The Male Animal is one peculiar movie

Relationships, sex, communists and, somewhere off camera ,World War II — The Male Animal from 1942 is a curious film to say the least. It comes with some pretty impressive credentials, however, including its stars as well as its origins: based on a play by James Thurber and a screenplay with writers that included the Epstein brothers.

It’s one of those movies that manages to be flawed but good at the same time. You like it, but you have reservations about liking it.

The Male Animal (1942)

Directed by Elliott Nugent

As much as I enjoyed 1942’s The Male Animal, I found it damned peculiar. Starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland, I was never quite sure as I watched it just what kind of movie it was, or was trying to be.

It’s called a romantic comedy; you might even say it borders on screwball. But although there are many comic situations and comedic performances, there is also serious tone running through the movie; one that is political — almost. It almost plays as if it was Oliver Stone trying to be funny.

The problem with that is nothing kills humour faster than politics.

Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda as Ellen and Tommy Turner.

What the movie really is, is satire. It’s target is the sexes, particularly men (as the title suggests). Thus it is social satire.

However, it works a political thread into the mix so there is also some political satire as well.

Henry Fonda plays an obtuse and mild-mannered professor (Tommy Hunter) at Midwestern University where three professors have recently been fired as suspected communists.

Unaware of the significance of what he is doing, Prof. Turner has told a student he plans to read a letter written by Bartolomeo Vanzetti (of Saccho and Vanzetti fame) as an example of English composition.

The student publishes an inflammatory item in the student newspaper where he mentions this as an example of the kinds of professors the university needs, and Tommy is in trouble. He can either refuse to do what he has said (read the letter publicly) or lose his job.

Tommy passively (and infuriatingly) watches as he sees the disconnect between his cerebral approach to life and his wife's visceral needs.

In the meantime, his intellectual and passive approach to life has led him to ignore his wife, Ellen (Olivia de Havilland). Tommy’s troubles at the university coincide with troubles at home when an old flame of Ellen’s returns, Jack Carson as Joe Ferguson.

I’ve mentioned previously that I have problems seeing Henry Fonda in comic roles but in this case he is perfect for the kind of buttoned up man he is playing. Prof. Turner is infuriatingly persistent in his determination to intellectualize relationships and find explanations in theories.

Meanwhile, he is married to a woman (de Havilland) who is far more visceral than he is and is starved for attention that isn’t an intellectual argument. Carson’s Joe fits that role perfectly.

Written by Julius and Philip Epstein, based on a James Thurber play, the movie nicely plays the political and social (relationships) themes back and forth and together, satirizing both.

Tommy’s problems on the home front take over his attention; his letter reading decision takes a backseat as he is consumed with a jealousy he refuses to acknowledge. Relationships should be reasoned, he argues. That is the civilized approach — despite the evidence of what he feels and that is staring him in the face.

Prof. Tommy Turner and student Michael Barnes (Herbert Anderson) get thoroughly drunk trying to figure out relationships.

It culminates in Tommy getting thoroughly drunk and finally admitting he needs to step forward as “the male animal” he is and set things right physically, viscerally, sans intellect.

Eventually he addresses the political dimension of his problems, facing off against a blustery Eugene Pallette as Ed Keller, head of the trustees that are bent on ridding the university of communists and anything else that doesn’t play into their worldview.

It’s a bit surprising this movie made it through to the screens. It came out roughly five years before the Hollywood blacklist was brought in so I imagine the atmosphere must have been a charged one, even though the movie’s release would have been in the early period of the communist frenzy (and attention would have been focused on World War II).

This is a brave and earnest little movie and while not the best it is still a pretty good comedy. Earnestness tends to denude movies and books of their emotional appeal but that isn’t the case here. If it suffers from anything it is that sense of peculiarity that exists in it, particularly in the first half. It feels as if it can’t make up its mind how serious or comic it wants to be.

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