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Inherit the Wind
Of all the movies Stanley Kramer directed, only one has an unimpeachable reputation: Inherit the Wind (1960). People love or hate It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), some consider Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) too pat, a liberal fantasy; and there are those who find On the Beach's (1959) stiff-upper-lip, corpse-free post-apocalyptic grimness unbelievable. But Inherit the Wind? Everyone, it seems, loves the actorly courtroom sparring between Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, so much so that it inspired two similarly star-studded remakes within a few years of one another, squaring off Jason Robards against Kirk Douglas in 1988, and Jack Lemmon vs. George C. Scott in 1999.
Yet, despite a fondness for Kramer's film shared by this reviewer, seeing it again on the heels of Blu-rays of On the Beach and Judgment at Nuremberg, the two movies that bookend Inherit the Wind in Kramer's filmography, to say nothing of Criterion's release of Mad World a year ago, on close examination Inherit the Wind is by far the least of these pictures.
Yes, Tracy and March are fun to watch, though Tracy, Kramer's muse during this period, was much, much better in Nuremberg. Both On the Beach and Nuremberg are far better directed and more cinematic generally, where Inherit the Wind has the look of a well-made television film. For various reasons, some unexpected, the movie has dated less well than the others. Though entertaining still, today it's more of a curiosity piece.
Nevertheless, Twilight Time's presentation, licensed from MGM, is stellar. The movie has never looked better.
The film is, of course, a barely-fictionalized dramatization of the infamous 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial, in which Tennessee high school teacher John T. Scopes was convicted of violating state law by teaching his students Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. For both Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee's 1955 play (starring Paul Muni and Ed Begley) and the movie adaptation, Scopes was renamed Bertram Cates (Dick York), while William Jennings Bryan, representing the prosecution, became Matthew Harrison Brady (Frederic March); Clarence Darrow, Scopes's attorney, became Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy); and reporter H.L. Mencken became E.K. Hornbeck (third-billed Gene Kelly).
The play and to some extent the movie, despite its 1920s setting, was an attack on ‘50s McCarthyism and laws subverting intellectual discourse generally, as much as it was about evolution vs. creationism. For the film version Kramer, working with Harold Jacob Smith and Nedrick Young, the latter blacklisted himself at the time (he was credited as "Nathan E. Douglas" on the original film prints) made minor changes that opened up the play a bit while adding more details true to the original Scopes trial (while making the Drummond-Brady characters less like their historical counterparts). Oddly, though, these changes tend to make the film play more like a historical drama rather than underscore its parable aspects.
In any case, Inherit the Wind is less remembered either as a cautionary science vs. religion story or a parable about McCarthyism than as a showcase for two of the screen's great actors late in their respective careers. Each is fun to watch, though March, his distinguished features partly hidden under an unusually good bald cap/partial wig, lacks subtlety because that's what the part demands: a corpulent, larger-than-life, floridly theatrical politician-orator. (Unlike Begley, the Broadway Brady, March wasn't fat at all and, even with padding, is actually thinner than Tracy was at this time, making all the references to Brady's weight seem almost cruel.) Tracy is also fine, though he's much more subtle in Nuremberg, maybe his single best screen performance.
The larger issue with Inherit the Wind, looking at it now, is that the movie's premise - small town small-mindedness coupled with intolerant fundamentalist Christian sanctimoniousness - just isn't believably presented. The movie's exteriors were mostly shot on the Universal backlot (possibly the Columbia Ranch as well). Indeed, the opening titles are like a mini-tour of that backlot's famous sights, while the cast is composed of good if prolific character actors busy on series television and, occasionally, movies: Dick York, Claude Akins (as the town's fire-and-brimstone preacher), Harry Morgan (as the judge), Elliott Reid (as the country prosecutor), etc., etc. The town always looks like a Hollywood set and the cast cozily familiar but definitely not authentic small town types.
Roger Corman's low-budget The Intruder (1962), filmed on location soon after, is something like Inherit the Wind minus the Tracy character (stranger comes to town, taps into its latent bigotry, is discredited in the end) yet because of Corman's use of Missouri locations and less familiar and non-professional actors, that movie plays like a squirmily uncomfortable documentary. Even To Kill a Mockingbird, which likewise uses the same Universal backlot, even the same courthouse set, is better cast with a more authentically "southern" types and atmosphere.
It's also probable that current events, battles waging now between fundamentalist Christians and the scientific community, and the legislators caught in the middle, only serves to make the outraged citizens in Inherit the Wind seem all the more phony. Everything is a bit too neat, right down to their protest signs (a key difference between the movie and reality: these protestors can spell). In the movie they're just a unified mob, speaking with one voice. Their fears about all this evolution business, however unjustified, isn't adequately expressed, while Brady is such a pompous ass ("He the only man I know who can strut while sitting down," says Kelly's character) that there's little doubt ol' Spence is going to win the argument, if not the case.
(Reader Sergei Hasenecz for the defense: "While this is true, the suspense lies not in whether Tracy will win or not, but rather in how he is going to win. With the judge disallowing all of Drummond's witnesses and scientific experts, Drummond is backed into a corner and is forced to rely on the very person and "evidence" he is fighting against: the anti-science biblical scholar Brady, and the Bible itself. Drummond wins because he raises the possibility of uncertainty within Brady's own mind, something Brady has likely never experienced before. The entire sequence is very well done, and it's wonderful to see Tracy and March squaring off against each other."
Sergei Hasenecz for the prosecution: "The other thing that sticks out is when the townspeople sing 'We'll hang Henry Drummond from a sour apple tree' (I think they do the same to Cates, too) to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. These are Southerners. They'd have used a different tune, especially towards a Northerner like Drummond.")
Video & Audio
The packaging for Inherit the Wind lists a 1.85:1 widescreen presentation but the video transfer is actually 1.66:1, though this appears correct, insofar as there doesn't seem to be any excessive headroom above the actors, and the titles appear correctly blocked. The black and white film looks splendid throughout, with a pleasantly sharp image and eye-pleasing light film grain. The DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono is fairly robust also. English subtitles are included, and the disc is region A encoded.
In addition to Twilight Time's usual isolated music (and, in this case, sound effects) track, highlighting Ernest Gold's rather disappointing score (despite nice a cappella vocals from Leslie Uggams, bookending the film), there's also a rather odd trailer. Director Stanley Kramer on-camera talks about the film almost as if it were a heavyweight championship bout. Not a bad way to exploit it, but he also can't resist ballyhooing its artistic merit as well, offering footage from various film festivals and premieres. As with other Kramer trailers from this period, it's unusually long, original, and more than a little pretentious. Julie Kirgo's liner notes offer additional insight on the production.
Dated despite battles still waging on related issues, Inherit the Wind is nonetheless still very entertaining and, for those who've never seen it especially, heartily Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.