Inherit the Wind (1960)

The Scopes Monkey Trial was a blockbuster, featuring William Jennings Bryan squaring off against Clarence Darrow, with H.L. Mencken reporting.

“Inherit the Wind” is a slightly fictionalized version. Scopes became Cates; Bryan became Brady; Darrow became Drummond, and H.L. Mencken becomes E.K. Hornbeck.

This is one of those courtroom dramas, like “12 Angry Men,” that has been produced a number of times, all of them pretty damn good.

This version is Stanley Kramer’s landmark 1960 film, starring Frederic March as pious prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady, and Spencer Tracy as the “agnostic” Drummond. They are both towering actors, with two Oscars each. Gene Kelly proves that he has acting chops, even if he neither sings nor dances.

The people of Hillsboro, Tennessee, are God-fearing, fire-and-brimstone sorts, who hate Drummond and Hornbeck, and the “atheistic science” Mr Cates taught.

The clashes between Brady and Drummond are epic. Truly, Messrs Tracy and March put on a “this is how you do it, you mumbling method-acting chowderheads” seminar. They’re both amazing to watch, as they thunder and froth at one another.

A couple of things bug me about “Inherit the Wind.” First, I disagree with the portrayal of Hillsboro’s townsfolk as being complete simps. Believe me, I’ve been in some small Tennessee towns where I can see them being inhospitable to Yankee agnostics. But Kramer portrays these people as pious to the point of threatening violence…until one day when the great Yankee agnostic changes their minds.

Second, Harry Morgan played the Judge. I like Harry Morgan in many roles, but his Southern accent was all over the place, from Tennessee jurist to Mobile sharecropper to Cajun swamp-dweller. He would have been fine had he not tried an accent at all.

Dick “The First Darrin” York played Cates, the young teacher. He was earnest and believable, but–damn my eyes–I couldn’t help but see him as Darrin.

This is a great courtroom drama, if only for the actors. I also recommend the 1999 version, starring Jack Lemmon and George C Scott. It, too, is an acting seminar. The little things didn’t bug me as much.

It’s too bad Spencer Tracy–the Chief Judge in Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremburg”–couldn’t have run this trial as well. Also, too bad Stanley Kramer didn’t make as good a film about Americans as he did about Germans.

Grade: B

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11 Responses to “Inherit the Wind (1960)”

  1. Interesting! I really need to watch more movies. I am completely illiterate. I’m glad I can learn about the actors and the plots here, though!

  2. I lîké yøu, Tjøm. You say funny things about chimps.

  3. The first version of Inherit the Wind that I ever saw was the 1999 one and I thought it pretty damn good, too.

    • Jack Lemmon and George C Scott were an awesome tandem. The latest broadway revival had Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer. I’d love to see that.

  4. I can’t watch “Inherit The Wind” without getting pissed off. Willful scientific illiteracy drives me bonkers.

  5. I saw this film back in high school when we were assigned to read the play. It was great, though like stevebetz I find it hard not to get angry at the local yokels for thumping the Bible and using religion to justify their ignorance. I also know a bit about the Scopes Trial on which the movie is based, and it was actually a bit more complex than “Inherit the Wind.” It exposed the tensions between rural and urban America, between modernism and “traditional” religious values, and secular humanism and theism. As you said, the portrayal of the people of Tennessee was simplistic and clearly biased towards Hollywood snobbery.

    Henry Morgan was a goof in the remake. It was like he couldn’t decide what accent to fake, so he slid all over the Confederacy trying to find the dialect that sounded right for the part.

    • In his defense, I think Harry Morgan’s voice was so overpoweringly gravelly, that he couldn’t have used any accent (think Bogie (not for acting talent, but for accentlessness)). I had to look up where Mr Morgan was from. Detroit, of all places.

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