At first glance, The Male Animal (1942) seems like little more than an amusing brains versus brawn comedy, but the film’s rah-rah jokes about football, alpha men, and high-minded professors are wrapped around a surprisingly contemporary debate around free speech.
Just a year out from playing a similarly absent-minded professor in The Lady Eve (1941), Henry Fonda plays Tommy Turner, an intellectual English teacher at Midwestern University, where football reigns supreme.
Tommy is uninterested in football, preferring to spend his time reading and lecturing on great literature. He believes he is about to receive a promotion to full professorship when a student publishes an editorial stating that Tommy intends to read a letter by convicted anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti to his class.1
The university’s conservative brass don’t give a fig about great writing, and they don’t need one of their professors accused of being a communist on homecoming weekend!
Tommy receives an ultimatum instead of a promotion—nix the letter or lose his job.
Tommy’s first instinct is to shy away from the fight—he isn’t advocating Vanzetti’s politics. He sees the letter as a piece of literature only, and he has a lot to lose. His wife Ellen (Olivia de Havilland) agrees he should forget the letter and is much more interested in the homecoming game than Tommy’s inner turmoil over the letter.
So far, so serious.
The humor is injected into the film via the arrival of Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), Midwestern’s former football star and an old flame of Ellen’s.
Jack Carson is one of those great underappreciated character actors whom you recognize in film after film but can’t remember their name. Carson played minor roles to perfection across four decades in films including Bringing Up Baby (1938), Arsenic and Old Lace (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), A Star is Born (1954), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) before moving into television in the 1960s.
He’s a scene stealer, a great supporting actor, and integral to the success of many films.
Not every name can be above the title.
Carson is perfect in Animal as Joe, the embodiment of the All-American jock, heavy on the charm and testosterone, light on the brains. He laps up the adoration of the town, receiving a hero’s welcome for his battles won on the gridiron. He’s loud and sometimes obnoxious, sucking up all the air in the room as he talks a million miles a minute and recreates football plays with pieces from the Turner’s dinner service set.
Tommy feels emasculated by Joe’s alpha male status, and wonders if perhaps Ellen wouldn’t be better off with Joe.
And thus, the screwball portion of the film begins—Tommy rejects Ellen, thinking that he will free her to be with Jack. Ellen—who is still very much in love with her husband—lets her wounded pride lead the way by insisting she does want to be with Jack.
And Jack—well, he’s just gotten rid of wife number one. Flirting and dancing with an old flame is one thing, but he’s not in the market for wife number two.
In the film’s best scene, a drunken Tommy opines to his protégé Michael about the difference between civilized men and animals. Tommy decides that men are animals after all and he vows to fight Jack for his Ellen, the same as a sea lion would fight for his mate.
His efforts are in vain, of course, and his drunken punches don’t land. But Ellen’s love for him is rekindled by the effort.
In the end, Tommy realizes he can never prove his manhood with athletic feats or beating up other men.
But he can stand up for what he believes in.
And so he insists on reading the Vanzetti letter his class (that has swelled to a full auditorium of people waiting to see if he will go through with it) and let the chips fall where they may.
Just before reading the letter, Tommy’s boss defends him to Ed Keller, the head trustee, in a conversation I can easily imagine playing out in one of today’s big state universities:
Dean Frederick Damon: “These men [Tommy and his supporters] are not malcontents. Some of them are distinguished scholars who’ve made this university what it is.”
Ed Keller (Trustee): “They made it what it is? What about me? Who’s getting this new stadium paid for? Who brought Coach Bob here from Southern Methodist?”
Tommy: “He means this thing is bigger than stadiums and coaches, Mr. Keller.”
Ed Keller: “Nothing’s bigger than the new stadium! Why, that’s idiotic!”
After an impassioned opening for free speech, Tommy reads the letter to a packed house.
Joe doesn’t get it, and after the reading asks, “Is that all? Well, that isn’t such a bad letter.”
But Ellen does get it. Through tears, she realizes it isn’t about the specific contents of the letter, but about how her husband stood up for himself, how he refused to run away in the face of overwhelming adversity. She has a new appreciation for him now as a husband and a man.
The final moments are surely out of any teacher’s fantasy, as the students carry Tommy off in a parade, celebrating him like a football hero for his feat of intellectual honesty.
Is The Male Animal a great work of cinema?
No, let’s not go that far.
But it walks the ever-difficult tightrope of being a genuine comedy with real laughs while at the same time having a sharp point of view, and that’s more than you can say for many of the films made in the 1940’s…or today.
1 – The backstory of why the Vanzetti letter is controversial is not covered in the film and is not necessary to understanding the plot. But a brief discussion here: Vanzetti and fellow Italian immigrant Nicola Sacco were convicted on first-degree murder based on very shaky evidence and were executed via electric chair in 1927 despite many public appeals for their innocence, including by Felix Frankfurter, who would go on to become a Supreme Court justice. The continued investigation into their executions lasted into the 1940s and audiences of The Male Animal would likely have understood the reference. In 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation the Vanzetti and Sacco had been wrongly convicted.
- Sacco and Vanzetti Wikipedia page – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacco_and_Vanzetti
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