Tuesday, April 8, 2008

the male animal

This afternoon's 'nap time at the movies' was The Male Animal (1942). It was an interesting blend of 40's screwball comedy with a basic discussion of the freedom of speech. Henry Fonda plays an English professor who causes an uproar because he proposes to read three letters to his class, written by three historical figures not known as writers: Lincoln, General Sherman, and Vanzetti. At the first mention of 'Vanzetti,' Sacco and Vanzetti sprang into my mind - I guess I learned something in high school history after all! - but I did need to refresh my memory. Briefly, Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian-born anarchists tried and executed for robbery and murder in 1927. The idea that a letter written by Lincoln would be read alongside a letter by an anarchist naturally sends the university administration into a tizzy. The professor is threatened with losing his job if he goes through with it by the stereotypical corpulent, short, heavily-jowled bureaucrat, who knows nothing of the letter's actual content, but objects to it based on the author.

The movie's themes - freedom of speech, student/teacher rights, mucky-mucks feeling threatened by something without actually knowing what it says, don't suppress ideas just because you disagree with them - are clearly nothing novel. I just thought it was interesting that I was watching a 'fresh' take on these ideas from a movie released in 1942. The US was at war - perhaps when the film was actually in production, the US wasn't physically involved yet, but the war in Europe was certainly well underway - and issues of loyalty and terrorism had to be in the forefront of film goers' minds. In the 30s and 40s, people were afraid of Italian immigrants, some of whom may have been terrorists, but most of whom were not. Today, we're afraid of people of middle eastern descent, again some of whom may be terrorists but most of whom are not.

It just got me thinking about how the passing of time might shift themes a bit, but that there are plenty of questions we still haven't found the answers to. That and the idea of 'freedom of speech' at a University. During my studies at universities, freedom of speech included much, as long as you left out God. No God allowed in the philosophy or thinking of the German lit crowd - how can you PROVE through argument that He exists - and no supreme creator for the scientists - how would you test that hypothesis? Somehow the power of the mind has to trump all else.

Final interesting note: The professor decides, from his studies of nature and reading of many books, that his wife should leave him for her hunky ex-boyfriend, a manly football coach, because he is the better example of 'the male animal.' The wife is of course moved far more by his standing up for his principles and reading the 'offending' letter, than when the professor punched the boyfriend in the face.

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