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 lesser actors or actresses 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.

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The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve, 1941, Paramount Pictures. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda. Directed by Preston Sturges. B&W, 94 minutes.

Charles “Hopsie” Pike (Henry Fonda) is fresh on the boat after a year-long expedition up the Amazon studying snakes and other assorted reptiles. The first evening on board the luxury liner he meets socialite Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn)…only father and daughter aren’t who they claim to be. Unbeknownst to Charles, they are card sharks and con artists, out to fleece their latest victim.

Jean, however, finds herself falling for Hopsie. She’s ready to go straight and begin a life together with her new love, when his friend and bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest) discovers the truth about the Harringtons. Charles dumps Jean and leaves her heartbroken, as well as out for revenge.

She returns to his life as the Lady Eve Sidwich, ready to break his heart just as he broke hers. But she is at risk of being sidelined by her own desires.

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Charles Coburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

The third film both written and directed by Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve is considered by many to be his finest work. It is a smart combination of satire and slapstick comedy, with plenty of sexual innuendo and mockery of the wealthy. Sturges, who had once been married to a socialite, was known for poking fun at upper crust society.

But the fun isn’t all at the expense of the privileged. Others in this film have a moment of having his or her foibles exposed or dignity bent.

Paulette Goddard and Brian Aherne were the studio’s choices for the lead roles, but Sturges, who had clout after the success of his first two films, insisted on Stanwyck and Fonda. It was one of the few comedies Stanwyck had appeared in during her career so far, and its success led her to the starring role in Ball of Fire later that year.

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Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

The film was well-received by critics and audiences alike, with The New York Times critic writing, “It isn’t often that this corner has good reason to bang a gong and holler ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry!’ As a matter of fact, it is all too rare indeed that we have even moderate provocation to mark a wonder of the cinematic world.”

The film received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Writing, Original Story (Monckton Hoffe, who wrote the original short story the final script was based on). It lost to Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Stanwyck was long known for her professionalism on the set, including always being prepared for the day’s shooting schedule, as well as her kindness to fellow cast members and crew. It was a rare actor who met the high standards she set, but Fonda appears to have been one of them. He later wrote she was his favorite co-star, and is even rumored to have had a long-time crush on her.

The Lady Eve is sophisticated despite its slapstick comedy, and a prime example of Preston Sturges at his finest. It does lose a little shine with a few details such as Stanwyck’s distinctly bad English accent, although perhaps that was a deliberate element, but overall remains sharp and funny today.

 

Hail the Conquering Hero

Hail the Conquering Hero, 1944, Paramount Pictures. Starring Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, William Demarast. Directed by Preston Sturges. B&W, 101 minutes.

Woodrow Truesmith has a dilemma: as the son of a genuine war hero, who died in action the day his only child was born, he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Marines. So he did just that, but he’s not cut from the same cloth as his father, and woefully he’s discharged for medical reasons after only one month. To spare his mother and girlfriend Libby (Ella Raines) any embarrassment over his situation, he writes he’s off to war, while in reality he begins working at a shipyard.

As fate would have it, one afternoon he buys drinks for a group of Marines, including blustery Master Gunnery Sergeant Heffelfinger (William Demarast), who served with Woodrow’s father and was saved by the man’s heroic efforts in his dying moments. Against fervent protests, Heffelfinger calls Woodrow’s mother to let her know her son received a medical discharge, but helpfully relays a few falsehoods along the way, leading the town to believe he is a war hero.

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Eddie Bracken, William Demarest

Much to Woodrow’s dismay, the accolades only keep building. A deeper and deeper hole is being dug by his deception, and it’s looking like there’s no way out of it.

In the meantime, Libby, believing Woodrow has fallen in love with someone else, is set to marry another man the following weekend, unless her true love can come to his senses and talk her out of it.

Hail the Conquering Hero film satirizes American politics, human nature and small town values, but as always with Preston Sturges, it’s done in a friendly manner, with moments both funny and touching.

After the first few scenes were shot, producers and studio executives wanted to fire Ella Raines because of a lackluster performance, but Sturges objected. She’d already been announced in the part and cutting her would be humiliating, he felt, and he also resented the interference. In the end, Raines stayed on the picture. Despite her rough start, her performance in the end is befitting the role, and she delivers some of her best lines, those pointed in their satirical nature, in an almost deadpan manner.

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Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines

Eddie Bracken is far from your typical leading man, but he’s engaging and utterly believable as the distraught Woodrow. In contrast to Bracken’s befuddled character, William Demarast is well-cast as the rough-and-tumble take-charge Marine who easily moves forth with one tall tale after the other.

Funny, witty and wise, Hail the Conquering Hero is full of sharp one-liners and insight on the American dream. Its edginess is covered by an All-American “gee willikers” type of character, and it delivers on its promise of making you laugh at all the human foible it uncovers.