Review: Elliott Nugent’s “The Male Animal,” Starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda in
Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda in "The Male Animal"

Is The Male Animal a drama about a college professor who challenges an overly conservative administration, or a clumsy comedy about mid-life crises and marital woes? Somehow, it’s both, but Elliott Nugent’s film rarely finds the right balance between the two.

Henry Fonda plays the nebbish English professor Tommy Turner, who accidentally makes a political statement when he announces his intention to read a letter by famed 1920s anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti during class. He only wants to read it to demonstrate the quality of the writing, but the school administration (led by Eugene Pallette) takes it as a political statement, threatening Turner’s job if he goes through with it. At the same time, Turner’s marriage to his wife, Ellen (Olivia de Havilland), is threatened by the return of her old flame Joe (Jack Carson), a former football star whose machismo emasculates Turner.

Nugent co-wrote (and starred in) the play the film is based on, then sold the rights to Warner Brothers and came along to direct it. He knew he couldn’t star in the film version, writing in his autobiography: “I had long since realized that I was not a name as a picture actor. An important picture needed names to be profitable.”1 Hal B. Wallis suggested Jack Benny for the part, but Nugent smartly requested Henry Fonda to be loaned from Fox instead.

The film was one of only a few Fonda was happy with during this period. “I’ll admit a few of the pictures were pretty good,” Fonda later said. “The Lady Eve, The Male Animal, Jesse James, and The Ox-Bow Incident, but as for the rest, I wouldn’t even want to mention ‘em!”2 Fonda is cast perfectly as the well-meaning professor, and when the time comes for him to deliver a final, rousing speech, his delivery is so moving that it is easy to forget how subpar the rest of the movie is.

All the men in the movie get to have fun—Carson and Pallette are more than game for the silliness of their segments. But De Havilland is reduced to playing an object for the two men to fight over, and Joan Leslie’s role is barely worth mentioning. There was one Academy Award-winner in the cast—Hattie McDaniel, stuck playing an incompetent maid.

Yet the film’s key problem is not how underutilized the actresses are, but the two different stories thrown up against each other. When writing the play, co-writer James Thurber’s original idea had no political bent to it. Nugent suggested “that since ‘social significance’ had become almost obligatory by 1939, even in a comedy, our young professor should blunder his way into some fight for academic freedom.”3 The professor’s fight for free speech is a far more compelling story than that of his mid-life crisis, but unfortunately the former narrative disappears for the bulk of the film, resurfacing at its end to provide the only notable moment in Fonda’s speech.

The film’s statements about free speech are not exactly revolutionary—in fact, they were toned down a bit from the play. “Hal Wallis got worried about propaganda and rabble rousing . . . I offered to write in a couple of lines not in the play that would make it very clear that our hero-professor was definitely anti-communist.”4 However, something about the earnest way Fonda presents his case feels transcendently relevant today—sadly, it’s a case that still needs to be made. That alone is enough to make The Male Animal worthwhile, despite its casual sexism and unbalanced narrative.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on The Male Animal

Read the review in The New York Times

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Elliott Nugent, Events Leading up to the Comedy (New York: Trident Press, 1965), 157.
2. Henry Fonda, Fonda: My Life (New York: Dutton, 1981), 143
3. Nugent 1965, 135
4. Nugent 1965, 159