Aug. 23, 2005
Inherit the Wind (1960)
Grade: 60/100

Director: Stanley Kramer
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly

What it's about. In this dramatization of the 1925 Scopes 'Monkey' trial, future Bewitched co-star Dick York is jailed for teaching evolution in a deeply conservative small southern town. Hooplah ensues as the trial, which pits William Jennings Bryan (Fredric March) against Clarence Darrow (Spencer Tracy) in their roles as prosecutor and defendant. The judge is longtime M*A*S*H star Harry Morgan. Gene Kelly is a cynical east coast reporter, who apparently doubles as a member of the defense team.

How others will see it. Great care and skill went into the script, and this is certain to be appreciated by the viewer. One nice touch has Dick York and the jailer sitting at a table as equals passing the time. When there is a knock on the door, the jailer asks York to lock himself up in the cell for appearances sake.

Other luminous moments: March as Bryan belching in the middle of yet another belabored pronouncement; March making a pun about the Rock of Ages; and Tracy's analogy of a beautiful rocking horse made of flimsy material to the comfort provided by religious platitudes that promise more than they deliver. After all, maybe the meek don't inherit the earth. Maybe, they just get crushed into it by the grasping.

But with Darrow/Tracy destined to get the better of Bryan/March, one group likely to be interested but not pleased are fundamentalists, who are alternatively depicted as obsessive, narrow-minded, backward, polemic, and dangerous; the latter when they form a mock lynch mob to antagonize (and threaten?) the defendant and his lawyer.

The cast is stocked with well known actors, all of whom are excited to have landed their roles. Except for Tracy, who is always the wise everyman regardless of the movie.

Courtroom dramas have long been popular. Cliches include the usual suite of objections (both sustained and overruled) from lawyers, and surprise hostile witnesses called to the stand. Tracy quits (briefly) as defense lawyer in a contentious, preposterous speech that manages to insult both the judge and the local populace. It is doubtful a similar scene took place at the real Monkey Trial.

How I felt about it. It is also doubtful that the imprisoned teacher was engaged at the time to a gorgeous but pure young woman who still lives with her fundamentalist preacher father, played with obsessive intensity by Claude Akins. This daughter later breaks into hopeless sobs during her testimony at the trial, when grilled by prosecutor Bryan.

Thus, the movie manages to enforce stereotypes about 'good' girls in search of the proper daddy, and Southern preachers whose definition of sinners extends to all but the like-minded flock who attend his services and at least pretend to follow his precepts.

For whatever reason, Inherit the Wind changes the names of all the parties (Scopes to Cates, Bryan to Brady, Darrow to Drummond). But it is obvious that Brady is Bryan, since he is described as Secretary of State under Wilson, a three-time presidential candidate, and a Nebraska native. Hmmm, let me check my history book...

The most curious role goes to Gene Kelly, the reporter with a cynical exterior, but a hidden agenda toward worthy causes, such as the defense of a hapless school teacher. Even Tracy, however, judges Kelly by his smug exterior rather than by his underlying sympathy for the disenfrachised.