Male Animal, The (1942): Comedy about Free Speech Starring Henry Fonda and Olivia De Havilland

Based on a hit 1940 Broadway play of the same title written by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent, The Male Animal is a screwball comedy about academic freedom.

The screenplay was written by Stephen Morehouse Avery, Julius J. Epstein, and Philip G. Epstein (the brothers responsible for penning Casablanca), based on Nugent and Thurber’s play. Co-writer Elliott Nugent played the lead role on the stage before going to Hollywood to direct the screen version.

Henry Fonda, just before going to war, shines as Tommy Turner, an English teacher at a Midwestern University who suddenly finds himself the center of a free-speech debate on campus. An editorial in a student magazine praises him for planning to read Vanzetti‘s sentencing statement to his class as an example of eloquent prose composed by a non-professional writer.

The school’s conservative trustees, led by Ed Keller (Eugene Pallette), threaten to fire Tommy if he doesn’t withdraw the reading from his lecture, leading to a whole reel consisting of long speeches about the value of freedom of expression.

What lends this rather verbose movie, which is still a play, alight comic layer is a subplot about the return by Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), a former football hero and lover of Turner’s wife Ellen (de Havilland), to attend the big football game. Joe, whose marriage is troubled, rekindles Ellen’s romantic notions just when her own marriage to Tommy is being tested by the events on campus.

Gene Tierney, who had starred as Patricia Stanley in the Broadway’production, doesn’t appear in the film due to her commitment to be in John Ford’s Tobacco Road.

In 1952, The Male Animal was reworked by Warner as a musical, She’s Working Her Way Through College, starring Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan. In the new version, the political theme of free speech is discarded, and instead the conflict revolves around the professor’s attempt to mount a musical starring a student who was a former burlesque dancer.


Henry Fonda as Tommy Turner

Olivia de Havilland as Ellen Turner

Joan Leslie as Patricia Stanley

Jack Carson as Joe Ferguson

Eugene Pallette as Ed Keller

Herbert Anderson as Michael Barnes

Hattie McDaniel as Cleota

Don DeFore as Wally Myers