The Male Animal (1942):  Brains vs. Brawn

The Male Animal (1942) opening banner

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.

Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, and Jack Carson in The Male Animal (1942)

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.

Henry Fonda in The Male Animal (1942)

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.

Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland in The Male Animal (1942)

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.

Endnotes

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.

The Male Animal (1942) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

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Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, and Jack Carson in The Male Animal (1942)

Mildred Pierce (1945): Crawford at a Crossroads

Joan Crawford in fur coat as Mildred Pierce (1945)
Mildred Pierce (1945) Opening Banner

The career of every actress—then and now—approaches a hairpin turn at around age forty.  It begins with the slap in the face the first time a star loses a coveted role to a younger woman.  The box office draw slips and no longer justifies the huge salary earned from your prior successes, leading to the potentially fatal “box office poison” designation.

The actress cannot continue doing what had previously brought her monumental success—if she tries too hard for too long, she will drive her career off a cliff.  But if she finds a way to survive this icy, harrowing turn, forty becomes the end only of her first act.  

And presents the chance to become a legend.

In 1945, Joan Crawford was going over the cliff and everybody knew it.

After eighteen years as MGM’s glamour girl, she asked to be let out of her contract because she wasn’t getting any good parts.  If it was a bluff, Louis B. Mayer called it.  He was happy to have her bloated salary and fading looks off MGM’s books.  

It looked like she’d landed on her feet when she signed a lucrative contract with Warner Brothers—she was still Joan Crawford, after all—that included control over the roles she played.

This control was nearly her undoing.

Despite the new contract, she didn’t work for two years.  Warners sent her scripts, but she kept turning them down.  It was true that many of the parts weren’t very good, but what rankled was that they were age-appropriate. 

She could not—would not—accept that she was no longer an ingenue.  

The flow of scripts slowed to a drizzle and eventually dried up.  She was gaining the reputation of being difficult to work with.  She was no longer worth the trouble.

No one was waiting for Joan Crawford’s comeback.

The realization that she may never work again ignited her fighting spirit.

She would not go gently into that good night like Garbo or Norma Shearer.

She needed a part—a good part, certainly, but she had to get off the sidelines.  She had to convince the world—and perhaps herself—that she had worth as an actress beyond youth and beauty.

She set her sights on Mildred Pierce.  Producer Jerry Wald and director Michael Curtiz were adapting James M. Cain’s novel about a woman whose tireless and unselfish efforts to provide for her daughter ultimately turn that daughter into a treacherous monster.

The producer and director had Barbara Stanwyck in mind for the title role, and it’s easy to see why.  Stanwyck—famously less vain than other stars of her caliber—had relatively little trouble adapting herself to more mature roles.  

Many times when I hear that someone else was slated to play an ultimately iconic role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  But I can see Stanwyck as Mildred Pierce—she would’ve brought her natural style, and highlighted Mildred’s tough exterior that coated a core of vulnerability.  

But although I’d like to see the alternative universe version, I think Joan Crawford was still the right choice.  The plot of Mildred Pierce rhymes with that of Stella Dallas, and while it would’ve been interesting to watch Stanwyck play another self-sacrificing mother, Crawford had never played anyone like Mildred and thus brought a freshness to the role.

The wardrobe for a Stanwyck Mildred Pierce would likely have been entirely different—more housewife and waitress, less successful restaurateur and fading glamour girl trying to hold a younger man.

And I am just not willing to sign up for a world in which we are denied the sight of Joan Crawford as Mildred rocking those mountain high shoulder pads.

Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce (1945)
Nobody, but nobody rocks shoulder pads like Joan Crawford

In any case, Crawford had set her sights on Mildred Pierce as her comeback vehicle and wasn’t going to let anyone—not the director’s dislike, the producer’s wavering, or her friend Stanwyck’s desire to play the part—stop her.

She fought for the part, insisting she understood Mildred better than anyone.  She even did a screen test—a humiliating comedown for an actress of her statue—to convince the skeptical director that she could bring the required gravitas to the part.

She got the role.

Mildred Pierce is a first class melodrama.  When she divorces her husband, Mildred—who had seemingly never worked outside the home before—humbles herself (much as Crawford did to get the role) by taking a job as a waitress and baking pies.  Mildred finds she has a head for business and eventually buys the restaurant.  She has more success, turning her single restaurant into a chain.  

Like Crawford, she is less successful in her personal life.  Her practical business sense does not carry over into the men she picks for romance.

The fuel that drives Mildred’s ambition is providing for her daughters, especially Veda, who has expensive taste and social climbing ambitions.  In indulging her, Mildred creates an ungrateful beast who brings them all down.

Mildred Pierce was the triumph Crawford needed.

She received the first Academy Award nomination in her long career.  Much has been made of the fact that she did not attend the Oscars due to illness.

Uncharitable readings are that she faked the illness for attention.

A more sympathetic interpretation—and the one I choose to believe—is that Joan feigned illness because she was too afraid to lose that Oscar in public.  Her career was riding on the success of Mildred Pierce and her career was her life.  Losing the Oscar didn’t mean her career was over—the movie was a success—but winning the Oscar would cement her comeback.

She won.

There is a dramatic photograph of her receiving the Oscar in bed in her hotel room, the most glamorous sick woman you ever saw.

Joan Crawford holding her Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945) in her hotel bed

She was still Joan Crawford, after all.

She’d made the hairpin turn.

And the second—and in some ways more successful—half of her career began.

Mildred Pierce (1945) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce (1945)