It’s homecoming weekend at Midwestern University and while almost everyone on campus is excited about the big football game, English professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) has more important things to worry about. Dean Frederick Damon (Ivan F. Simpson) has just read an inflammatory editorial written by Michael Barnes (Herbert Anderson), the boyfriend of his wife Ellen’s (Olivia de Havilland) sister Patricia (Joan Leslie). In the editorial, Michael states that Tommy plans to read a letter written by a controversial figure to his class. Tommy does indeed plan to read the letter in class, but the Dean wants Tommy to change his mind to avoid upsetting some of the university’s trustees.
Not only is Tommy’s job suddenly on the line, he’s got marital problems to worry about, too. Ellen’s birthday is coming up and Tommy has forgotten all about it. But one person who hasn’t forgotten Ellen’s birthday is her ex-boyfriend Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson). He’s in town for the big homecoming game and is also newly divorced. Tommy begins to worry that Ellen and Joe are still in love with each other and on the day of the big football game, decides to drive Ellen away from their marriage because he thinks that’s what she wants. While Ellen and Joe are at the game together, Tommy stays home and drinks with Michael. By the time Ellen and Joe come back, Tommy is completely drunk and he starts a fight with Joe, who knocks him out until Monday.
Tommy finally comes to just in time to go to class and read that letter. But by then, everyone has read the editorial and is clamoring to visit his class to see what happens. Michael has been expelled over his editorial and one of the trustees threatens to fire Tommy if he reads that letter. On top of that, Ellen is about ready to leave town with Joe, but before leaving, they stop by Tommy’s class. He defiantly reads the letter and makes an impassioned statement on the importance of freedom of speech. Everyone, including Ellen, is deeply moved by Tommy’s class and rallies in support of him and Ellen changes her mind about leaving Tommy.
The Male Animal is a really fun little movie. It’s the very definition of an underrated comedy. I liked getting to see Henry Fonda use both his comedic and dramatic talents in the same movie We all know Fonda was amazing at giving heartfelt speeches and his speech about freedom of speech is a signature Henry Fonda moment. But he also does some fantastic comedic work in this, particularly in the scene where Tommy gets drunk and tries to pick a fight with Joe. Speaking of Joe, Jack Carson was a perfect foil for Henry Fonda to play against. My biggest complaint about The Male Animal is that Joan Leslie is woefully underused. The scenes of her character dealing with a girl named “Hot Garters” Gardner trying to steal her boyfriend had me in stitches.