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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Inherit The Wind (1960)

Director: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Frederic March

Generally speaking, Stanley Kramer is a filmmaker who always just falls short for me. His films always have their hearts in the right place, and they always have ideas, but the problem is that rather than dramatize those ideas, his films often explain them, and do so in a way that’s so intensely didactic that it verges on overbearing and patronizing. Inherit The Wind is the exception, perhaps because it’s a courtroom drama and therefore more easily and naturally suited to his less than subtle style of preaching.

The film is based on the Scopes trial where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan fought it out over the teaching of evolution in public schools. Spencer Tracy plays Henry Drummond, the defence attorney based on Darrow, and Frederic March is Matthew Harrison Brady, the prosecutor based on Bryan. Dick York is Bertram T. Cates, the teacher on trial, and Gene Kelly is E.K. Hornbeck, a reporter for the paper funding Cates’ defence. Kelly is good as the cynical and sarcastic reporter, and York does what he can with a role that is essentially part of the scenery. This is really Tracy and March’s film where they face off on a number of different occasions, in different sets of circumstances and with different outcomes.

Kramer makes his own position, and the opposing position of the local community, apparent immediately. The local population is clearly on the side of Brady and Creationist theory – they harass Cates when he’s locked in his cell, they throw Brady a parade, and they generally think the trial itself is a waste of time. The film, however, places itself clearly on the other side, and the viewer has little choice but to follow when the community is shown to be bigoted, reactionary and anti-intellectual. What saves this from being a “big city thinker” versus “backwoods hicks” fight is the character of Drummond himself, who isn’t arguing for the validity of one way of thinking over another, but rather for the right of a person to decide for themselves what they think. In one of the many great speeches that Tracy must have relished, Drummond sums his argument up thusly: “If you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools. And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers… And soon, with banners flying and with drums beating, we’ll be marching backward - backward - through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind.” To Drummond this is not the moral issue that it’s been framed as; it’s an issue of intellectual freedom, and of the responsibility of every human being to think for his or herself.

Brady gets to make speeches too, but is always one-upped by Drummond’s retorts. What’s interesting about the way Kramer presents the story is that, even though Brady is on the other side of the argument and even though he’s characterized as impeding intellectual progress, he isn’t the villain. It’s the community that is villanized, not just by the way that they treat Cates and Drummond, but by the way that they treat Brady as well. The most tragic moment in the film is not the verdict, which inevitably finds Cates guilty, it’s the moment when Brady realizes that he’s lost his audience, that those people who were so quick to give him a parade could turn on him with equal quickness the second they realized that he, too, is just another imperfect human being. He stands in the court, attempting to make a speech while the people who once listened to him with rapt attention turn on him in disgust and the only person listening anymore is Drummond. Whether you agree with Brady or not, it’s difficult not to feel for him at this moment.

The court room scenes are the best in the film – alternately funny, frustrating and heartbreaking – but there are also quieter, more private moments that are very moving. Brady and Drummond, though adversaries in the court, have a long and friendly history outside of it. There’s the suggestion that Drummond harbours an unrequited love for Brady’s wife who is, perhaps, a little in love with him, too, though she’s devoted to her husband. And there’s a conversation between Drummond and Brady where they set out their basic arguments and it feels more like two old friends in a healthy debate than it does like mortal enemies poised to destroy each other’s world view. These scenes are important because they make the characters more human, rather than broadly letting them be painted as “Good Guy” and “Bad Guy.”

I can’t stress enough how good this movie is, especially from an acting standpoint. Tracy is solid and dependable as always, bringing his special combination of gravitas and lightness to the role, and March – an actor who is under-rated perhaps because he’s such a chameleon that you don’t always realize that it’s him (watch this film, The Best Years of Our Lives and The Sign of the Cross and you’ll get what I mean) – is equally great. It’s their movie, their showcase, and it’s a wonder to behold.

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