THE MALE ANIMAL (1942) 

Henry Fonda
Olivia de Havilland
Joan Leslie
Jack Carson
Eugene Pallette
Herbert Anderson
Hattie McDaniel
Ivan F. Simpson
Don DeFore
Jean Ames

Elliot Nugent



Time: 101 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Comedy

An uneven campus comedy that allows Fonda to be both righteous and romantic, as well as occasionally funny. He stars as Tommy Turner an English professor at Midwestern University, a school more concerned with fundraising for football and Homecoming festivities than fostering the minds of its' students. In fact, the school trustees, led by Ed Keller (Pallette), are willing to force out any forward thinkers, i.e. Communists, in order to ensure that valuable donors are not scared away. In an effort to keep the peace, Tommy keeps his mouth shut about this "policy" and tries to get into the spirit of Homecoming Weekend to please his wife Ellen (de Havilland). He thought getting reacquainted with his wife's old flame, former football star Joe Ferguson (Carson) was going to be the weekend's biggest challenge. Unfortunately for him, his feelings of jealousy are forced to the back burner when he discovers his own job may soon be in jeopardy.

An over zealous student, Michael (Anderson), who just happens to be the editor of the school paper, has submitted a diatribe regarding the firing of several teachers whose views could cause trouble for the school and cites Tommy as an example of a teacher willing to stand up to the administration. Tommy was going to read a letter containing the last words of a convicted criminal and communist to show his students how even the improper use of the English language can prove powerful when constructed with passion. With no way to stop the article from being seen, the upcoming reading takes on a whole different meaning, wreaking havoc within the administration and between Tommy and his wife. Ellen is horrified at the thought of losing their quiet campus life and doesn't understand how he could jeopardize their future on a mere principle. Emotions flare further out of control when Joe shows up and tries to rekindle things with Ellen.

Tommy comes to the silly conclusion that if Ellen doesn't understand how important it is to stick to your principles, then maybe she's better off with Joe. In fact, he practically throws them together, convinced that he's not man enough for her and that maybe she chose him by mistake all those years ago. Ellen enjoys the excitement that surrounds Joe and revels a bit in her lost youth, but her heart belongs to Tommy. Much hilarity ensues as both men try to convince the other that Ellen belongs with them, regardless of her feelings in the matter. Her attempts to use Joe to bait Tommy's jealousy, merely adds flame to Tommy's conviction that they should end their marriage. When she leaves to go to the big game, he and Michael get rip-roaring drunk, which only fuels their passion for proving that they may be men of intellect, but that they're just as strong and tough as athletes when push comes to shove. Picking a fight with Joe is the last straw. Ellen leaves Tommy to face the board of trustees and the consequences of his actions alone.

There's never really any question that Tommy will read the letter and the entire campus turns out to hear what he has to say. What happens is no surprise, but with an actor like Fonda, at least the point is made with intelligence, honesty of emotion and dignity. This being a Hollywood film, it's obvious from the very beginning that those opposed to freedom of speech are going to be humiliated as oppressive, close-minded bores at the end of the film. As powerful as Tommy's standing for his convictions is, the main thrust of the film is to prove to him and Ellen how much they need and love one another. His getting into trouble is merely a construct that forces them to face their fears about their relationship. While this is an intelligent and clever film, the fact that it's always trying to make a point often hinders the humor of the piece.

Fonda and de Havilland have wonderful chemistry and while the film focuses on them and male/female relations, it's quite light-hearted and fun. Everything dealing with the college, including the rally and football game, slows the energy to a crawl. The plot may not be one of my favorites, but the highly talented cast makes the most of what they're given. Fonda is particularly funny and endearing, showing a less than perfect side to his usual upstanding nature. Olivia gets to stretch her feminine wiles and comic muscles as the delightful creature both men are fighting not to win. If you like the leads, you'll probably love this quirky comedy. For those who aren't fans of Fonda, you might want to pause and see if there's something else on the tube.

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