Sunday, February 5, 2012
CANON OF FILM: "INHERIT THE WIND"
INHERIT THE WIND (1960)
Screenplay: Nathan E. Douglas and Harold Jacob Smith based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Earlier this week, the state of Indiana voted that Creationism can be taught in science classes along with the Theory of Evolution. That’s this week. After hearing about this, I thought back to “Inherit the Wind”. The original Scopes Monkey Trial was in 1925. There is more proof that proves Evolution than there is evidence that proves the existence of the atom. That is a fact by the way, and that atom evidence includes everyone dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, it’s this willful insistence on ignorance of certain people that continually make this an issue. It’s not that “Inherit the Wind,” feels dated, quite the contrary, it doesn’t, and in a way, that’s actually far more disturbing.
The story is so familiar, that I’m not sure why they even bothered changing the names. Even on the back cover of the DVD box, it calls the lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, but in the movie Darrow’s been changed to Drummond (Oscar-nominee Spencer Tracy) and Bryan is switched to Brady (Frederic March), but nevertheless, it is incredible fun to watch these two great actors work. Few courtroom dramas are as entertaining a battle of acting as this one. Somewhat surprisingly, the courtroom proceedings are actually not that far off from the actual transcripts of the case. There’s a few adjustments to the facts. Scopes, or in this film, Cates (Dick York) was a substitute teacher who was hired to teach Evolution so that the law could be challenge, and not really a beloved teacher at the high school. Other strange facts are true though. Darrow did call Bryan to testify as a Bible expert, after the court declared that all science experts were excluded as witnesses. It doesn’t take long for him to crumble, eventually claiming not only that God spoke to him, but that he created Earth 4000 B.C. at 9:00am. Bryan, who was a man of great stature in real life, had three Presidential runs and was about as important to the political landscape at that time as Henry Clay was earlier, but this trial forever altered history for him. I can’t even think about him in any neutral way without remembering this film. After he drops dead in the film which occurs in a long rant trying desperately to defend Fundamentalism, there’s the surprising scene in the end that shows Darrow’s true nature wasn’t far off from Bryan’s.
“Inherit the Wind,” is one of the all-time great courtroom dramas. It was directed by one of the most underrated of directors, Stanley Kramer. Kramer was a very liberal director who made films with blatant, sometimes too blatant messages, (His films include “Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner,” “The Defiant Ones,” and “Judgment at Nuremberg”, also one of the great courtroom dramas) and he often used long speeches to tie everything up in the end. But they were great speeches by great actors (Often, it was Spencer Tracy), his points were made clear, and now more than ever, his films seem to grow more relevant over time even when they should obviously age. I think he was more ahead of his time than people realize in this respect, but either way, his films are brilliant. Surprisingly, for such a political director, his films are actually amazingly entertaining to watch. He had well-written scripts, and good actors that can transcend the material. Gene Kelly for instance takes a strangely a small supporting part here as a character based on H.L. Mencken. There’s always some ease and lightness to his films, that seem to make his films, even with the most controversial of subject matters almost too-easy to watch. Most argued that this simplifies and sometimes undermines the messages in his films. After seeing many of his best films, I think he made his movies with a lighthearted touch so that the messages would actually be front-and-center. There were a lot of liberal filmmakers with political messages in their films; it says something about Kramer that, no matter their perceived faults that his are the ones we most remember.