Mike at Mike’s Take on the Movies is spending this week looking at Olivia de Havilland’s films from the 1940s, so I thought I’d join the fun by seeing a new-to-me one of hers from that decade, The Male Animal (1942). This is a romantic comedy that also addresses some big themes about freedom of speech, diversity of thought, and standing your ground in matters of romance as well as independent thinking. Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland play Tommy and Ellen Turner, a couple whose marriage feels just a bit stale and routine after six years. He’s looking forward to a promotion to full professor, but the couple hits a rough patch on Homecoming weekend when an old flame of Ellen’s, recently divorced football star Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson) comes to visit.
However, it’s not just the presence of his old rival Joe, or the fact that Tommy forgets Ellen’s birthday, or that they bicker over matchboxes or the mortgage. Tommy is especially sensitive this weekend because he’s just found out that a letter he plans to read as part of his English composition course is being politicized by school trustees, led by Ed Keller (Eugene Pallette). They fear the letter, by anarchist and convicted killer Bartolomeo Vanzetti, will expose students to uncomfortable ideas and endanger college funding. Tommy is baffled by this firestorm but refuses to back down. He sees the letter as an apolitical example of good writing from someone whose second language is English; he sees the issue as nothing less than standing up for freedom of expression and diverse thought on campus. As he says, “college should be concerned with ideas: not just your ideas, or my ideas, but all ideas.”
As if censorship and the loss of his job isn’t bad enough, Tommy feels that Ellen doesn’t support him. She dismisses his ideas as drunken ramblings, wants him to be agreeable and not read the letter so he can protect his promotion and their status, and then suggests he’s a prudish wet blanket when he complains about her being too chummy with Joe. It all combines to push Tommy into a major crisis over the state of his marriage and the value of his beliefs.
There’s a fun subplot where the Tommy, Ellen and Joe situation is being replicated by the younger generation. Tommy has a mini-me student, Michael (Herbert Anderson), who’s courting Pat (Joan Leslie), who has her eye on mini-Joe football star Wally (Don DeFore). Tommy and Michael frequently commiserate over being the superior intellectuals who are doomed to lose their ladies to the fun but shallow jocks.
All is sorted in typical rom-com fashion, when Ellen remembers that likable Joe may give her a good time but he’s one-dimensional and looks at life as a big football game. She’s reminded that Tommy is much more than just a dusty walking encyclopedia of literary quotes, and that she loves his strong spine and principles. It’s a cute movie when it’s about a couple rekindling their love through a crisis, and when it shows us the pep rally, the big game, the ridiculously pompous community figures wearing the wrong pants, and a drunken Tommy figuring out his role as the male animal (sea lion) having to defend his territory. It also manages to hit on some still very relevant themes about academia’s openness to ideas that differ from whatever happens to be the dominant ideology demanding conformity.
The Male Animal was directed by Elliot Nugent from his own play co-written with James Thurber, and remade as She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952), with Ronald Reagan and Virginia Mayo.