Fearless Fagan tells the story of a young lion working steadily at a travelling circus that suddenly has his life turned around when he has to join the army with his master and best friend Floyd Hilstown (Carleton Carpenter). This is the basic set up for Stanley Donen’s charming and enchanting comedy that mixes animal-centric cinema with the hijinks and hilarity of military-based humor. The film is based on the real life situation detailed in Time Magazine during the early fifties where Private Floyd D. Humeston of the US army requested a leave of absence from military service in order to take care of his pet lion. Such a bizarre concept would eventually develop into a sweet parable centred on the love a young man has for his unlikely companion – a four year old African lion named Fagan. The root of their friendship is what makes the film more of an allegory for partnerships that know no bounds and a unity that defies convention, whilst forcing people (both populating the film as well as the audience) to question what they assume to be appropriate in accordance to the “natural order” of things.
From the opening, a voice over narration (akin to special interest news reports tacked on to early screenings from studios such as MGM and Warner Bros.) introduces and establishes the two central figures that Donen’s film will examine – a circus clown and his lion. With the circus being an obvious but questionable home for a lion outside of their natural habitat, director Donen already makes a bold statement about the concept of displacement and the politics of animal independence. His film also champions the complexities of animal personality and their sentient selves in relation to humanity. Setting the course of action forward very quickly in the piece, an FBI agent appears at the circus and delivers the news that performer Floyd (Carleton Carpenter) is needed to report for armed services, and is assumed to have been avoiding the draft – a serious crime that could have him arrested. Doe-eyed Floyd is innocent to such a demand and happily enrols in the army, but decides to sneak in his pet lion in order to save him from a life of loneliness. When Floyd’s boss remarks “It always knocks me over when a human being turns out to be a human being” (in relation to the FBI agent giving Floyd time to enlist) it is a wonderfully constructed line that is telling about Stanley Donen’s interest in making this film – that this formidable and super versatile director wishes to explore themes of human kindness; most notably, kindness during a period where there is seemingly a great ease in being cold and unfeeling. Fearless Fagan not only celebrates unconventional friendships and loving loyalty that goes beyond the obvious, but it also champions glimmers of hope amidst a world that can seemingly be unreceptive and despondent.
Much like the Francis the Talking Mule movies (1950-1956) that introduced the world to a chatty military based beast of burden, Fearless Fagan entertains the notion of men’s mental health being questioned when they acknowledge that their closest relationship is shared with an animal. Of course, in the Francis films, the mule talks to Donald O’Connor, and in the first film, and some of the follow ups, the material genuinely deals with mental illness and paranoid schizophrenia – mostly because everyone in the movies don’t believe the frazzled O’Connor (“a talking mule?”). The subject matter may be handled in a comical sense, but nevertheless the films would have O’Connor weaving baskets as both an acute observation on the emotional and mental state of men at war as well as being a hilarious image of a man torn apart by caged truths. The army and what it represents in cinema of the fifties is a fascinating aside, and when the films would inject comedy into such a setting, the results are still a valid annotation of what America was going through. Director Stanley Donen was one of those film makers interested in interpreting such varied points of topical conversations and when you consider his motion pictures, a lot have much to say about periods in time and responses to a world in constant change. His immortal classic Singin’ in the Rain (1952) would bring up the revolutionary mark of sound in early cinema, while his take on the “Rape of the Sabbine Women” in the musical Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954) made complex observations on the relationship between men and women and the topsy turvy world of courtship and baiting. Here in Fearless Fagan, he takes the comic approach to the military and marries it with animal magnetism made literal. Also, he delivers a lion who is artistically inclined – an animal that works as an entertainer, is bored when he is not “on show”, relaxes and unwinds while listening to records and by the end of the picture, ends up living in Hollywood with a showgirl.
Janet Leigh as the much loved singer/dancer Abbey Ames is a fitting tribute to the legendary ladies who travelled from Hollywood or Broadway to entertain the troops. One incredibly telling moment for her character is where Carleton’s Floyd tells her “I love you…I think” to which she educates the naïve boy about romance and falling in love. She then cynically insists that a boy like him (one who is sensitive, aware and tender) best stick to lions and honouring their love rather than having his heart broken by various girls. Abbey Ames is a woman of the period, somewhat hardened and also divorced from the idea of romance being easily obtainable and something to surrender oneself to. The song she performs for the army is a terrific commentary on growing up and leaving the realm of childhood and entering womanhood – which expresses more of the same attitude as aforementioned; the notion that when you develop into maturity, cynicism can take hold if you’re not careful. The song is also about perception as she questions the troops with snappy lyrics and through song asks them why they see her as kid and why they can’t see her as a grown woman who has needs of a sexual nature. Of course, the boys ogle, wolf whistle and celebrate her femininity, but there is a sense of play more than sexual eagerness as seen in say the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical South Pacific (1958) when the nurses appear as chorus girls to sex-starved sailors and Seabees during the second part of the “Honey Bun” number.
Janet Leigh’s chemistry with the boyish Carleton Carpenter is almost a precursor (in a very different light) to her onscreen relationship with Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960) in that both men are not traditional leading male characters, nor are they traditional leading men. But here in Stanley Donen’s comedy, this makes sense seeing that the fundamentally important relationship is in a buddy-sense in that it is about Carpenter and Fagan the lion. Scenes involving the two are made of pure charm, sweetness and beauty – the lion paws at him like a giant kitten, runs into his arms like a dog excited to see his/her human companion, rolls around and wrestles with the young spindly man and with his mighty body shoves him around with great love and playful skill. It is a sight to behold and Carpenter celebrates the animal with loads of love and Donen captures all of this with a great sturdy scrutiny of animal/human relations. This is a pro-animal film and something that relishes in the adventurous nature of beasts and the vastly important abilities shown in interspecies communication.
Carleton Carpenter’s performance is delicate, nuanced, sweet and incurably endearing. He is part clown and goofball, but also embodies the quirky appeal of an old school hoofer, trotting the boards during the vaudeville era. As well as being an actor, Carpenter would make a career as a magician, song writer and novelist and although Fearless Fagan would feature his sole leading role in his varied (but not massive) filmography, he would always provide a dynamic addition to the films he worked on featuring all-star ensembles. Carpenter would appear as the boy smitten with Jane Powell (but have young Debbie Reynolds after him) in Two Weeks With Love (1950), the MGM musical that would have the distinction of featuring the first song from a film soundtrack that would become a chart topping gold record. The song would be “Aba Daba Honeymoon”; a number that would highlight Carpenter’s wonderful dancing as well as his great handle on comedy and mime. Also a number referring to chimps, apes and baboons (more animal fun!), Carpenter and Reynolds would beam with sheer movie musical magic come the now famous and legendary sequence. Carpenter’s charm in Two Weeks With Love seems to foreshadow his performance here, as the perpetually juvenile and innocent man-child (a term used here in the nicest possible sense) whose best friend is a lion.
In addition to Carpenter and Leigh is the always excellent character actor Keenan Wynn as the hard-headed sergeant who acts as both the foil as well as the film’s “heavy”. A man convinced that talk of a lion on the barracks is a somewhat creative way for his young private to be discharged for mental health issues, Wynn is eventually the rigid stoic mean machine who ends up in a frenzied state, having to deal with wispy Carpenter and his beloved pet. Much like the cross dressing Klinger (Jamie Farr) years later in the TV series M*A*S*H (1972-1983), Wynn’s attitude is that this lanky “soft” soldier is eager to get out of the army and will invent any excuse to do so. However, when Janet Leigh’s easily irritated songstress vouches for the true existence of the lion, the film shifts into a progressively comical light hearted romp about the king of beasts being integrated in a world that is getting ready for war. There are some excellent moments orchestrated by Donen so expertly that they fall into family-orientated fun but also pass comment on the manners and methods of man. For instance, when Fagan strolls through the WACs wing on the military base, he terrifies the female soldiers, but is casual and only interested in listening to the radio. However, earlier, when the male squadron pass the WACs, they whistle and leer, calling out to the girls to be noticed in a display of juvenile obnoxiousness. Donen paints these two scenarios up so well – that the WACs seem to be “used to” such harassment (however benign) from men, but are terrified of a “wild beast” strolling through their halls (albeit only to listen to some tuneful offerings from their phonograph).
With animal-centric movies becoming more the rage come the sixties with works such as Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, Fluffy and Zebra in the Kitchen (all from 1965) hitting theatres and making an impression, plus more serious-in-tone films such as the environmentally aware Born Free (1966) helping people understand the absolute importance of animal welfare, Stanley Donen’s Fearless Fagan embodies the pure elegance and sweet nature of fifties halcyon ideals embedded within a fuzziness that has proven Hollywood mythos is tangibly comforting and necessary. As the film has no obvious or direct political agenda, it still clearly embraces a desire to “speak” about loyal and deep inter-relations shared by wide-eyed innocent skinny men who are not at all “made for the army” and proud, majestic beasts who have a sensitive side.