The Male Animal

The Male Animal, 1942, Warner Bros. Starring Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Jack Carson. Directed by Elliott Nugent. B&W, 101 minutes.

Earnest professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) and his wife, Ellen (Olivia de Havilland), are preparing to celebrate Homecoming (which happens to land on Ellen’s birthday), along with the rest of the fictional Midwestern University campus. They’re having a small gathering before the big game, and among the guests are Ellen’s former beau, Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), and one of the school’s narrow-minded trustees, Ed Keller (Eugene Pallette).

Tommy isn’t thrilled Ed is going to be there to start with, and his mild concern turns to great dismay when he learns one of his students has commended him for his “bravery” in reading a literary piece by Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the self-proclaimed anarchist convicted of first-degree murder in one of the most controversial court cases of the twentieth century. Tommy plans to read it simply because it’s a fine piece of writing, not because of any political stand, but he’s in trouble. The trustees are ridding the school of “reds” — anyone suspected of communist sympathies.

Jack Carson, Olivia de Havilland in The Male Animal
Olivia de Havilland, Jack Carson

Add to his concerns his growing conviction Ellen would be happier with the recently separated Joe. Ellen, for her part, is doing nothing to dissuade him from those thoughts. Only Joe seems uncertain about the potential of a future with his former girlfriend. Joe, it turns out, isn’t as dumb as Tommy would like to believe he is, and sees the situation with a fair amount of clarity.

The Male Animal is light satire about serious issues such as censorship and racism. While the objects of these concerns may be different than today, the rhetoric is much the same, making this film relevant to audiences 75 years after its release.

The movie premiered in Columbus, Ohio, with James Thurber, co-author of the popular play on which the film is closely based, in attendance as a special honoree. The occasion focused on the collegiate theme of the story, including a huge dinner at Thurber’s old fraternity house. Honoring Thurber, who didn’t directly work on the film, was legitimate, as screenwriters Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein and Stephen Morehouse Avery kept their script true to the original play, and the star of the Broadway production, Elliott Nugent, directed the film. It was as close to a Thurber screenplay as you could get without having the man actually work on the script.

Henry Fonda, Jack Carson in The Male Animal
Henry Fonda, Jack Carson

The studio promoted the film as a love triangle between Tommy, Ellen, and Ellen’s sister, Pat (Joan Leslie), but Pat barely makes an appearance and has nothing to do with the tension between the Turners. Apparently, the provocative nature of the other woman was thought to be needed to sell this film, even though it was actually the other man at issue.

Thurber had a sly wit, and that’s reflected in the dialogue. This is a smart movie poking fun at a serious topic, with a talented cast (down to Tommy’s student, Michael, played by Herbert Anderson, who would go on to be best known as Dennis the Menace’s father). Both stars are at their comedic best, and while these may not have been their most challenging roles, they brought extra depth to the characters a lesser actor or actress may have failed to do. The film moves at a good pace and manages to deliver a serious message in a natural manner. The Male Animal is well worth the watch.

 

Harvey (1950)

Harvey, 1950, Universal Pictures. Starring James Stewart; co-starring Josephine Hull. Directed by Henry Koster. B&W, 105 minutes.

Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a naïve, yet oddly sage, man who would do anything for the family that wants nothing more than to hide him away from the world. Chiefly, they want him to keep his discussions about and with his best friend, Harvey, to himself. Harvey, you see, is a 6′ 3 -1/2″ invisible rabbit, or a “pooka,” a mischievous mythological creature .

His sister, Veta (Josephine Hull), among other things, is worried for her daughter’s prospects what with friends and neighbors hearing Elwood’s benevolent but strange talk about life…and a pooka. She arranges to have him committed to a local mental hospital, but in the process confesses to seeing Harvey herself at times. The admitting doctor (Charles Drake) takes note, and Veta is involuntarily placed in the hospital instead.

Josephine Hull in Harvey
Josephine Hull

Ultimately, it’s Elwood who sees to her release, but not before more confusion blurs the lines between doctor and patient, the sane and presumed insane.

Harvey won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Josephine Hull, and Stewart was also nominated for Best Actor. Both had played the same roles on Broadway, although Stewart was one of several actors to portray Elwood P. Dowd in the original run of the Pulitzer award-winning play by Mary Chase.

By contract, production on the film couldn’t begin until the play had closed that initial run. Once it did, director Henry Koster wanted to keep the movie as true to the play as possible, and to that end he hired Mary Chase to write the screenplay with Oscar Brodney. He also hired several other actors and actresses from the long-running (1,775 shows) play to reprise their roles in the film.

That was a wise decision. These may not be the best-known performers to filmgoers, but their work was seamless and the magic of Harvey was maintained on screen. This movie is light and funny on the one hand, gently thought-provoking on the other.

Charles Drake, Peggy Dow, James Stewart
Charles Drake, Peggy Dow, James Stewart

The play, which took two years for Mary Chase to write, received the fourth Pulitzer Prize for Drama to go to a woman (of the 86 such awards given to date, 15 have now been given to women). Chase reportedly was inspired to write the play to cheer a friend who lost her son in WWII, and it was said to be a difficult process for the experienced journalist and author.

Harvey has been remade multiple times, including a 1972 Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation again starring James Stewart. That version was a bit darker with Stewart playing his character with more edge, and the movie was not as well-received by audiences.

However, the original remains an enchanting, whimsical tale of a man able to see and speak his simple truth, and how, despite themselves, those in the world around him are drawn in by his utter conviction and pure belief.

 

 

The Women (1939)

The Women, 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 133 minutes

This biting satire of the lives of Park Avenue women has lost none of its punch since it first was released more than 75 years ago. The movie is rich with characters, sub-plots and razor-sharp wit, and the story line itself is as old as marriage.

Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is a devoted, trusting wife who learns, with the unsolicited help of her less-than-true friend Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), about her husband’s affair with a perfume counter clerk, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).

Rosalind Russell in the The Women
Mimi Olivera, Rosalind Russell

Sylvia has no problem sharing details, real or imagined, with other friends in their social circle, and soon the story has made the society pages. Despite pleas from her husband to stay, Mary chooses to divorce him. In the meantime, multiple other marriages are in trouble as well.

We’re nowhere near the end of this fine film here, but I’m leaving it to you to discover the rest. It ends in a classic screwball-comedy confrontation at a posh event that brings things to the final, melodramatic (yet satisfying) outcome.

The legendary Anita Loos and screenwriter/director Jane Murfin adapted the screenplay from the Broadway hit written by the equally renowned Clare Boothe (Luce). (Other writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, are said to have made uncredited contributions to the script.) The play was much racier, requiring re-wording of large portions of dialogue, which was heavily laden with innuendo too rich for acceptance by the Motion Picture Production Code.

Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford The Women
Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford

While men play a significant role in the movie, you don’t see hide nor hair of them throughout (with the exception of two minor pictures in advertisements). Apparently even the animals were female. There’s nothing contrived about this, however. While you’re aware of the absence of men, you won’t find a single scene that needs a man to make it realistic.

In a lucky break, director George Cukor had been fired from the making of Gone With the Wind a month before production on The Women began. Lucky, because, in addition to his skills as a director, Cukor was adept at handling the real-life rivalries between his stars, including a fierce professional battle between Shearer and Crawford.

There’s a Technicolor fashion show by top couture designer Adrian that’s a bit out-of-place, unnecessary to the plot, but fascinating all the same with its designs that range from stylish to outlandish.

Paulette Goddard Joan Crawford Rosalind Russell Norma Shearer in The Women
Paulette Goddard, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer

Surprisingly, The Women received no Academy Award nominations, but that was, after all, 1939, a year many consider the best for the Golden Age of Hollywood, with movies including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz,  Stagecoach, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Today most critics agree The Women stands its own with those other fine films.

If you saw the 2008 remake, forget it. There’s no comparison in wit or star power.  Stick with the original.


Woman of the Year

Woman of the Year, 1942, MGM Pictures. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Fay Bainter. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 114 minutes.

An incomparable combination of cast, director and screenwriters created a timeless film about a powerful woman with a notable lack of expertise in love. The story is compelling, honest and funny, and it’s impossible to ignore the real-life burgeoning romance between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who met on the set of this movie. (That love affair continued until his death in 1967).

Hepburn plays Tess Harding, a highly accomplished international affairs reporter, fluent in multiple languages, with a high society background. Enter Sam Craig, a well-respected sportswriter with a more middle-class background, not completely out of her league but a bit foreign to it.

The two work for the same big-name newspaper at a time when newspapers reigned as the source of information, and find themselves thrown together both by chance and by choice. Love seemingly has overcome that which might divide them. Tess takes on the challenge of learning baseball, oblivious about how out-of-place she is at the game. Sam valiantly works the room at a cocktail party for international dignitaries, or tries to, until language barriers bring his efforts to a halt.

Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn.png
Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn

The future looks bright for this sharp couple, with perhaps some comical transition to wedded bliss in store.

Not so fast. This is a fun and funny movie, but the humor is woven into Tess & Sam’s struggle with their differences. Ultimately, their marriage is tested to a possible point of no return. With a finely written script and keenly portrayed characters, how that struggle unfolds is what makes this such a rich and rewarding film.

The ending falls a little flat, although the message is good, and a bit of background on the making of the film tells us why. The original ending didn’t play well when tested with audiences, so against their wishes, the stars and screenwriters Ring Laudner Jr. & Michael Kanin pulled together something new. Despite the messy changes, Laudner & Kanin won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Fortunately, they were able to keep the final key message intact. It’s a message as true today as it was then, and one that women faced with combining career and marriage will appreciate. Hopefully, their men will as well.

katharine-hepburn-spencer-tracy
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

This movie has honesty, intelligence, complexity, humor and of course, genuine chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn (the latter was nominated for an Academy Award). Fay Bainter, as Hepburn’s equally liberal and driven aunt, is appealing in her vulnerable and straightforward nature.

This is a classic story for women who want to “have it all” — because it tells us you can’t, but at the same time, you can.

Dinner at Eight

Dinner at Eight, 1933, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring  John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 113 minutes.

This pre-code dramedy of a group set to gather together for a dinner honoring a socially elite couple has little to do with that actual event, rather, it’s a story of eight diverse people coming to grips with life-altering events.

There are affairs and sly business dealings, marriages beginning and others staggering to stay together, the naivety & idealism of youth set in contrast to the solid, secure reality of years. All in all, there are characters we all know in our own lives, or want to know, or can imagine all too well.

Marie Dressler, Lionel Barrymore.png
Marie Dressler, Lionel Barrymore

Flighty Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) has plans for a dinner party, while unbeknownst to her, husband Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) is suffering both from ill health and the imminent downfall of the lucrative family business.

Much to Oliver’s delight, however, his old friend Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an aging and once beautiful actress whom he loved in his younger years, is in town to visit. He soon learns she’s there in part to sell off her share of stock in his company, a move that could be the final nail in the coffin of the business.

Meanwhile, the Jordan’s daughter Paula (Madge Evans), although engaged to society catch Ernest DeGraff (Phillip Holmes), is in love, or believes herself to be, with Larry Renault (John Barrymore), a fading movie star with a drinking and ego problem, who doesn’t share Paula’s feelings.

Madge Evans, John Barrymore Dinner at Eight
Madge Evans, John Barrymore

The man instrumental in the likely undoing of Oliver’s company is Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), although Oliver is unaware of his role. Dan has an antagonistic relationship with his beautiful young wife, Kitty (Jean Harlow), who, for her part, is having an affair with her doctor, Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe). Dr. Talbot, it turns out, is also treating Oliver.

This story plays out with some of the finest actors & actresses of its time in a film considered one of the best of the 1930s. Although it wasn’t nominated for any Academy Awards, many of the cast & crew were past or future Oscar winners, including Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery and director George Cukor.

Dressler was one of MGM’s most popular actresses at the time, yet playing a sophisticated, fading beauty was entirely unlike her typical brassy role, so her sparkling performance was (and remains) a delightful surprise. In many ways, she stole the spotlight from “blonde bombshell” Jean Harlow.

Jean Harlow Diiner at Eight
Jean Harlow

For her part, Harlow rose to the occasion, proving her comedic and acting skills and creating a role that was a turning point for her, leading to other parts in major films of the decade. Look for her dress in the dinner scenes; that beautiful gown by Adrian became known as the “Jean Harlow dress.”

John Barrymore, much like his character, was once a great star, now battling alcoholism and fading glory. Interestingly, Barrymore had no problem playing up the similarities, in fact, he encouraged it, adding details from his own life to the script.

As a pre-code film, this movie is laden with sexual innuendo and a near-profanity or two. The story is biting and heartbreaking, funny and wise, and well worth the watch.

 


My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey, 1936, Universal Pictures. Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard. Directed by Gregory La Cava. B&W (colorized version also available), 94 minutes.

A scattered young woman discovers a surprisingly sophisticated hobo and hires him as the butler for her wealthy family, and he in turn shines a sometimes unwelcome light on their chaotic, misguided lifestyle.

Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) and her sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) are looking for a “forgotten man” as part of a scavenger hunt, and come upon Godfrey Smith (William Powell) at a city dump. The two women are on separate teams, and when Godfrey pushes Cornelia into the trash in response to her offer of five dollars to help her win the prize, Irene decides it’s best to walk away as well.

Lombard Powell My Man Godfrey
Carole Lombard, William Powell

But Godfrey, after talking to the flighty Irene, chooses to go back to the ballroom with her so she can win the scavenger hunt and triumph over her sister. She’s delighted, even when, after her team’s victory is declared, he stands and denounces the group of wealthy citizens. She offers him a job as the family’s butler, which he graciously accepts.

Cornelia remains bitter toward Godfrey, and does what she can to undermine his abilities and character. She quickly realizes, although the rest of the family seems oblivious to it, that Irene is falling for their new servant.

In addition to dizzy Irene and conniving Cornelia, there’s the mother, Angelica (Alice Brady), a featherbrained woman who perhaps drinks a little too much and indulges her “protegée,” Carlo (Mischa Auer), a man who is clearly taking advantage of the family. There’s also Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette), the husband & father, who’s burdened by the weight of his failing business and family’s antics.

Carole Lombard, William Powell My Man Godfrey
Carole Lombard, William Powell

Showing the wealthy to be frivolous and foolish was a classic Depression-era theme, as was giving someone down-and-out sudden wealth. This is a definitive screwball comedy, with yes, implausible plot elements, but a realistic plot line is hardly important here.

What is important is the effortless acting of the two stars, the strength of talent of the supporting cast, the fine direction by Gregory La Cava and all the elements of cinematography, lighting, set decoration, costume and the rest that sets movies of that era apart from movies today.

Powell had lobbied for Lombard to star in the movie, and La Cava, a personal friend of hers, was in agreement. The two stars had divorced three years earlier after two years of marriage, but remained good friends until her death in 1942 in a plane crash. The chemistry between them is evident and somewhat mirrors their real-life personas; he the quieter, more urbane of the two, she the unconventional, outspoken one.

William Powell, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey
William Powell, Carole Lombard

My Man Godfrey was nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Actor for Powell, Best Actress for Lombard, Best Supporting Actress for Alice Brady, Best Supporting Actor for Mischa Auer and Best Writing, Screenplay for Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind.

It’s the only movie to date to be nominated in all four acting categories without being nominated for Best Picture, and until 2013, was the only film to be nominated in these six categories without winning any of them.

The movie has been colorized, and both versions are available on DVD (generally the same DVD). This trailer has been colorized: