Monday, November 2, 2009
Reeling Backward: "Inherit the Wind"
I first saw "Inherit the Wind" when I was 11 or 12 -- right at the age when you start to question your upbringing, the values your parents endeavored to instill in you, even your religion.
What I most remember about the movie was the scene where the brilliant defense attorney questions his opposing counsel on the witness stand, and gets him to admit that the word of the Bible is not necessarily the literal truth. Since God didn't make the sun until the fourth day, how do we know the first three days were exactly 24 hours long, he needled? Couldn't it as easily been 10 million years? And if so, how are we expected to take every single word in the Good Book at face value?
The Scopes Monkey Trial -- of which "Inherit the Wind" is a fictionalized version -- may not seem that relevant today, more than 80 years on since a Tennessee schoolteacher was accused of giving lessons on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. But with recent polls showing public faith in evolution at an historic low, the 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March still resonates.
Funny what I just wrote: "Faith in evolution." It's amazing how quickly radical ideas become doctrine, ripe for the next wave of thinking to tear at their foundation. We are so quick to divide ourselves into believer and non-believer, whether it's faith in a deity or the theories of science.
Look at how the global warming debate generally goes: Anyone who dares to express skepticism, or even point to scientific data that casts doubt on global warming is labeled a "denier" -- as if they were some sort of apostate, rather than a thinking individual with a right to reach their own conclusions.
The trial was extremely famous in 1925, and 30 years later it was made into an equally regarded play (written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) that formed the basis of the 1960 film directed by Stanley Kramer.
The trial itself became a spectacle because of the clash of two titans in the courtroom: civil liberties attorney Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and former secretary of state. The film needed to have equally giant cinematic figures standing in for them, so Tracy took on the Darrow role and March the Bryan role.
(Incidentally, the photo that runs with this article is not from the movie, but is a contemporaneous photo from the trial of Darrow and Bryan. If you watch the movie, you can see that the actors made for excellent physical matches for their parts, and the look of the small-town courtroom is also authentic -- right down to the hand fans everyone used to combat the suffocating heat. I was able to find a number of good images from the movie, but I used this photo just because I like it so much.)
The movie plays out as a series of thundering oratory battles between Darrow and Bryan, who were renamed Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady for the film. Drummond, of course, eventually gets the upper hand, though Brady is a sympathetic figure. After all, he is the one who attempts to calm the local preacher, who thunders fire and damnation upon his own daughter, who is engaged to the offending schoolteacher.
The two men spend more time addressing each other than they do the judge or the jury, and I am compelled to point out that such theatrics would not be tolerated in any courtroom, now or then.
Gene Kelly, in one of his few dramatic roles, plays a cynical Baltimore journalist who comes to cover the trial and ends up sticking his nose right into the middle of it, siding with Drummond and even sitting in at the defense table. He has a great line where the schoolteacher's fiance is summoned to be a witness for the prosecution, and he tells the teacher, "Sit down, Sampson, you're about to get a haircut." His character was based on real-life journalist H.L. Mencken, who covered the trial.
One of the most interesting things about the movie is how many supporting actors went on to have notable careers on television. The judge was played by Harry Morgan of "Dragnet" and "M*A*S*H*" fame, and Dick York as the teacher was best known as Darrin from "Bewitched." Claude Akins, as Rev. Brown, played Sheriff Lobo on "B.J. and the Bear" -- a show I'm ashamed to admit I watched religiously when I was about 9 -- and starred in a spin-off. Norman Fell, the immortal Mr. Roper from "Three's Company," played a radio guy.
"Inherit the Wind" has fallen a little in my eyes since I saw it as a questioning youngster. It's a little staged and long-winded, but still an enjoyable bit of courtroom drama. And to think that we once had movies that openly examined the relationship between God and science -- the notion of such a movie being made in Hollywood today is truly heretical.