With movie houses still padlocked (scheduled re-openings soon), my source for cinema enjoyment is “Reynolds Favorite Movies” list. Scanning the posted gems, I reference a genre that has wide appeal; the intrigues of court room dramas. Over the years Hollywood has reeled out a number of cinematic treatments with varying degrees of artistic achievement. Among the foremost: “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “12 Angry Men”.
As well, “Inherit the Wind” (1960) stands out, particularly for solid performances by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. With each viewing, the two A-list stars renew my applause for Stanley Kramer’s ficticious cinematic reenactment of an historic court battle (“Scopes Monkey Trial”) in 1925 “Bible Belt” small town Tennessee.
Tracy and March mimic opposing lawyers cross firing conflicting arguments over Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the creation concept as related in the Bible. The title is linked to Holy Scripture, the Book of Proverbs 11:29: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”
John Scopes (Dick York, tv’s “Bewitched”), a 24 year-old High School mathematics teacher, sports coach and substitute science teacher, is on trial for teaching the theory of evolution, a violation of State law “that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”
Bible-thumping prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, and defence attorney Clarence Darrow, the champion of liberal-thinkers, were celebrated legal eagles of the time. The two, who were friends, had high profile reputations, thus attracting national attention to the high-voltage “MonkeyTrial”. The names of the historical figures were all changed for the film, but their characters remain visually recognizable.
For producer-director Stanley Kramer, the film marked a high point in his career receiving recognition as one of his best cinema efforts. In an interview with Kramer at the time, I sensed the serious attitude of a creator pursuing fulfillment of an idea based on historic fact. It would have been enlightening to have attended script read-throughs and brain storming sessions between Kramer, and the awesome talented Tracy and March, both double Oscar winners in their only film together. Its most satisfying to watch these two screen warriors chewing the scenery with verbal “give ’em hell Harry” ping pong volleys of gospel/Darwinian dogma.
In an unusual casting decision, a familiar face appears in an unconventional role. Dancing shoes are replaced by pencil and note pad as Gene Kelly steps away from his signature Terpsichorean appearances, here becoming a fast talking, cynical newspaper columnist. The character takes getting used to, but defines Kelly’s ability beyond his “feet do your stuff” signature movements.
There’s a metaphoric social consciousness theme that Kramer plays up, linking the film to the ongoing distress of the Joseph McCarthy era (think Trump turmoil). The 1950s “cold war” between the United States and Russia was raging, prompting the Senator to initiate a sweeping investigation of communist incursion in the U.S. Fear was rampant upon the land. McCarthy also focused his witchhunt on Hollywood, with prominent creative and acting names rounded up for questioning, (blacklisting was instituted, and careers ruined).
Kramer’s film challenges movie goers. Who won the epic courtroom war of words? As alternate jury members, judge for yourselves. Inherit the wind will be available again on Hollywood Suite on August 4th.