Inherit the Wind (Blu-ray Review)26 Jan, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Florence Eldredge, Dick York.
I’ve long noticed that whereas other once praised Stanley Kramer message-pictures from his late 1950s and early 1960s heyday have been regularly raked over the coals by modern-day critics for what is by now decades, the producer-director’s truly gutsy screen version of the famed Jerome Lawrence-Robert E. Lee play generally escapes the drubs afforded to The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, Judgment at Nuremberg and (for all its half-redeeming charms) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But this in some way fabricated take on 1925’s Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tenn., has rarely been more topical.
This was my favorite movie when I was 13, and I saw it five times in theaters, including a twisted drive-in engagement where it played with Frank Sinatra in Can-Can. You’d think, then, that I would have made it a box office hit all by myself, but commercially speaking, the 1960 picture was a non-starter, just as 12 Angry Men and Sweet Smell of Success and The Night of the Hunter and Paths of Glory were for Wind distributor United Artists only a little earlier. To sell it, Kramer filmed a coming attraction, included on this Twilight Time release, where he pretended to be one of those boxing ring announcers who launch the contest and later bellow out the final decision. This was cleverly reflecting the truth because here was a heavyweight bout if there ever was one. Co-leads Spencer Tracy (playing a fictionalized version of iconoclastic lawyer Clarence Darrow) and Fredric March (doing the same for religious fundamentalist and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan) were almost indisputably regarded as the two greatest American actors of the day. Both are at the absolute top of their game, and it’s tough to see how March failed to get an Oscar nomination here (as Tracy did) aside from the fact that the best actor race that year had an imposing lineup.
The real-life issue at hand was the teaching of evolution in a public high school, and the trial was an ACLU test case as opposed to a situation in which real-life teacher John Scopes (his equivalent is played here by later-of-Bewitched Dick York) was simply persecuted by zealots. Stirring up the mix was agitating Baltimore Sun wit H.L. Mencken — whose analog here is played against type by Gene Kelly in casting that a college prof of mine said would have made the real Mencken turn over in his grave. Here and there, Kelly at least has his good moments — as well as most of the film’s occasional heavy-handed humor that is all in the original play and not something that Kramer (as some might suspect) interjected. In real life, Mencken reported on the trial from Dayton just as we see in the film, even referring in print to the demonstrably religious townsfolk as “boobs.” It’s tough to imagine this guy dancing happily with MGM’s Jerry the Mouse the way Kelly did in Anchors Aweigh.
Also in real life, the town (called Hillsboro here) was turned into an overnight convention of hucksters and carny types who anticipated, in screen terms, some of the folks who eventually show up to sell “eats” in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole after a local miner becomes a huge national news story by getting trapped in a cave. Lawrence and Lee took a lot of liberties with the actual events, claiming that their main Blacklist-era intention was to stand up for free speech — something Kramer abetted himself when he hired blacklisted Nedrick Young to co-write the Wind screenplay, which got the filmmaker a negative wind blast from those eminent Chaplin-hating film scholars at the American Legion, presumably between checkers games.
The Scopes trial was actually a pretty dry affair until Darrow got court permission to put Bryan on the stand as a Biblical scholar — eventually demolishing the latter’s contention that everything in the Bible was to be taken literally. This is the payoff an already gripping movie builds carefully toward, and the extended scene delivers the goods all the way and then some in a project that no major studio would likely touch today (though the play has been adapted for TV subsequent times in other productions, none of them up to this one). Tracy and March dominate, but they aren’t the whole show (March’s skullcap, for one thing, is perhaps the most effective I’ve ever seen on screen). One major subsidiary standout is Harry Morgan’s performance as the judge — a case of an actor putting his own spin on proceedings when the role most requires him to play it straight. In contrast, look eagle-eyed at some of the things Tracy does (expression-wise and with his hands) to steal a scene. Ernest Laszlo’s black-and-white cinematography got an Oscar nomination, and this is another good Twilight Time release to make veteran moviegoers salivate for those wonderful B&W days. The editing also scored a nomination, and even at 126 minutes, this baby moves.