There are some works which remain confined to the time in which they were crafted, which now serve only as a quaint illustration of a bygone age, when folks were less enlightened than they are now, which offer a warm, comforting glow on a Sunday afternoon when the gardening has been done and the dog has been walked; conversely, there are others which remain frighteningly relevant of which Inherit the Wind is one.
Originally a stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee which premiered in Dallas, Texas in January 1955 having been turned down by numerous Broadway producers, it was first filmed in 1960 with three subsequent remakes each attracting the top acting talent of the time, Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley in 1965, Jason Robards, Kirk Douglas and Darren McGavin in 1988, then Jack Lemmon, George C Scott and Beau Bridges in 1999, but for many it is the original screen version which is the definitive telling of the story.
Premiered in London in July 1960, it is this version produced and directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly which has now been released on Blu-ray by Eureka, a glorious, flawless restoration of a film which effortlessly sheds the decades of accumulated dust which might have tarnished a lesser work, the words which echo in that Tennessee courtroom as vital now as when they were first spoken.
Inherit the Wind was not Kramer’s only stage adaptation, having produced Cyrano De Bergarac and Death of a Salesman in the early fifties followed by the classic Western High Noon, the opening scene of Inherit the Wind shot almost as a climactic showdown, the gathering of the forces of Hillsboro at the appointed hour to vanquish the threat which has arisen in their town.
That serpent is high school biology teacher Bertram T Cates (Dirk York, four years before his appearance as Darrin Stephens on five seasons of Bewitched), arrested and charged with instructing his class in Darwin’s theories of evolution in direct conflict with the state law which prohibited the teaching of anything other than Biblical creationism.
The leaders of the town vain, selfish and arrogant men whose piety is driven by the desire to line their pockets from the media circus the show trial will bring to Hillsboro, prosecuting for the state is three-time presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March, two time Academy Award winner for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Best Years of Our Lives), a skilled orator who fervently believes in the literal word of the Gospel.
Defending is Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy, also a two time Academy Award winner for Captains Courageous and Boys Town), a close friend of Brady and his wife whose own faith is untroubled by the notion of incorporating modern ideas into the received wisdom of the ages but who is confounded by the restrictions placed upon him by Judge Merle Coffey (M*A*S*H‘s Harry Morgan) who refuses to allow testimony from scientific experts, all arguments to refer only to the Bible.
Lawrence and Lee’s play adapted by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, it is a knowing and witty script with warm performances from the ensemble cast over whom Tracy and March tower in their courtroom confrontations, Drummond playing the weaker hand of a stacked deck as Brady himself, called as an expert witness as a Biblical scholar, engages in prevarication and evasion when challenged on the accepted assumptions and inherent contradictions of the Bible: “I do not think about things I do not think about.”
Inspired by the genuine case of the State of Tennessee versus John Thomas Scopes, decided July 21st, 1925, sometimes known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, Brady is based on William Jennings Bryan and Drummond on Clarence Darrow who previously defended Leopold and Loeb whose “perfect crime” inspired Rope, while journalist Henry L Mencken is represented by Gene Kelly as E K Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald, more concerned with what is right than making friends with the powerful: “It is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Hornbeck an outside interested party observing how events in the town will impact a country with a declared division of state and church as the case is presented before a jury drawn from a fundamentalist populace indoctrinated in the overwhelming power of the church, Brady is welcomed with a parade carrying placards, “Doomsday for Darwin,” “Godliness not Gorillas,” calling for “the Devil’s advocate” Drummond to be thrown out before he has even arrived and for Cates to be hanged even as they sing praises to the Lord, the film topped and tailed with a bold vocal performance by the then-teenaged Leslie Uggams, most recently seen in Deadpool 2.
In the accompanying discussion, film scholar Neil Sinyard makes it clear that, much like the liberties taken with the events depicted in Hidden Figures which reveal a wider truth of the time in which that film is set, neither should Inherit the Wind be taken as a documentary representation of the real Scopes case which was in fact staged as a test case of science versus religion in much less hostile circumstances.
Sinyard a convivial host whose asides are as informative and entertaining as the core subject, he provides context of the court case and of the many productions of Inherit the Wind though Kramer’s rightly receives the most attention; conceived in the era of Joseph McCarthy and House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, much as Arthur Miller used the historic Salem Witch Trials to comment on contemporary purges in The Crucible so Inherit the Wind put the hypocrisy of the state legal processes on trial.
A performer best known for his starring roles in musical romances, Kramer’s incongruous casting of Singin’ in the Rain‘s Gene Kelly was a deliberate reflection of that climate of orchestrated fear, Kelly having taken part in protests against the McCarthy hearing which affected both his career and that of his first wife, Betsy Blair; Robert Wise had done similar with his pointed casting of the previously blacklisted Sam Jaffe in the key role of Professor Barnhardt in his anti-war plea for tolerance shaped as science fiction, The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Almost sixty years after it was filmed by Stanley Kramer, like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as the cycle of politics swings again towards bigotry, division and the wilful ignorance of the misguided righteous, time and distance have not diminished Inherit the Wind but made it stronger when faced with a generation who actively deny the lessons which should have been learned over ninety years ago when the Scopes trial made headlines.