Monday, April 5, 2010

Olivia and the Anarchists

This week, we watched a comedy from 1942, The Male Animal.  Ms. de Havilland (playing Ellen Turner) stars with Henry Fonda, who portrays Professor Tommy Turner, an English teacher in a small college, caught in the middle of school turmoil.  When a young college radical publishes in his newspaper that Professor Turner is going to read a letter by Bartolomeo Vanzetti in class, he finds his job threatened.  Add to that, the return of his wife's former boyfriend (Jack Carson), a football hero named Jack Ferguson. 

Olivia's part in this is relatively small. She gets to be patient and loving with Fonda, and emulate a tiny bit of hero worship towards Jack Carson (never our idea of a sex symbol, but it's all a matter of taste). The surprising thing about the movie, though, is the movie's topic.  Let's put this movie in perspective. It is 1942. War has just broken out in America (even if the film was made before December of 1941, the rest of the world was already deeply embroiled). The names of Sacco and Vanzetti, just brief blips in history in 2010, would have been VERY familiar to a 1940's audience.  Convicted and executed for murder, many felt they were put on trial for their political beliefs (they were considered to be anarchists) rather than the crime for which they were accused.  For a country reeling from an attack by a foreign nation, the reminder of Sacco and Vanzetti would have been controversial at the very least.

The Male Animal is based on a Broadway play by James Thurber and Eliot Nugent (who played Tommy Turner in the original production AND in two revivals), that ran for several months in 1940.  It was revived in 1952 and 1953 (with Robert Preston appearing as Joe Ferguson).  The college board's willingness in the play to suppress freedom of speech and essentially blacklist must have also rang very familiar in 1952, as the HUAC investigations continued in Washington.

All in all, we enjoyed this movie a lot, and highly recommend it. It is not Olivia's best movie, but Henry Fonda is wonderful, and the thoughtfulness of the subject is worth your time (and it is funny too.  Here's a trailer:


Next week, we'll take a look at Santa Fe Trail.