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Bedtime for Bonzo

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Bedtime for Bonzo
Original 1951 film poster
Directed byFred de Cordova
Screenplay byVal Burton
Lou Breslow
Story byTed Berkman
Raphael David Blau
Produced byMichael Kraike
StarringRonald Reagan
Diana Lynn
CinematographyCarl E. Guthrie
Edited byTed Kent
Music byFrank Skinner
Color processBlack and white
Universal International Pictures
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release dates
Running time
83 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,225,000 (US rentals)[3]
The film's trailer

Bedtime for Bonzo is a 1951 American comedy film directed by Fred de Cordova and starring Ronald Reagan, Diana Lynn, and a chimpanzee named Peggy as Bonzo.[4] Its central character, psychology professor Peter Boyd (Reagan), tries to teach human morals to a chimpanzee, hoping to solve the "nature versus nurture" question. Boyd hires Jane Linden (Lynn) to pose as the chimpanzee's mother while he plays father to it and uses 1950s-era child-rearing techniques.[5]

A sequel was released titled Bonzo Goes to College (1952), but it featured none of the three lead performers from the original film. Peggy, who had also appeared in My Friend Irma Goes West (1950), died in a fire on March 4, 1951,[6] so another chimpanzee was hired for the second film. Reagan did not want to appear in the second film as he thought that the premise was unbelievable.[7]


Valerie, a college dean's daughter, is engaged to the dean's colleague Peter, a psychology professor. When the dean discovers that Peter is the son of a former criminal, he forbids the marriage, declaring Peter's blood to be tainted, in line with his strong belief in heredity as an influence on character. As Peter believes equally strongly in the opposite theory of environment, he aims to prove that he can raise a chimpanzee as one would a human child in a law-abiding household.

After acquiring a chimpanzee named Bonzo from an animal handler, Peter recruits a nanny named Jane, and they act as Bonzo's parents, teaching him good habits. Bonzo inadvertently turns on the vacuum cleaner and leaps out of the window in alarm, climbing a tree, where Jane follows him. Bonzo jumps back into the house and dials the emergency services as he has been instructed to do, but he then returns to the tree and removes the ladder, leaving Jane stranded until Peter can help her. Valerie arrives on the scene just as the firemen are helping them down and misreads the situation, angrily returning Peter's ring.

The dean warns that Bonzo is to be sold to Yale University for medical research, and Jane overhears Peter and the animal handler discussing the imminent end of the experiment. As she has developed romantic feelings for Peter, Jane is so shocked that she allows Bonzo to escape on his tricycle. Peter follows him to a jewelry store, where Bonzo grabs a necklace. When Bonzo refuses to return it, Peter tries to do so himself, only to be arrested by the cops. When Jane instructs Bonzo to surrender the necklace as he has been taught, he obediently returns to the store and replaces it where he had found it in the window. With the experiment judged a success, the dean decides not to sell Bonzo and bestows his blessing on the upcoming marriage.



During production Reagan was nearly suffocated by the chimpanzee when it pulled on Reagan's necktie. After he broke free the tie had to be cut off Reagan's neck by a crewmember.[8]


A. H. Weiler of The New York Times called the film "a minor bit of fun yielding a respectable amount of laughs but nothing, actually, over which to wax ecstatic."[9] Variety described it as "a lot of beguiling nonsense with enough broad situations to gloss over plot holes ... Cameras wisely linger on the chimp's sequences and his natural antics are good for plenty of laughter."[10] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post wrote, "If you can stomach all this, you'll find some giggles in this farce, which is okay when paying attention to the recently deceased chimp, but is perfectly terrible when trying to tell its story. Ronald Reagan, as the naive professor of things mental, must have felt like the world's sappiest straight man playing this silly role, and the others aren't much better off."[11]

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 67%, based on 12 reviews, with an average rating of 5.83/10.[12]

As president, Reagan screened the film for staff and guests at Camp David.[13]

In popular culture[edit]

Reagan, the film's human lead, was elected President of the United States 29 years after the film's release. Throughout his presidency, the perceived absurdity of the nation's chief executive having co-starred in a film with a chimpanzee was frequently mined for humor by Reagan's critics and other commentators, though Reagan himself remained proud of the movie.

In music[edit]

In other media[edit]

In the 1980s satirical British TV show Spitting Image, Reagan was shown as having appointed a dead taxidermied Bonzo as vice president.

Throughout director Fred de Cordova's career as producer of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Carson and guests would make frequent jokes and references to Bedtime for Bonzo when Reagan became president.


  1. ^ "'U' Sets Premieres For First Quarter". Motion Picture Daily: 2. February 7, 1951.
  2. ^ Bedtime for Bonzo at the AFI Catalog of Feature Films
  3. ^ 'The Top Box Office Hits of 1951', Variety, January 2, 1952
  4. ^ "Francis Awarded Humane Society's Top Prize". Spokane Daily Chronicle. 1951-03-07. p. 8.
  5. ^ Rickey, Carrie. "Reagan's film persona: Cheerful, humble, kind." The Philadelphia Inquirer. June 6, 2004. National A22.
  6. ^ "A 5-year-old chimp named Peggy made a monkey out of her human co-star Ronald Reagan". www.latimes.com. Archived from the original on June 23, 2014. Retrieved June 4, 2015.
  7. ^ Bergan, Ronald (September 19, 2001). "Frederick De Cordova: Film director famed for embarrassing Ronald Reagan with a chimp".
  8. ^ Mancini, Mark (September 3, 2013). "The Time Ronald Reagan Was Nearly Strangled by a Chimp". Mental Floss.
  9. ^ Weiler, A. H. (April 6, 1951). "The Screen: Two Films Have Premieres". The New York Times: 31.
  10. ^ "Bedtime for Bonzo". Variety: 11. January 17, 1951.
  11. ^ Coe, Richard L. (March 15, 1951). "The Chimp's A Lot Cuter Than Reagan". The Washington Post. p. B11.
  12. ^ "Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved July 8, 2019.
  13. ^ Weinberg, Mark (May 2, 2019). "'I'm the One Wearing the Watch': An excerpt from 'Movie Nights with the Reagans'". GW Magazine.

External links[edit]