Year: 1942

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.

Ginger Rogers is my favorite actress. She’s mostly remembered today for being Fred Astaire’s dance partner throughout the 1930s. But Rogers had an acting talent that went beyond that. She was a fantastic and graceful dancer, but she should be remembered as so much more. Her range was unbelievable. She could make a fantastic screwball comedy, and then turn around and make a melodrama, giving great performances in both. Rogers stopped dancing with Astaire in 1939 with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (they’d re-team just once more, ten years later, for The Barkleys of Broadway) to focus on a career in non-musical films. Almost immediately her talent was recognized and she won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1940 film Kitty Foyle. Unfortunately, though, so many of her sans-Fred films aren’t remembered today. Here are some of the best.

Primrose Path (Gregory La Cava, 1940)

The same year she gave her award winning performance in Kitty Foyle, she gave an even better performance in Primrose Path, as the daughter of a prostitute who tries to escape her life by marrying Joel McCrea. This is one of the most beautiful love stories put out by the studio system. It’s about the importance of honesty in a marriage. It’s surprising that this film got past the Production Code, not just because it featured characters who were clearly prostitutes, but because these characters were sympathetic. Marjorie Rambeau (who received an Oscar nomination for the role) played Rogers’ mother and a basically good woman simply doing what she was taught in order to support her family. Her relationship with Rogers is gentle. She only wants the best for her children. Primrose Path is a really brave film for the time it was made, and it’s just one of the best romance films I’ve ever seen.

Rafter Romance (William A. Seiter, 1933)

Rafter Romance is actually a pre-Fred film. It’s a simple but incredible sweet and pretty funny romance. Rogers and Norman Foster play two people who share an apartment – he lives there during the day, she lives there at night. They never meet, but they still can’t stand each other. Of course, they meet outside of the apartment, not realizing the other is the person they believe they can’t stand, and they fall in love. This is definitely one of the most original romantic comedies of the early 1930s. Rogers is completely charming, and Norman Foster is a good match for her. They’re both just so endlessly cute.

Romance In Manhattan (Stephen Roberts, 1935)

It’s amazing that such a simple romantic dramady can be so moving. Francis Lederer plays an immigrant who is in the country illegally. He’s taken in by Rogers and her kid brother. It’s really as simple as that. The three just try to make a living and stay afloat while Lederer and Rogers fall in love. But it’s such a sincere and genuine romance. It’s made with so much heart from all involved. And it has one of the funniest finales ever.

Star of Midnight (Stephen Roberts, 1935)

Star of Midnight is my favorite Thin Man knockoff. It’s central mystery is really very interesting, and it has a certain “strange” feeling that I think sets it apart from other screwball mysteries. Powell stars in this (and he’s great, as always) with Rogers as his much younger and very eager love interest. She goes after everything with determination and vigor, whether it’s trying to solve the case or trying to get Powell to marry her. I really wish these two had made more movies together. They were a perfect fit.

Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)

Vivacious Lady is a sweet romantic comedy made great by the brilliant pairing of Ginger Rogers and James Stewart. They both had an “everyman” feel to them, which made them an incredibly relatable couple. You want so badly for them to be happy together because they’re so normal and remind you of yourself. I also like that it’s not really a movie about two people falling in love. They get married early on in the film. The movie is about them trying to break the news to his family, and staying together while they do it. It’s just an adorable movie.

Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin, 1939)

This is one of Rogers’ very best performances. She plays a woman who has to raise an orphaned baby she finds on her own because nobody believes it’s not hers. In the meantime, she begins to fall in love with David Niven, her boss’s son who takes an interest in caring for the baby as well. This movie is so great because, in addition to the great romance between Rogers and Niven, it’s wonderful to watch Rogers’ love for the baby, that’s not even hers, grow. It’s one of the most interesting and beautiful relationships in film.

5th Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava, 1939)

5th Avenue Girl is such a good movie because it has so much going for it. First would be the relationship between Rogers and Walter Connolly. Connolly plays a wealthy man who is ignored by his family, she when he meets Rogers on a park bench he takes her in and the two pretend they’re having an affair in the hopes that the family will finally pay attention to what he’s doing. Rogers and Connolly bond and form a really nice father/daughter relationship that’s the heart of the movie. But the movie has three love stories going on. Throughout the film, Connolly and his wife eventually find their way back to each other. Connolly’s daughter is in love with the chauffer, who seems to be something of a communist. The best love story, though, you don’t realize is there until about halfway through the movie. Rogers and Connolly’s son, Tim Holt, fall in love. It’s a strangely done romance, I’m not even sure I can really describe it, but it’s a really strong film all together.

Tom, Dick, and Harry (Garson Kanin, 1941)

Rogers played a character in Tom, Dick, and Harry who was a little… simpler than most of her other characters. She dreams of romance and love, but can’t choose between three different guys: the regular guy who’s working his way up to management at a local store, the millionaire, and the poor guy. The best part about this movie is that each of the guys has their pros and their cons, and you really have no idea who she’ll choose in the end. She gives a really adorable performance, and this movie is just cute.

Tales of Manhattan (Julian Duvivier, 1942)

In this series of loosely connected vignettes, Ginger Rogers has one of the best stories. It’s a little, short, self contained story about Rogers finding out her fiancee is a cad and realizing his pal, Henry Fonda, is perfect for her. It’s short, sweet, and funny. And Rogers and Fonda are SO good together. Watching this, it’s hard to believe they never made any other films together. They were such a good pairing.

I’ll Be Seeing You (William Dieterle, 1944)

This movie is SO amazing. While there were a lot of movies being made to show how awesome soldiers were and to spread patriotic propaganda during the war, I’ll Be Seeing You was one of the first films to really take a look at the negative effects the war was having on the soldiers. This movie gives us two incredibly flawed, complicated, and damaged characters and allows them to fall in love. It’s just such a beautiful movie. You really didn’t see movies and characters like this too much in classic film.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1937

Director: Fritz Lang

Starring: Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney

Times, they have been a-changin’. Somewhat. Back in the 1930s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were folk heroes. They were vicious thugs by trade, responsible for the murder of many civilians and lawmen over the course of their careers as robbers. They were also, as the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde tag line put it, young and in love. I guess everyone’s a sucker for a star-crossed love story, especially when it’s cut short by a hail of bullets. Americans like to side with the underdog; the thirteen colonies originated as the underdog, and something in the American spirit — regardless of the U.S.A.’s place in the world — likes to believe we’re constantly rallying against all odds to fight for what is right. Who knows? Maybe we are. If an underdog carries a pistol and puts lead pills in law-abiding innocents, maybe we fit the bill better than we’d like to acknowledge.

The brilliant Fritz Lang made You Only Live Once not long after emigrating from Germany. Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney are fetching stand-ins for Barrow and Parker. Lang constructs his scenes with fluidity and terse grace, weaving between subtle, almost workmanlike mise-en-scene and moments of expressionist grandeur. Lang’s style abets the self-conscious moral tone of the film in surprising ways. While its plain starkness upholds a sense of black-and-white morality and redemption, jutting, layered shadows — and one notable scene shrouded in fog — drench the story in ambiguous noir overtones. When Fonda’s ex-con, Eddie Taylor, is fired for being late with a truck delivery, we are supposed to be outraged at his boss’s judgmental sadism. When Eddie shoots a priest in cold blood, we’re supposed to empathize because the poor man’s been sitting on death row for four months because on a bum rap. When Sidney’s Jo is spotted buying cigarettes, we’re supposed to lament the cosmic fickleness that these young, handsome people should be cornered so close to freedom. Without detailing the reversals and discreet mechanics of the film’s plot, allow me to simply say that for all intents and purposes, this is a “wrong man” scenario in which the wrong man (and his too-adorable-for-words wife) are persecuted by a callous society.

It’s the typical socially-conscious Hollywood picture, with a one-sided moral alignment against that most nebulous of villains, the Establishment.

To watch the film today and accord its storytelling dexterity the same virtue as its moral commentary would be a grave mistake. Perhaps even for its time, its moral compass was eerily directionless. Consider that three-time felon Taylor is only fired because he took his wife house shopping during working hours. Precipitating the Taylors’ tragedy, it illustrates their disconnect between dream and reality. Having established that Taylor is a pragmatist during his parole hearing, it astonished me that Eddie would flaunt the opportunity he’d been given his first week on the job, given his conviction that the world already scrutinizes him unfairly. After being fired, he seeks the solace of a former criminal partner and lies to his wife when she enquires about him. This criminal associate later perpetrates a massacre and frames Eddie — with Eddie having practically turned over the damning evidence with a pretty pink ribbon. His impatience for freedom and frustration with a damaged justice system lead him to jailbreak, despite the fact that, had he accepted his fate with graceful stoicism, he would have received the news of his pardon without killing a priest. He’s an aggressor; an advocate of his own fault. When we find him torn up by the guilt of Father Dolan’s murder, Jo urges him to shrug it off. Though the film (wrongly) absolves Eddie of personal responsibility for everything except killing the priest, he is anything but a passive victim.

There appears to be a mentality among many narrative artists that if a person lives at the poverty level and encounters enough unpleasant, rich, old men, he is morally unaccountable for murder. I can’t say he “gets away with murder,” since a narrative staple of films where the downtrodden are oppressed by authorities and the wealthy is that the protagonist is often shot, lynched, stabbed, burned, or executed in some other infamous fashion. My distaste for the regurgitation of these themes over the course of 100+ years of cinema — and several hundred years of literature — stems from that fact that the foundational morality of the film is flawed in service to a vogue, vague sociopolitial aim. Fonda had a penchant for playing saints and martyrs, but his Eddie Taylor is at times mercifully closer in behavior to Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West. In this respect — Fonda’s performance — the film achieves a transcendence even Lang’s direction can’t grant. Fonda’s is a naturally “honest” face you want to trust, to admire, to follow. What he does with this role is take his perpetually searching gaze and etch his eyes and his angular limbs with the fervor of a paranoid sewer rat. If he has the capacity for love, his predeliction for shortcuts and willful ignorance surpass it every time, leaving him gazing with those wide, honest eyes through the shadowy bars of a self-constructed cell, counting the eternities of every passing minute.

Eddie may be a martyr, but he’s no saint. The film canonizes him anyway. Rather than a moral complexity, it ends up an inconsistency — or, worse, a contradiction. We’re invited to look past Eddie’s career as a criminal to the sensitive soul brimming with love underneath his taut skin; instead, what lurks beneath is an antisocial malcontent whose dedication to bad choices — when he has the intelligence to know and the talent to do better — undercuts himself, and worse, his idiotically naive young wife. The truth is, Eddie is trouble. He’s young, unreliable, and infatuated with the idea of love. When he thanks Jo for loving him, perhaps his affection is genuine; maybe he’s too addicted to the idea of being loved to let her go. Like a doomed puppy, she remains by her man’s side till the bitter end, and when the gates of paradise metaphorically open for them in a tangled, existential forest, it’s a mockery of all the genuinely downtrodden people of the earth who manage to scrape by without resorting to self-delusion and crime.

You Only Live Once is a virtuoso young-couple-on-the-run drama, but morally afield. I guess it was just a Bad Time for America. Would that times were morally evolved now, but I can’t say they are. Cinema has a particular romance with outlaws and so-called “outlaw art.” Stories often shoot for moral complexity and flawed characters, but a stubborn consistency in focusing on the outlaw life suggests a much deeper empathy in filmic reality than exists in reality itself. Would you root for Eddie and Jo to cross the border to Mexico or would you place the call if you recognized Jo buying those cigarettes? Would you give Eddie a pass on murder, or would you demand a fair trial and a fair sentence? Film grants these characters, flawed as they are, eternal life and sainthood. Living once for them is living forever for us; they aren’t the dirty-faced angels I want perched on my shoulder. I don’t care how “in love” they are.

By Matt Schneider