De Havilland and Fonda in “The Male Animal”
Last weekend I took in the first five minutes of “The Male Animal” on the Turner Classic Movie channel. This was a 1942 movie based on a James Thurber play that I had never seen before. Five minutes was about all I needed since it seemed to be one of those standard comedies set on a college campus that usually has somebody like Mickey Rooney or Dick Powell running around in a raccoon coat trying to impress a cheerleader.
In the opening scene, Henry Fonda-playing a professor named Tommy Turner-exchanges repartee with his wife Ellen played by Olivia De Havilland and their maid Cleota played by Hattie McDaniel. It seems that they were having a dinner party later that evening for some bigwigs at the Michigan university where he works, including the dean and a powerful trustee but Cleota has mistakenly put the caviar in the oven to heat up. Since De Havilland played a Dixie bell in “Gone With the Wind” and McDaniel was playing essentially the same kind of eye-rolling part she played in the racist classic, that was enough for me.
About 90 minutes later, while surfing across the TV dial, I paused to watch a bit more of “The Male Animal” out of morbid curiosity. Fonda is in front of a packed lecture hall urging the need for free speech on campus. That piqued my curiosity. But when it turned out that the context was his risking his job to read a prison letter by Bartolomeo Vanzetti to his classroom, I decided to get my hands on the movie–so much so that when I discovered it was not available from Netflix, I bought a VHS copy on amazon.com. As you will see from the case I try to build for the movie, it is one of the most striking Hollywood movies ever made on the question of academic freedom and resonates deeply with today’s witch-hunting environment. It will have a strong appeal for left audiences today despite the stereotypical role played by Hattie McDaniel and despite its affinity for the collegiate comedies of the 30s and 40s, most of which deserve the obscurity they languish in.
A Thurber cartoon
Before taking a close look at “The Male Animal”, a word or two about the author of the Broadway play it is based on. James Thurber was a long time contributor to the New Yorker Magazine who specialized in wistful tales about middle-class underachievers as well as cartoons about the same types of characters. His most famous story is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, a story about a couch potato who daydreams about being a dashing detective or a trailblazing surgeon, etc. So popular was the story that it gave birth to Mittyesque as an adjective.
Professor Tommy Turner is Mittyesque himself. A mild-mannered untenured English professor, his highest hope is to get promoted to a full professorship. Into his rather placid existence, however, he is thrust into a real test of his courage-unlike the imaginary trials of Walter Mitty. It seems that three professors at his school have just been fired for being Reds. So provoked by this injustice, Michael Barnes, one of his best students and editor of the campus literary magazine, writes a stinging attack on the Board of Trustees that pushed for the firings. In his eyes, they are just a bunch of “fascists.” In the same article, he describes the school as a “training school for bond salesmen, farmers, real-estate dealers and ambulance chasers.” Some things apparently have not changed that much in American higher education.
Meanwhile, according to Michael, only one professor still has the guts to defy them in the name of academic freedom. It turns out that this is Tommy Turner, who has announced that he will read a Vanzetti letter to his class next week. When Barnes’s article appears a day after the firing of the three Reds, word spreads like wildfire that the professor is challenging the trustees and will likely be the next to be axed.
The title of the play is a reference to the rivalry between Turner and a Michigan alumnus named Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson) over the affections of Turner’s wife, who he used to date when she was a cheerleader. Ferguson was a football star who has come back to school to attend the big game against the school’s main rival and to seduce Mrs. Turner, who seems ready to return his affections. She has plainly gotten tired first of all of being married to somebody with a unsure future as a professor and even more so now that he is risking his livelihood to read an anarchist’s letter to his class.
In a scene that takes place on his patio, Professor Turner and Michael Barnes work themselves through a bottle of whiskey while the professor holds forth on how a man must behave like an animal in order to impress a female. (Michael Barnes, the intellectual leftist, also has a football hero for a rival for the affections of an undergraduate played by Joan Leslie. The symmetry between the two men and their football playing rivals is just one element of a highly polished exercise in playwriting whose antecedents go back to Racine and Moliere.) When Joe Ferguson shows up, the professor challenges him to a fight which is played for slapstick.
From what I can gather by a brief perusal of “The Male Animal” on Google/Books, the movie’s script is fairly close to the original Broadway play. Nearly all the action takes place in the Turner household, which would have been the case in the play just as the movie version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” took place in a professor’s house. The downside of this is its tendency toward “staginess” and “wordiness”. What works on Broadway might not necessarily work in a movie. That being said, the upside is some truly brilliant writing of the sort that is impossible to get in a movie nowadays. Thurber was a highly polished writer and Fonda and company all got started on Broadway themselves, so their delivery was up to the task.
You can read a couple of scenes from “The Male Animal” here. Admittedly, it is a rather awkward way to sample the play, but it is free.
Here’s an exchange between Turner, his wife and Dean Damon, a typically spineless administrator who cowers before the trustees.
Ellen: But why were you going to read this letter, Tommy?
Tommy: Because it’s a fine piece of English composition, and I’m teaching a class on English composition. An obscure little class. I don’t want any publicity, Michael. I just want to be left alone.
Ellen: But nobody thinks of Vanzetti as a writer, Tommy.
Tommy: It happens that he developed into an extraordinary writer. I don’t think you could help but be interested in the letter yourself, Doctor Damon.
Damon: You would be surprised at my strength of will in these matters, Thomas. What I am most interested in is preserving some air of academic calm here at Midwestern [called Michigan in the movie].
One scene really helps to distinguish the movie from the play. That is a football rally the night before the game that consists of mobs of undergraduates whooping it up before a huge bonfire. Given the period in which both the play and movie occurred, as well as the dramatic conflict between an open-minded professor and repressive trustees, one cannot help but think of Nuremburg. Clearly director Elliot Nugent must have had Hitler’s torch-lit rallies in mind. It should be mentioned as well that Julius J. Epstein, who adapted Thurber’s play, was always a thorn in Jack Warner’s side. At one point, Warner gave Epstein’s name to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). When asked by HUAC if he had ever belonged to a “subversive organization,” he answered, “Yes. Warner Brothers.”
It turns out that the similarity between American football rallies and Nuremburg was not accidental.
An early fan and financial backer of Adolf Hitler was Ernst Hanfstaengl, an upper-crust German-American whose mother came from a well-known New England family, the Sedgewicks. Two of his ancestors were Civil War generals, one of whom helped carry Lincoln’s coffin. On the German side the Hanfstaengls were counselors to the dukes of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, whence derives the present British regal dynasty. Hanfstaengl finally had to flee Germany after 1934, when his criticisms of evolving Nazi policy prompted Hltler, Goering and Goebbels to try to kill him. In the 1950s he dictated his memoirs to a British historian, Brian Connell, and they are available here as “Hitler: The Missing Years” (Arcade). A great read, as in this vignette from the 1920s:
It was on another occasion, at the house of Heinrich Hoffman, his photographer friend, that I started playing some of the football marches I had picked up at Harvard. I explained to Hitler all the business about cheer leaders and marches, counter-marches and deliberate whipping up of hysterical enthusiasm. I told him about the thousands of spectators being made to roar “Harvard, Harvard, Harvard, rah, rah, rah!” in unison and of the hypnotic effect of this sort of thing. I played him some of the Sousa marches and then my own ‘Fuluruh,’ to show how it could be done by adapting German tunes, and gave them all that buoyant beat so characteristic of American brass-band music. I had Hitler fairly shouting with enthusiasm. “That is it, Hanfstaengl, that is what we need for the movement, marvelous,” and he pranced up and down the room like a drum majorette. After that he had the S.A. band practising the same thing. I even wrote a dozen marches or so myself over the course of the years, including the one that was played by the brown-shirt columns as they marched through the Brandenburger Tower on the day he took over power. Rah, rah, rah! became Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil! but that is the origin of it and I suppose I must take my share of the blame.
(Alexander Cockburn, Nation Magazine, July 10, 1995)