Like Elmer Gantry I first saw Inherit the Wind in the theater in Brooklyn when I was 13 years old. Both of those films dealt with issues arising from the Roaring Twenties out of religion. At the time I thought both were great dramatic pieces dealing with issues of the past. I thought how much we'd grown up as a country from 1925 to 1960.
If you had told me that 46 years later we'd be fighting these same battles and that preachers had as much political power as they do I and many others would have said you were nuts. Yet here we are today in an age when Pat Robertson is taken as a serious political figure.
Inherit the Wind is a dramatization of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 when a biology teacher was arrested and challenged a law passed by the Tennessee State legislature making it a crime to teach anything other than the account of creation as set down in the Book of Genesis. Dick York is the biology teacher here, renamed Bertram Cates for the play and the film version of that play.
In fact all the names of the dramatis personae of the Scopes Trial have been changed to allow some creativity by the authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee. Spencer Tracy and Fredric March play fictionalizations of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan named Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady respectively.
Of course that is what Inherit the Wind is primarily known for, a duel of double Academy Award winners. In fact Spencer Tracy received another Academy Award nomination for this film, but lost to Burt Lancaster for Elmer Gantry. That's ironic to me because I thought March captured the essence of William Jennings Bryan better. Bryan is a man whose time has passed him by. But he's still a hero to the folks of small town rural America in the south and middle west. One thing to remember is that while Bryan was a great orator and advocate, he had not practiced law in over 30 years when he stepped into the courtroom for the trial. If he had been a better lawyer, he might not have fallen into the one big trap Tracy set for him and the trial and the attending publicity might have been better for his side.
As good as Tracy is, the year before in Compulsion I think that Orson Welles captured the real Clarence Darrow in his character of Jonathan Wilk. No one in Hollywood could do long take speeches quite like Spencer Tracy though. I'm sure that's why Director Stanley Kramer hired him and they developed quite the screen partnership with Tracy doing four of his last five screen roles for Kramer.
Stanley Kramer made some impeccable casting choices filling out the minor roles of the various townspeople of Hillsboro, Tennessee. There are two that I would single out. Claude Akins who usually played tough guys in various action films was astounding as the town preacher, the Reverend Jeremiah Brown. Sad to say there are still many like him out there. Akins's offbeat casting worked wonders, it turned out to be the high point of his screen career.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Noah Beery, Jr. who is a farmer and who's son was drowned some time before the events of the film. Beery is the town non-conformist, he refused to allow his son to be baptized and Akins has said the adolescent is in hell because of it.
In a key scene when Tracy draws the ire of Judge Harry Morgan who sentences him to jail for contempt of court, Beery offers to put up his farm for collateral for Tracy's bail. Tracy's about to quit the case, but that simple gesture gives him hope, in the ultimate decency and clearheadedness of ordinary people. It's my favorite scene in Inherit the Wind.
Stanley Kramer lived long enough to see this film become so relevant for today's times. I wonder what he must have thought.