Inherit the Wind: screenplay by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee; directed by Stanley Kramer; starring Spencer Tracy (Henry Drummond), Fredric March (Matthew Harrison Brady), Gene Kelly (E.K. Hornbeck), Dick York (Bertram T. Cates), Claude Akins (Reverend Jeremiah Brown), and Donna Anderson (Rachel Brown) (1960): As much about McCarthyism and the Red Scare as it is about the teaching of evolution in American schools, Inherit the Wind is loosely based on the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ of the 1920’s. In that trial, the State of Tennessee prosecuted a substitute teacher for teaching evolution in a high-school biology class.
That set-up only partially remains here. The prosecuted high-school teacher in Inherit the Wind is full time and, to complicate things dramatically, engaged to the daughter of the preacher who has him brought up on charges in the first place. Yikes!
And as Dick York’s schoolteacher lives in a small town, there’s really nowhere for him to escape the growing mobs of angry, placard-waving, effigy-burning Christian fundamentalists except for the town jail, where he plays cards with the sympathetic, apologetic jailer.
In the real trial, famous American defense lawyer Clarence Darrow led a team of lawyers defending Scopes. The prosecution was led by former Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Acerbically reporting on the whole affair was the famous H.L. Mencken.
Here, Matthew Harrison Brady stands in for Bryan, Henry Drummond stands in for Darrow, and Hornbeck stands in for Mencken. While the supporting roles are capably acted, and while Gene Kelly holds his own as the sarcastic, cynical Hornbeck, it’s Fredric March and Spencer Tracy who command the stage here.
March is bombastic as the fiery, Bible-thumping Brady, while Tracy is slightly cooler and much funnier as the ‘famous agnostic’ Drummond. That the men share a history going back 40 years and were once friends adds another level to the intellectual conflict: both are disappointed in the path the other has taken, though only Drummond strives to cool things down, unsuccessfully, throughout the trial.
With more than an hour devoted to the courtroom proceedings — many of them closely following the real arguments — Inherit the Wind succeeds or fails on the basis of the drama of two men talking. I think it succeeds grandly, as these two old, titanic actors are given lines and scenes that allow for high drama centered around people talking, arguing, shouting, and occasionally mopping their brows in the steamy courtroom, in the steamy hotel, or on the steamy hotel porch. It’s hot, dammit!
I imagine a lot of people would be turned off by a drama of ideas, especially one in which fundamentalist Christianity takes the intellectual and moral beating of a lifetime. I think it’s swell, and in a way an obvious forerunner to the work of Aaron Sorkin, though here much of the talking is done while the characters remain mostly stationary. Highly recommended.