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


(director: Elliott Nugent; screenwriters: Stephen Morehouse Avery/Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein/based on the play by Elliott Nugent and James Thurber; cinematographer: Arthur Edeson; editor: Thomas Richards; music: Heinz Roemheld; cast: Henry Fonda (Tommy Turner), Olivia de Havilland (Ellen Turner), Joan Leslie (Patricia Stanley), Jack Carson (Joe Ferguson), Eugene Pallette (Ed Keller), Herbert Anderson (Michael Barnes), Ivan Simpson (Dr. Damon), Don DeFore (Wally Myers), Minna Phillips (Mrs. Blanche Damon), Regina Wallace (Mrs. Myrtle Keller), Jean Ames (“Hot Garters” Gardner), Hattie McDaniel (Cleota), Frank Mayo (Coach Sprague), William B. Davidson (Alumnus), Bobby Barnes (Nutsy Miller); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hal B. Wallis; Warner Bros.; 1942)
“The stagebound film has its amusing moments, solid performances and a still timely message about academic freedom.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Elliott Nugent (“Never Say Die”/”The Great Gatsby”/”My Favorite Brunette”) directs the liberal fantasy comedy/drama. The satire covers the conflict at a Midwestern university between liberal intellectuals and football jocks over who controls the school and questions about academic freedom. These are questions that are still relevant today, and are what give this serious comedy its staying power. It’s based on the play by Nugent and James Thurber, and is written by Stephen Morehouse Avery, Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein.

It’s Homecoming Weekend at Midwestern University and alumni return for the big football game against rival Michigan University. Mousy and bespectacled English professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) finds himself in trouble with gravelly-voiced right wing school trustee Ed Keller (Eugene Pallette) when the school literary magazine’s idealistic editor Michael Barnes (Herbert Anderson), a boyfriend of Ellen’s sister Patricia Stanley (Joan Leslie), has written an editorial calling out the trustees as “fascists” for firing three liberal professors thought to be Reds and pointing to Tommy as the only professor interested in freedom of speech because he made a brave decision to read a non-political letter written by executed anarchist Niccolo Vanzetti to his English composition class after the weekend. Keller aims to oust any faculty member who might be a Red or a sympathizer, and threatens to fire Turner unless he changes his mind and to expel Barnes unless he apologizes for his editorial.

Also present for the Big Game after an absence of six years is the college’s blustery former star football player Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), a dear friend of Keller’s, who was the ex-flame of Tommy’s former cheerleader wife Ellen (Olivia de Havilland). With the threat of both losing his job and his wife, who still has a crush on the more macho Joe, the passive professor must search for the “male animal” within him to avoid a double loss.

When both Tommy and Michael stick to their principles over free speech, their ladies become impressed with them and the student body hails them as heroes. This school support silences the Red baiting trustee and things return to normal, as Joe returns to his estranged wife and Ellen is now content with her hubby. Michael beats back the attempts of current football star Wally Myers (Don DeFore), a replica of Joe Ferguson, to steal his girl Patricia. It was remade in 1952 as She’s Working Her Way Through College and starred Ronald Reagan and Virginia Mayo.

The stagebound film has its amusing moments, solid performances and a still timely message about academic freedom.