Professor Peter Boyd (Ronald Reagan) arrives at the university where he works just as the fire brigade is showing up - there's someone who has climbed out of a high window in the building where his offices are and may be planning to jump! Boyd rushes up the stairs and into the lab where his colleague Professor Hans Neumann (Walter Slezak) is dithering in a panic, so he opts to play hero and get out onto the ledge to coax the potential calamity down. But the would-be jumper is not human, he's Bonzo the chimpanzee (playing himself), a test subject Peter would do well to take care of...
When Ronald Reagan was running for President, and indeed when he was in office, his opponents in the Democrats delighted in making mention of his movie career, specifically Bedtime for Bonzo, the one where his co-star was a chimp. The idea was that Ronnie would be embarrassed by this silly comedy and it would make him look incredibly foolish, so that mere mention of its name should have sent hoots of derision echoing around the White House, or at least in its general direction. What those opponents hadn't counted on was that they'd be far better off showing his last film, The Killers, because that was the one where he played an out and out villain.
In this, on the other hand, Reagan came across as a genuinely nice guy, and wasn't indulging us with pratfalls and tea parties with the ape, for he remained pretty sensible throughout. That was the joke, really: Peter was such a scientist that in his endeavours to show how nurture rather than nature guided a personality through life he wound up neglecting his duties as a person himself. The premise was that he would bring up Bonzo as a human child, thus proving wrong the Dean (Herbert Heyes) who has gotten cold feet about allowing Peter to marry his daughter Valerie (Lucille Barkley) now it has been revealed the boffin's father was a conman who spent a long time behind bars.
Did the old man's bad influence rub off on his son, or has Boyd's upbringing separate from him allowed him to become a far more valuable member of society than his father ever was? According to this, it's the environment which maketh the man (or woman, or chimp), which sounded... well, frankly it sounded very progressive and (ulp!) liberal, which had Reagan survived politically to the twenty-first century would have been a bigger stick to beat him with than sharing the screen with an antics-prone chimp. Actually, one of the screenwriters, Val Burton, was soon after this blacklisted as a Communist and never wrote another movie, and many have divined a certain left wing attitude in Bedtime for Bonzo since then, once the guffaws about the clowning had died down.
Peter thinks that Bonzo needs a stable home environment as if he were an actual baby, so employs a nanny in the shape of Jane Linden (Diana Lynn, she of the laughing eyes, a June Allyson type) who is initially shocked but quickly comes around to the idea. At last, some conservative fifties values, even if they are applied to an unmarried couple and an ape, but for all the script's moves towards social commentary, which were unmistakably there, this was more like a Disney comedy made around a decade before that studio found such business so lucrative. Therefore it ends up with Bonzo becoming an unintentional jewel thief thereby landing Peter in hot water, just as Jane has fallen for him and his obstinately intellectual ways, all a bit silly but light and breezy nonetheless. What you can compare it to now is the documentary Project Nim, which was the real life tale of a Bonzo situation, carried out by seventies hippy-dippies rather than a straightlaced future President. In real life, it wasn't so funny. Music by Frank Skinner.