Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) is an English professor at Midwestern University. He and his wife Ellen (Olivia de Havilland) are preparing to host a cocktail party, with honored guests Frederick (Ivan Simpson) and Blanche Damon (Minna Phillips) — the Dean and his wife — among others.
It’s homecoming week, and the school is also preparing for the big game against Michigan. Former team hero Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), who graduated in the same class as Tommy and Ellen, is in town to celebrate.
Just before the party is to begin, Tommy learns that student Michael Barnes (Herbert Anderson) is planning on running an editorial about whether professors should be able to freely share their controversial opinions in the classroom. Tommy, who has been planning a lecture including a reading of a letter by anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti, is the target of the editorial.
As Tommy struggles with this attack on his intellectual freedom, he also contends with at-home romantic drama. Joe and Ellen used to date, and Joe still has an eye for Tommy’s wife.
Elliot Nugent directs 1942’s The Male Animal, a Warner Bros. release. The film was loosely remade as She’s Working Her Way Through College a decade later, with Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan in starring roles.
The Male Animal is a film with good performances but a script that could benefit from a few alterations.
The light of the film is Henry Fonda, who is a strong asset to the picture. He adds some humor to the film in the end, playing drunk and going on a rant about penguins, and about how all humans are animals. The one flaw in the casting is that Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda aren’t totally convincing as a married couple, despite the fact that they’ve got some great dialogue and banter.
There are two sides to the plot of The Male Animal: a love triangle, and a witch hunt against all things “un-American” at the university.
The romantic side of the plot, which has Fonda becoming jealous of his wife’s former boyfriend (and the college’s former football star), is not quite as interesting or exciting as the discussion of intellectual freedom. And unfortunately, this plot takes over most of the film. The love triangle does create a handful of amusing scenes, including one in which Tommy and Joe argue over how best to act around Ellen when she’s crying.
As a librarian-in-training, intellectual freedom is an issue very important to me, which makes the less-lovey side of the plot fascinating. The film raises questions about censorship in higher education, and whether or not professors should be able to share controversial literature or topics with their students. The impact on students of biases in their professors’ lectures has been a hot button issue throughout history and is frequently discussed on campuses whenever something big happens in the United States. (For example, I’m sure the recent events concerning the use of excessive force by police have brought up discussions of whether professors should be able to comment on police brutality in certain corners of the country.)
For this subplot, The Male Animal remains a relevant film. However, it would benefit from less of a focus on the romantic triangle. Though entertaining at times, this story seems frivolous in comparison with Tommy’s battle against censorship. The film is enjoyable overall, but not as good as it could be. The score: 2.5/5