There are several periods of American history that drive me nuts when I read about them: the Revolutionary War (I hear about this all the time mostly because I live right around some of the battle sites and Trenton is not too far from me), the Civil War (a teacher went over the war for way too long in my one Honors History class in high school), and the Communist scare after World War II. Out of all these three topics I absolutely despise going over the Communist scare and Senator Joe McCarthy most of all. I hate what Americans did to each other and allowed this sick man to gain so much power and influence. McCarthy destroyed so many people lives and made others look like fools. Americans who were part of the communist parties in took part during the Depression when the country was down and out and they needed and wanted to fight for something that sounded equal for all. As all history teachers will say when Communism is discussed is that it looks good on paper but it does not work when put into action. What I really hate when I read about the Communist scare is how McCarthy attacked Hollywood because he thought they were too liberal. The worst is what they did to Charlie Chaplin kicking him out of the country and thinking he was bad for America’s morals. They even attacked Myrna Loy for being a communist because she was outrageously liberal but she sued the newspaper for libel and they recanted. Katharine Hepburn got labeled a Red because she wore a red dress to a liberal gathering of some kind. No one was safe. This to me is the most embarrassing time in American history. We looked absolutely ignorant. If McCarthy had been allowed to go any further I have a feeling he would have started killing people.
Anyway…. You must be thinking what on earth this rant about the Communist scare has to do with a film entitled The Male Animal. The film takes place in 1942 a year after America had entered World War II. If there was one thing Americans feared most even at the beginning was Communism and the film reflects this fear.
Henry Fonda plays a college English professor named Tommy Turner. He is happy with his position at the university and with his wife Ellen (Olivia de Havilland). A student of Tommy’s named Michael has printed a story in the school paper about how the school is run by dictators who will not allow free speech of any kind. He also goes on to say how Tommy is great professor who stands up for the freedom of speech on the campus and will demonstrate that by reading a letter written by Bartolommeo Vanzetti who, depending on how you look at the case, was a convicted murderer and an anarchist. From the beginning Tommy defends his decision to read the piece as a great work of literature. No one but Tommy even really knows what the piece says.
A second sudden slap in the face for Tommy is that weekend is homecoming and Ellen’s old boyfriend Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson) is coming into town. Joe used to be the star of the football team so everyone knows him and loves him. Right from the moment Joe comes into town Tommy feels threatened because he feels Ellen is still a little sweet on him. Joe even kisses her twice with one time Tommy seeing them do so. All day long Tommy sick of hearing about Joe and hearing him talk about football.
By the middle of the film the whole thing about Tommy reading Vanzetti’s letter reaches the entire campus. Ellen is mad at him because he still wants to read it even though it means he may lose his job. Tommy comes up with a plan to make it easier for Ellen to leave him by playing a mind game which is too long for me to write up. But Ellen gets back at both men and plays her own little game with them.
Tommy does read the letter with practically the whole school in attendance. One of the trustees is furious with him and the letter even before Tommy reads it. Tommy snaps back to the man that none of them know what the letter says. The letter is beautiful with no hint of communist/anarchist air. He makes everyone look like fools. Ellen is so proud of Tommy she tells him he is now the male animal she has always wanted him to be. The whole school is very proud of him as well.
The plot gets a little jumbled and at times just drags and drags. I could have handled the film a little more if it had only dealt with the triangle of Tommy, Ellen, and Joe.
Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland make up for the drag with their performances. Fonda plays his usual awe shucks self but he has a drunk scene that is hysterical. He was a great drunkard! I liked him as Tommy. Having Fonda play Tommy made the character more believable. De Havilland I have to say was a little annoying in this film. Ellen is a little condescending and a bit too flighty. But de Havilland absolutely makes up for it in one scene. Tommy and Joe start fighting over her and she gets very overwhelmed and starts crying. Joe tells Tommy she will most likely get up and fall flat on her stomach crying to which Tommy says she will not. Well Joe was right and she falls on the couch on her stomach crying. Then Ellen truly has enough and goes to run up the stairs and falls. She gets up and says she cannot even run up the stairs with dignity! Hattie McDaniel plays the maid Cleota. I felt terrible for McDaniel, this was the woman who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Gone with the Wind OVER Olivia de Havilland and she plays a maid who supposed to be dumb as a stick. I hated to see her in a scene she looked worse and worse as the film went on. Jack Carson was alright as Joe he was a bit much but I think that was how the character was supposed to be.
The Male Animal was an alright film. I do not particularly care for sitting through films made in the 1940s because they are all about America and how America is so great. It was great for the time because America was and has never been so patriotic but looking at them now with how the whole world is struggling and knowing how the world views America I cannot find these patriotic views enjoyable to sit through. I do love how in the end everyone, including Ellen, were made to feel like such fools for protesting what Tommy wanted to read. Tommy tells them all that they are objecting to something they do not know and that he is fighting for the rights of teachers, students, and the rights of everyone to do or read or say whatever they want and not be punished for it. Besides from the two funny scenes I mentioned the speech at the end was about the only good part of the film.
The only way I will recommend The Male Animal is to see Henry Fonda play a drunk, Olivia de Havilland crying like a little kid and falling up the stairs, and for the speech at the end. If you like films that scream America be guest and watch the film.
^^ Henry Fonda/Tommy Turner reading Vanzetti's letter^^