Don’t you love a good serendipitous moment? I wasn’t sure I would participate in this blogathon as much as I love the concept of it. The month of November is already pretty busy for me, and I wasn’t sure that I would have time to watch two films for one blogathon. But then I happened to watch a movie I wouldn’t have normally been interested in. I went into the viewing of She’s Working Her Way Through College knowing nothing at all about it, only to discover it is a loose musical remake of The Male Animal. Well, with the stars all aligned, I realized that now I HAD to participate in Phyllis of Phyllis Loves Classic Movies The Remade What? Blogathon!
The source of this story was a hit Broadway play written by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent titled The Male Animal. The basic premise of both films feature the trials of an underpaid and underappreciated English professor who teaches at a midwestern university. The university’s financial and spiritual reverence of the sports department is a thorn in the professor’s side. The professor believes some of the school’s resources should be shared with the education departments. He butts heads with the head of the school board over this.
He and his wife are mostly happily married. But his security in their marriage is challenged when his wife’s old beau, a former All-American football player, returns to town for the homecoming game. In both films, there is an eventual show-down not only with the wife’s ex, but also with the school board. Although the reason for the latter showdown varies between the films.
THE MALE ANIMAL(1942)
It’s been a little while since I watched The Male Animal which first debuted in 1942. It is one of those films that is relatively well regarded among classic film fans. It is also one I watched especially for the names attached. Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland star as Professor Turner and his wife. The Male Animal also features some great supporting actors. Joan Leslie stars as Mrs Turner’s younger sister who is also a student. Jack Carson plays Turner’s nemesis and Eugene Pallette acts as the head of the school trustees. And last but never least is Hattie McDaniel as the Turner’s housekeeper.
The conflict which eventually forces Turner to risk his job by taking a stand against the wishes of the trustees is an issue of freedom of speech. Turner’s plans to read a letter written by an anarchist to his class creates the battleground. One of his students who is also the editor of the school’s paper writes an article calling out trustee Keller (Pallette) for stifling free speech and praising Professor Turner for his bravery. In one of the film’s best scenes, Fonda’s Turner addresses the student body defending this right even if the views expressed are radical and disagreeable.
Fonda gets another very memorable scene earlier in the film. Disturbed by the return of Carson’s character, he gets drunk and starts spouting off about the various male species which defend their female partners. Despite Fonda’s unforgettable performances in these two scenes, I found the rest of the film rather ordinary. I honestly can’t remember de Havilland’s performance at all. And I found myself mildly annoyed by Joan Leslie’s precocious younger sister. It’s one of those movies that is pleasant to watch, but not particularly special in my opinion.
SHE’S WORKING HER WAY THROUGH COLLEGE (1952)
On the other hand, She’s Working Her Way Through College instantly engaged my interest. I watched the film for Ronald Reagan but found myself dazzled instead by Virginia Mayo.
This version updates the film with color, music and a change to the character’s names. Ronald Reagan is Professor John Palmer and Phyllis Thaxter is his wife Helen. She’s Working Her Way Through College eliminates the role of the younger sister in favor of Mayo’s character Angela Gardner.
Mayo is a former high school student of Palmer’s. She retires from her job as the exotic dancer Hot Garters Gertie after finally earning enough money to put herself through college. Angela aspires to be an writer thanks to Palmer’s past encouragement. She enrolls in Palmer’s university and keeps her previous work history hidden. Helen also moves in with the Palmer’s as a paying boarder, which helps supplement the professor’s meager income.
Helen encourages Professor Palmer to break with tradition when it comes to the school’s annual play. Thanks to the college’s conservative board and donors they generally perform a Shakespeare play. But Palmer decides to shake things up by using Helen’s original and contemporary screen play instead. This puts them on a collision course with the school board. Once again there is also the confrontation with the wife’s former beau.
Angela has her own problems as she has attracted the attention of athlete Don Weston. This unwittingly creates an enemy of “Poison” Ivy Williams who wants Don for herself. The trouble really begins when Ivy digs through Helen’s personal effects and discovers her secret. This sets up the film’s big showdown when Dean Rogers insists on expelling the former Hot Garters Gertie. Palmer then takes a stand against discrimination at the cost of his job. But Hot Garters Gertie still has one trick up her sleeve to save Palmer’s career.
FOR COMPARISON’S SAKE
Whether you like The Male Animal or She’s Working Her Way Through College is just a matter of preference. I’ve never been big fans of either Fonda or de Havilland as I find them both rather bland. But I have to confess Reagan by comparison is absolutely no match for Fonda’s performance in The Male Animal. I was actually a bit disappointed by how average Reagan was in She’s Working Her Way Through College. Overall, the cast of The Male Animal is more talented than SWHWTC, especially in the supporting roles. Therefore, the portrayal of the characters are much more believable.
The exception for me is Virginia Mayo as the dancer turned student in SWHWTC. I have only ever seen her in dramatic roles, so her turn in a musical comedy was a revelation. Not only is she talented but absolutely stunning! This also happens to be her own personal favorite of all her films. I absolutely prefer her role as a substitute for Joan Leslie’s little sister in The Male Animal. It’s interesting to note that Don Defore appeared in both films and the original Broadway play though in different roles.
She’s Working Her Way Through College is definitely the more glitzy and shallow film of the two. I didn’t mind though. I enjoyed the colorful sets and costumes as well as some of the catchy tunes. It is highly entertaining, but because of that it loses some of the impact that The Male Animal displays. The argument over free speech that the professor makes in The Male Animal is much more powerful than the one made against discrimination in SWHWTC, for example.
For me, She’s Working Her Way Through College edges out The Male Animal as my preferred choice. I have a feeling it is a film which I will enjoy watching again and again. However, whatever your criteria and preferences , you can’t go wrong no matter which you choose to watch.