music or an academic version of Trading Places. Reagan plays psychology professor Peter Boyd, who sets out to prove the nature vs. nurture debate by hiring a woman named Jane (Diana Lynn) to move into his house and pose as the chimp’s “mother” while he plays the part of the father . . . albeit an absentee one much of the time, because he also happens to be engaged. He conveniently fails to tell that to his fiancée (Lucille Barkley) or Jane, who, like Bonzo, becomes enamored with the thought of being part of a family.

Muddying the waters is an unsupportive dean, a competing college laboratory, and the appearance of an ex-con who claims to have met the professor’s father in prison—a father who was uneducated and pursued a life of crime to such a calculated degree that he was known, ironically, as “The Professor.”

Some familiar faces turn up in this comedy, such as Jesse White (the Maytag repairman) and character actor Walter Slezak, and while all of the actors do their part to make this comedy engaging, the film really does come down to the performance of Bonzo. And Peggy nails it. Her antics, which are reminiscent of something Curious George might do, make this a fun and quite different film for family movie night—even if it is in black and white. Bedtime for Bonzo is in the public domain and there are plenty of free copies out there on the internet, but they’re all quite blurry, not like this sharp release from Kino Lorber.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  83 minutes Black-and-White
Studio/Distributor:  Universal/Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio:  1.37:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features:  C+ (audio commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller)
Amazon link
Not rated (would be G)

Language:  0/10—Nothing that I caught

Sex:  0/10—Nothing here either, as this was made to be a family film

Violence:  0/10—Again, nothing that registered in my brain as violence worth mentioning

Adult situations:  1/10—Bonzo steals, police think that the professor is a thief, etc.

Takeaway:  Whenever Bedtime for Bonzo comes up in conversation, it’s usually in a derogatory manner because of Reagan and his second career; but if you leave politics and animal rights concerns out of it, this is a surprisingly entertaining comedy that still holds up