INHERIT THE WIND (Stanley Kramer, 1960)

The 1925 small-town Tennessee Scopes “Monkey” Trial, quite altered, springs the plot of producer-director Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind. The 1950 play that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote wasn’t staged until 1955, and here comes the film five years later. Like the cracklingly witty play, Kramer’s cracklingly witty film, marred only a little by a drearily sentimental scene inside Matthew Harrison Brady’s hotel room, aims at evoking more than the trial of a young high school science teacher who, supported by the A.C.L.U., legally tested by violating a state law that prohibited teaching Darwinian evolution in the classroom. A key to appreciating what play and film are about is the performance that Fredric March (best actor, Berlin) gives as Brady, who corresponds to the guest prosecutor in the actual case, once silver-tongued orator and three-time Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. There are two fine shots in the film. The first, a long-shot, shows Brady and his wife upon arrival being chauffered through town. March’s appearance duplicates Bryan’s almost photographically. However, throughout the film Brady’s cackling grandstanding, bullying and anti-intellectualism remind us not of Bryan but of someone else on the more recent public stage: U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who by the time of the film had expired politically and (in 1957) died. Inherit the Wind targets the American tendency towards populism/fascism that bullies people into silence and demonizes individual thinking that takes into account hard evidence: the atmosphere of fear that McCarthy’s tactics and power generated.
     The other fine shot? The last, where, armed with both Darwin and the Bible, Henry Drummond/Clarence Darrow departs the courtroom by walking towards the camera, turning screen-left, becoming shadow.
     The two best performances: Florence Eldridge as Brady’s wife; Jeff York as Bertram Cates/John Scopes.

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