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James Thurber is best recalled for his wonderful cartoons (mostly
printed in The New Yorker magazine in the 1920s through 1950s) and his
remarkably fine short stories and essays. He recently got an ultimate
accolade (posthumously) by having a volume of his prose and cartoons
published in "The Library of America" series. The two longest pieces of
writing that he created that people remember are his short story,
turned into a film, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", and his other
short story turned into a television dramatization, "The Greatest Man
in the World". Also his writings were the basis of a wonderful
television series (in 1969 - 1970) "My World And Welcome To It"
starring William Windom. Quite a bit of mileage for Thurber's work.
He only (as far as I know) wrote one play. He collaborated with Elliott Nugent on THE MALE ANIMAL, a comedy set on a college campus, that dealt with the limits of free speech and academic freedom on a college campus. Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda), and English professor in a mid-western college, is happily married to Ellen (Olivia de Havilland) when two disasters hit him in one weekend. One of his students, Michael Barnes (Herbert Anderson), is the editor of the college newspaper, and he writes an article praising Turner's outspokenness and encouragement of democracy, and mentioning that Turner is going to conclude a course on great epistolary (letter) writing with the final letter of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the convicted anarchist murderer(?) / martyr. This turns out to be unwelcome publicity to Tommy. Secondly it is timed for the alumni weekend, when the arrivals include the bullying head of the Board of Trustees Ed Keller (Eugene Palette) and Tommy's former rival for Ellen, Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson).
Sex and the battles of the sexes play as much a role in the play as does political correctness and censorship. First off, Michael/Anderson apparently wrote the article because of his disappointment concerning his floundering romance with Patricia Stanley (Joan Leslie), who has been showing interest in the football hero of the campus Wally Myers (Don De Fore). This younger triangle mirrors the older one of Fonda, de Havilland, and Carson. Fonda is a fine teacher, but he was giving a pep talk to the disheartened Anderson. That was why he wanted to show his appreciation in writing his piece in the paper.
Everyone on campus is upset by Fonda's choice of literary example. Carson (now a successful car salesman, whose marriage is rocky and he can't understand why), feels it's wrong. So does de Havilland, who can't understand why Fonda would jeopardize his job by reading that anarchistic trash. And Palette is livid - a prime example of super capitalism triumphant, he has no use for those trouble-making lefties like Vanzetti. And since Palette is the head of the Board of Trustees, his anger can't be simply brushed aside.
The play has many nice moments in it - Carson and Palette reliving football glories of the past, with the winning "Statue of Liberty" play, that Fonda manages to simply reduce to absurdity that Carson is left wondering what happened when he is literally ball-less. The pep talk that Palette gives regarding messages from various people who can't come in that weekend - and how banal the messages from all of them are. The attempts by Fonda to protect De Havilland with an unsuspecting (and surprisingly honorable) Carson in case Fonda's future is over. And the climax, when the letter is read to the entire school body.
It is still quite an effective movie, though not thought of among Fonda's or de Havilland's leading performances. Interestingly enough, the letter (while still a masterpiece of English prose) is now known to have been ghost written between Vanzetti and a news reporter who befriended him. But that does not take away from it's effectiveness. As a study in the pros and cons of free speech and academic freedom, you could not do wrong starting out with this film.
The lyrics of Jerome Kern's "Who" resonate throughout this movie as the
lead characters battle one another, both rhetorically and physically,
for answers to the big question "Who?" Who does Ellen Turner (Olivia de
Havilland) really love? Who does Ed Keller (Eugene Palette) like? Who
invited Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), erstwhile beau to Ellen and
football hero/legend at Midwestern U.? Who will save Ellen and Tommy
from themselves? Who can save Michael Barnes (Herbert Anderson) from
"Hot Garters" Gardner (Jean Ames)? Who is Wally Myers (Don DeFoe), the
current football hero, really courting? Joe or Patricia (Joan Leslie)?
And who is Bartolomeo Vanzetti? and what does he have in common with
people like these? Tune in to the song: i.e. "Who stole my heart
away?/Who makes me dream all day,/Dreams I know will never come
true,/Seems like I'll always be blue./Who makes my happiness?/Who would
I answer yes to?/Well, you oughta guess, Who? No one but you." Don't
See the movie. You not only gotta see the movie, but you gotta hear it, too.
Henry Fonda is our intellectual, idealistic professor at Midwestern University. He is married to a woman much younger than him played by Olivia de Havilland. Fonda is going to read a letter as an example in his English class to give an example of great speeches written by illiterate people. The problem is, the man was condemned as an anarchist and traitor and sentenced to death. This gets the trustees of the University bent out of shape and try to stop him. His wife, an ex-cheerleader is being romanced by this ex-football QB played by Jack Carson. They once dated and he feels less of a man around him. The trouble in his professional and domestic life propel this comic satire. This film is based on the play by Elliot Nugent who also directs. Obviously, this movie is taking on current issues of the day to which I am unfamiliar but eager to research. It is so current that it can be applied to today's environment and politics; people who are fearful and criticize things they haven't heard or seen as the letter Fonda intends to read; nobody knows the contents. The pressure to conform and governments who censor political opinion that is dissenting or alternative, school bodies who train our students to focus on the material issues over the immaterial ones. For, the Chancellor is only interested in the winning football team they have and he feels that has ensured his greatness and reputation making him a man to be reckoned with. But other things make a man and Fonda who probably has delivered the best monologues in movies in such movies as The Grapes of Wrath, 12 Angry men, Ox-bow incident, Mister Roberts and Fail-safe delivers another one here that makes the movie. Study this movie for its take today on the follies of censorship.
On the outside, "The Male Animal" works most of the time as a
lightweight comedy starring two heavyweight actors, Henry Fonda and
Olivia de Havilland. However, from the inside, 'The Male Animal' is
more than just a 'brain vs. brawn' type of film, it is a convoluted
mess of love triangles, rival jealousies, and a liberal viewing of the
moral ideals that separate liberal America from conservative America.
And if that's not enough to chew on, there's also a superfluous sub
plot that features a love triangle mirroring the lead love triangle.
This sub plot is one of the weakest parts of the film, perhaps because the supporting parts in it end up being largely inconsequential to the main plot and therefore just become lighter and younger copies of the main characters. Does it really matter that Patricia Stanley (Joan Leslie) finds herself caught between two college crushes, the first being the current football star Wally Meyers (Don DeFore) and the second being a nerdy journalism major named Michael Barnes (Herbert Anderson)? Not really, but I have the feeling it was supposed to.
The strongest attribute from this film comes by the way of the comedic interplay through the leading love triangle between the ex-football player Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), his old cheerleader flame Ellen Turner (Olivia de Havilland) and her husband Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda). Much of the film centers on the homecoming of Ferguson and the subsequent home wrecking of the Turners. Ferguson's arrival brings out the young romantic dreamer in Ellen and the insecure jealousy in Tommy. Ellen and Tommy keep a smiling facade for Ferguson and school boosters who traipse in and out of the house, but behind closed doors lurk a lot of pent up questions that quickly turn to accusations. This love triangle works well through a good part of the film; however the impending, or rather, the implied and impending divorce arrangement that is understood, or better yet, misunderstood by the lead characters quickly becomes monotonous. One wonders how better this film would have been had it been directed by Preston Sturgess instead of Elliott Nugent. The funniest line in the film centers on the response Tommy gives Ellen when discussing Tommy's irritability at having to entertain house guests. Ellen suggests that Tommy have a soda to calm his nerves, to which Tommy calmly replies, "let's not bring this down to the level of bicarbonate of soda".
If the dizzy love triangles account for the comedy in this film, then it is the threat of a letter being read by Turner to his English Literature class, penned from the hand of a convicted criminal and communist, that makes up the drama of the film. Ed Keller (Eugene Palette), the chairman of the board of trustees at the college mentions to Turner that their college isn't a place for "too many ideas". Keller, although never having read the letter, thinks this type of letter goes against all that he sees as good in America; namely 'Abraham Lincoln', 'right guys, stand up guys', 'pep rallies with bonfires' and of course, 'The big game'.
Turner could always watch from the safety of his porch the yearly mob mentality of a pep rally during homecoming, when all that was at stake was a football game. However, this mob has assembled to burn him at the stake. His job, his marriage, and his safety all hinge upon whether he can make the whipped up mob not only listen, but try to understand the beauty and composition of the letter. Before Turner starts to read from the letter, his wife, in the audience with Joe Ferguson, looks on with pitying eyes. By the time that Turner has finished his letter and calmly walked off stage, she feels she's made a terrible mistake by not standing by her man.
What happens next is a very clean and tidy ending. Everyone in the film is in smiles and Turner finally gets to enjoy a rally away from his porch and his bicarbonate of soda.
Everyone in the cast has their moment to shine. Fonda and Carson get the bulk of what is good. Fonda seems at his best when he's in a film where he is standing up for what is right, whether it be as a juror in '12 Angry Men' or the voice of reason in 'The Ox-Bow Incident'. 'The Male Animal' is no different; his reading of the letter is brilliant. I didn't care too much for his drunken buffoonery that lead up to the end, but the letter reading at the end more than makes up for it. Carson is always a solid second banana. He is outstanding as the ex-footballer and ex-boyfriend to Olivia de Havilland. I always like to see Olivia de Havilland, she's always good, but she seemed just a tad wasted by the end of this film. She was great whenever she would become emotional at the realization of how difficult Fonda was making her decision to run away. She's a terrific actress who is easy on the eyes, but mixing comedy and drama in this film was not her highest moment.
Just like the trick 'Statue of Liberty' play employed by the school to win the big game, you might not appear to have had a ball watching this movie, but it still features a few extra kicks in it, and after all, that could be the small difference in the big game.
8/10. Clark Richards
The parallels of the Fonda-DeHavilland-Carson triangle with the younger Anderson-Leslie-DeFore triangle are played against each other to good advantage in this well-scripted and well-acted farce. DeHavilland is at her best, never losing her poise, and De Fore's scenes are hilarious. This is a movie to be enjoyed, not analyzed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
James Thurber's comedic ode to academic freedom was first on Broadway
in the 1940 season for 243 performances. The director of the film,
Elliott Nugent, not only directed the play but starred in the play in
the role Henry Fonda does on screen.
Now that is unusual, the creator of the role on stage directing the guy who is doing the part on screen. But Elliott Nugent was hardly movie box office and Henry Fonda and Olivia DeHavilland as his wife would definitely draw some customers in.
At this point in Fonda's career he was tied to a studio contract to 20th Century Fox that he signed in order to get the role of Tom Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath. He did what he considered a lot of inferior films for 20th Century Fox after that until he went into the Navy. Most of his good work was done when Darryl Zanuck loaned him out to other studios as he did here to Warner Brothers.'
Most people consider The Lady Eve Fonda's greatest comedic part, but The Male Animal runs a pretty close second. Fonda's mild mannered English professor Tommy Turner's got both academic and romantic problems. His academic ones stem from the fact that after some professors were fired for left wing tendencies, radical student Herbert Anderson writes an editorial in the school paper calling attention to the fact that Fonda will read as an example of eloquence from people who were not professional writers, a letter from jail from anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Incidentally his other two choices were Abraham Lincoln and William T. Sherman.
When that comes to the old mossback who's the chairman of the board of trustees, Eugene Palette, Fonda's in for it for sure. Palette's idea of what's important is football and for the big game that Midwest University is having with Michigan, Palette's brought back former football hero Jack Carson to spur on the current team where he starred a few years back.
In the Broadway cast Leon Ames played the football hero, but here the part is done by Jack Carson, in fact it's almost the perfect Jack Carson role. Carson did the blow-hard part so often on screen, he enlivened some mediocre films with it. But here is where he really developed his image. He's also the former romantic rival for Olivia DeHavilland back in the day and he's no support to anyone because football is his life also.
Fonda and Herbert Anderson do a riotous drunk act together culminated in a comic brawl with Carson who if it were for real probably could take Fonda apart. Anderson's a younger version of Fonda and he's got troubles of his own as he pines for Joan Leslie, DeHavilland's younger sister who also has the current football star Don DeFore after here. DeFore is the only cast member to repeat his role from Broadway.
The climax is serious with Fonda telling Palette, Carson, and anyone else who cares about just what a university's function is and what academic freedom means. He's not a guy who thinks of himself as a hero, wouldn't cast himself as one in any play he'd write or critique. But Fonda certainly steps up to the plate on this occasion.
Hattie McDaniel as the maid to Fonda and DeHavilland gets a few choice bon mots herself in and young Jean Ames as another sexy coed with an eye for both DeFore and Anderson was obviously being showcased by Jack Warner in this film. Wonder what happened to here.
The Male Animal is one timeless classic which brings up issues sadly still relevant today. It should be seen frequently, especially by those like Palette and Carson to remind them of what college is really supposed to be about.
Debate over whether a professor should be allowed to read a controversial letter to his class forms the subject for this spirited football vs. academics comedy originally a stage play by Elliot Nugent and James Thurber. The screen version moves briskly but it's all played at a "full steam ahead" kind of tempo popular at Warner Bros. Henry Fonda is excellent as the mild-mannered professor resentful of his wife's ex-boyfriend (a football jock) and Olivia de Havilland is radiant as his supportive wife. Jack Carson is ideally cast as the ex-football player still in love with Fonda's wife and his bombastic approach to comedy serves him well in this role. Joan Leslie is a little too coy as de Havilland's sister (a role played on the stage by Gene Tierney). It passes the time but is little more than a mildly entertaining comedy with too many dull stretches to make it truly satisfying. Fonda and de Havilland later played husband and wife again on Broadway in 'A Gift of Time' (1962). Elliot Nugent's direction is brisk but it still seems rather stagebound. Nugent himself played the role of the professor on Broadway.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Pretty funny take on the perennial college conflict between football
and scholars. The bookish Turner (Fonda) fumbles around trying to keep
wife (de Havilland) from old flame and ex- football star Joe Ferguson
(Carson). But, Turner's really in trouble since the big game is on and
everybody's talking football. I love that pep rally, more like a tribal
event than the eve of a sporting event ("fight", "fight" gets chanted
over and over). And catch that roaring bon-fire in the background, big
enough for a human sacrifice. So what's poor skinny Turner to do when
it's the muscles that reign.
Fonda is perfect as the dithering husband and professor. Ditto, Carson as his egotistic rival who never does figure out where the disappearing teacup went. Their little dust-up is a hoot of physical comedy, but then Turner has picked a battleground where he's bound to lose. That's because he thinks he should do what males of the animal world do, a world where unfortunately the strongest win and he loses. Good thing he's drunk when he challenges Joe, otherwise we might wonder how he got to be a teacher in the first place.
It's also a good thing for the professor that there's a more serious side to the film. And that's the realm of ideas, Turner's true battleground where he's got the muscles. The trouble is that college trustees (Palette) don't want him flexing them by reading to his class from the pages of notorious anarchist Vanzetti. In fact they threaten to fire him if he does. But Turner stays strong and defies the agents of censorship. In the process, he also wins the undying affection of a now unconflicted wife. For she recognizes there is a different kind of strength that only humans havethe strength of commitment to ideas, in this case, a respect for eloquence whatever its source. (Too bad the screenplay fudges by making the Vanzetti quote harmlessly bland in content.)
So brains wins out over brawn after all and makes a good point at the same time. The movie's adapted from a James Thurber play, so some of the snappy lines along with the story's moral should not be surprising. All in all, it's an entertaining 90-minutes, both funny and thoughtful, including a good glimpse of 1940's youth (unfortunately, on the eve of a great war).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of producer Hal B. Wallis' best films, this is a delightfully brittle comedy of manners with great production values including an A-1 cast (Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Leslie, Jack Carson. Eugene Palette, Hattie MacDaniel), smartly directed by Elliott Nugent, who played the Fonda role on Broadway. The James ThurberElliott Nugent stage play has been ingeniously opened out, though still retaining most of its smart talk. Fonda is superb, and receives excellent support from the entire cast, including most unexpectedly Don DeFore who has by far his best cinema moments here. True, he and Herbert Anderson seem a bit old for college kids, but who's worrying?
'The Male Animal' is that beast which lives in all men and comes to the
surface when he is threatened. This satire about American concepts of
manliness was a hit on Broadway but it made a rather sluggish movie in
Henry Fonda is fine as the egghead professor and man of principle who proves that standing up for ones values and for freedom of speech is the manliest act of all. Olivia de Havilland is too matronly in appearance and manner as his wife. Far better is Jack Carson, perfectly cast as the brash ex-football 'hero' who turns out to be timid when the chips are down. As usual, this hearty character actor brought more to the part than the script required.
What strikes you while watching this in 2004 is that the film's message is as fresh and relevant as it was over 60 years ago. A world where athletes are lionized for little reason despite their many shortcomings as men, a world where athletics is given more respect than scholarship, a world where liberal, humanist, democratic values are attacked and constantly threatened with censure -- this is the world we are still living in. This revelation is sobering and suggests that the forces of conservatism have always been too strong in this country, and have been holding us back from all we should be. So while it's a pity this film isn't much, much better than it is, it's still worth a look for the little shocks of recognition it provides.
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