Friday, January 23, 2009

The Male Animal (1942)

I have to say this - I am starting to heart me some Henry Fonda. He is one of those leading actors, like Gary Cooper, that doesn't usually grab a hold of you on first viewing like some other male leads ... like, say ... Cary Grant. However, you watch one Henry Fonda film and think "Wow, that was good. That Henry Fonda fella was good too." Then you see another and another and you suddenly think, "Wow, I heart me some Henry Fonda". Well, you think that if you are a dork like me. Otherwise you probably think, "That Henry Fonda is a fine actor and I can't believe I didn't recognize that before". (BTW, thanks to my friend for pointing me in Mr. Fonda's direction - much appreciated.)

Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda in The Male Animal

Professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) is an English professor who loves to teach and is soon to be tenured. Unfortunately, an overzealous Board of University Trustees are determined to fire all the "reds" (re: liberals) amongst the university staff. When an article in the university literature magazine is published labeling Professor Turner as a liberal who is standing up to the Board of Trustees by reading a letter by a convicted anarchist, he is suddenly thrown into the spotlight and in a tough position. To add to the mess, it is the big university game and his wife's (Olivia de Havilland) college sweetheart and football hero Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson) has come back into town. The question soon becomes how Professor Turner will stay true to his own core beliefs and keep his job and also Ellen, his wife.

This is a cute little comedy with a very important message about free speech and how important it is to stand up to the erosion of our civil liberties. Everything about that part of the movie, I loved. I loved the exchange of the Dean of the Department with the head Trustee.

(Discussing searching out the liberals, reds, and getting rid of them)
Trustee: "Can't find the reds, get after the pinks."
Dean: "What shade should I stop at?"

That pretty much says it all doesn't it?

Henry Fonda was fantastic in this role playing the reluctant activist and hero. He played the comedy bits perfect and I loved his character. He had great lines and delivered them perfectly. Here are some examples:

Ellen: "Aren't you going to wear your nice new blue suit?"
Tommy: "I don't like to wear new suits. They are too full of creases and mortgages."

Joe: "Say, this is a nice big ol' place you got here. Do you own it?"
Tommy: "No, we rent, from a bank."

Ellen: "You better take a hot water bottle to bed with you."
Tommy: "Nice of you to arrange for a substitute."

I also thought the bit about academics vs. sports was an interesting plot line too. It got even deeper into the intellectual vs. jock debate as to who is more apt to attract women and be the right man in the long run for women. I didn't have a problem with any of that. Both of those debates rage on even today. I loved how the Professor was trying to explain the difference between the two to a young intellectual. He said: "He (the jock) is a hunter. He comes home at night with meat slung over his shoulder. (insert Henry Fonda male grunt here) While you sit drawing pictures on the wall of your cave."

The big problem I had with the whole movie was Olivia de Havilland's character. I found her so irritating and unsympathetic throughout. She has a husband that is going through a career and personal crisis and she is chasing after her college sweetheart like he is the last hot sausage in town. She chases him to the point that even the poor professor is convinced she loves the neanderthal and resigns himself to letting her go. I never understand how great men put up with such selfishness and, dare I say it, bitchiness from undeserving women. I mean, the woman screams at the man for putting on the wrong pair of trousers, for goodness sakes. Given all that though, I don't think Olivia is at fault here. She plays the character as I assume she was asked, but I hated the character and kept screaming at Henry to just dump her and move on with his life. I would have never thought Olivia de Havilland could be so unlikeable - especially in a comedic role! I even liked her better in "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte", if that tells you anything.

I did have a theory as to why they made her a shrew to him though. I think they were trying to show how mild-mannered his character is. I think they were showing that he doesn't stand up to her, so asking him to stand up to an entire institution would be impossible. So that makes his decision on whether to just go along with the university, like he does with her, or to stand up to them all the more difficult. That is the only possible reason I can think of for having her be so unreasonable to him.

So all in all, I definitely recommend this film. It is a great little Henry Fonda comedy with some great tension and plots. You will have to try to get past the wife's irritating character so you can stop yelling at her and enjoy the movie instead. At least, that is what *I* had to do to enjoy it anyway. :-)


kda0121 said...

I really love this movie. I'm not as soured on Olivia's performance as you, but I agree, she might be the weakest link. Fonda was outstanding, as was Jack Carson and Eugene Pallette. A really terrific movie which successfully manages to intertwine moral courage, free speech, romantic comedy and the big football game in one package.

AbbyNormal said...

Karl - I really enjoyed this movie too. Oh, there was a football game in this? heehee, just kidding. I guess that does help sell it to the male crowd. :-) Thanks for commenting!