' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Male Animal (1942)

Friday, September 08, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Male Animal (1942)

Earlier this summer UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen gave an interview in which he pushed back against the mythical notion of the Student Athlete by explaining in no uncertain terms how difficult it was for football and school to mix. Standalone quotes were pulled and pasted all over the internet, leading to equal parts thoughtful and inane analysis, and Rosen’s coach, Jim Mora Jr., in ostensibly expressing support for his QB, said this: “When you express opinions, you create perceptions. You create controversy.” Because you create controversy by way of perceptions, Mora is implying, and as he has implied elsewhere, you basically should keep your opinions to yourself, which seems against the actual spirit of a university where free thought should be paramount. I thought about that while watching “The Male Animal” (1942), a campus semi-comedy in which Professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) creates perceptions and controversy by stating his intention to read aloud to his class a letter by the anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti the same weekend his university, Midwestern, is set to square off against their principal football rival, sending the school’s trustees into a frenzy since they will never not prefer the forward pass to free speech.


“The Male Animal” was based on a Broadway play, which the film’s director Elliott Nugent penned along with James Thurber, and which Stephen Morehouse Avery re-wrote for the screen along with the Epsteins (Julius J. and Philip G.). That means the movie skews wordy and stages much of its action in a single location, that locale being the Turner household, where verbal tete-a-tetes spread throughout the house, from the living room to the bedroom to the patio. Why even the movie’s brief detour to The Big Game could just as easily have been staged with everyone listening on the radio.

Even so, Nugent does get out of the house occasionally, never more memorably and terrifyingly then the Friday pre-game pep rally. This was 1942, after all, and Nugent makes the parallels between this raging bonfire, the martial music of the marching blaring away, the students looking on adoringly as the football team is introduced one-by-one, and the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Rallies of the same era pretty explicit, especially when Tommy, sitting in the crowd, is harassed and threatened upon refusing to stand up and join in. It made me think of a passage from Austin Murphy’s book “Saturday Rules” where, on his way to a game at Auburn University’s mammoth Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Sports Illustrated scribe reported being the target of ominous stares from passing students for failing to wear the school colors, no doubt marking him as the Enemy.

Though “The Male Animal” never again scales these sorts of scary heights, it is still indicative of Tommy as a whole, a stranger in a strange land forced to take a stand, a register in which Fonda works best. One brief moment finds him removing his glasses and straightening his posture, suddenly emitting the air of a sturdy varsity quarterback, and as if sensing the same thing, Fonda quickly slips his glasses back on. That polite nobility is both deliberately and unintentionally compromised by a subplot involving his wife Ellen (Oliva de Havilland) who struggles with his yearning to read the letter, fearful for the financial and professional repercussions, a solid idea worth exploring to see how personal principles can have much wider ramifications.


Alas, their disagreement eventually morphs into a love triangle when her old flame, and Midwestern’s former gridiron star, Joe (Jack Carson), shows up for the Big Game and Ellen takes something like solace in his company, triggering a fair amount of manly bloviating. This, as Tommy elucidates in drunken speech, demonstrates a male’s proclivity for animal instincts, which would be easier to buy if the screenplay actually allowed Ellen some agency. Instead, it briefly lets her call out the fact that she has none and then mostly keeps it from her anyway.

The conclusion, when Tommy reads the Vanzetti letter before not merely his class but nearly the entire school, not to mention the droves of media, is entirely predictable but not quite pat, primarily because of Fonda’s delivery which doesn't evoke a sense of self-heroism as much as of-course-this-is-the-right-thing-to-do modesty. And anyway, the predictability is sort of made the point too, evoked in Joe incredulously saying to Ellen in the wake of Tommy’s reading, “Is that all? That’s not a bad letter.” Carson’s quietly bamboozled line reading makes free speech sound so simple. If only.

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