Director: Elliott Nugent
Cast: Henry Fonda, Olivia DeHavilland, Jack Caron, Joan Leslie
The “The Male Animal” started as a play a written by two former college roommates, James Thurber and Elliott Nugent. James Thurber was one of America’s best known humorists, mainly of short stories and cartoons. Some of his best works include “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, “The Cat Bird Seat”, and “The Dog Who Bit People”. Actor and writer Elliott Nugent probably best known as a film director of such lightweight movies as “The Cat and the Canary” (1939), “My Favorite Brunette”, “Up in Arms”, “Mr. Belvedere Goes to College” and uncharacteristically, the 1949 version of “The Great Gatsby.” The play premiered on Broadway in January of 1940 and was a hit running for about eight months. On stage, Nugent played the role of Tommy Turner later performed in the film by Henry Fonda. Warner Brothers purchased the rights and made it into a film in 1942.
Freedom of speech, the battle between the sexes and brains over brawn are the main themes in this film. Tommy Turner (Fonda) is an English professor at Midwestern University where three professors have recently been fired by the Board of Trustees for allegedly being communist. Tommy meanwhile is teaching a class that will include an example of a well written letter authored by anarchist Bartholomew Vanzetti. When Board of Trustee, Ed Keller (Eugene Palette) hears about it, he threatens to fire Tommy if he reads the letter in class.
Meanwhile there is big football game coming up against Michigan State and former local hero Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson) has come home for the big game. Ferguson and Ellen Turner (Olivia DeHavilland), Tommy’s wife, were once an item back in their college days. Ferguson still has a crush on the beautiful Ellen and makes no bones about making it known. With the possibility of losing his job, Ellen wants Tommy to give up the idea of reading the controversial Vanzetti letter in class. In fact, Tommy is being told by everyone it is not worth losing your job over just to read this letter, however Tommy is a person who does like to be told what he cannot say or say. He also does not like the fact that Joe Ferguson is making moves on his wife. It all is neatly tied together, thanks to a nice screenplay written by Julius and Philip Epstein, with plenty laughs and a subtle message.
Henry Fonda’s performance as the intellectual professor, who in the end, wins his wife back over the former football jock and stands up for freedom of speech is a real highlight. Fonda’s reading of the Vanzetti letter is an inspiring experience giving the film an importance lacking in most comedies. Fonda always imparted a sense of idealism and decency in his roles whether it is the freedom of speech defending Professor Turner, or as Juror # 8 in “12 Angry Men”, or as Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Olivia DeHavilland is spunky as Ellen Turner providing a nice comical performance; however, it is Jack Carson as the football jock, Joe Ferguson and Eugene Palette as the commie hunting head Board of Trustee who provide some real hardy laughs.