The basis for the story is the real-life 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial during which the town of Dayton, TN gained much attention when teacher John Scopes agreed to violate the Butler Act. Scopes was a willful patsy in what was an outright publicity stunt to boost the town’s profile. Big name lawyers, prosecutor William Jennings Bryan and defense attorney Clarence Darrow, were brought in to square off in what amounted to a Creationism vs. Darwinism battle. Kramer’s movie is fictionalized, which it cops to upfront. The names have all been changed, with Spencer Tracy portraying the Darrow stand-in Henry Drummond and Fredric March as the Jennings Bryan copy Matthew Harrison Brady. Gene Kelly, in a less showy but no less incisive performance, co-stars as ultra-cynical journalist E.K. Hornbeck (whose real life inspiration was writer Henry L. Mencken).
Kramer stacks the deck heavily in favor of the defense, which paints teacher Cates as a man of consequence who stands up to the tyranny of the Bible Belt’s thought police (the film drops the patsy angle, making Cates a straightforward champion of the theory of evolution). The fact that this very topic is still a flashpoint for controversy to this very day, an incredible 90 years after the real-life events, simply beggars belief. The townsfolk of Hillsboro are a righteous, God-fearing bunch who clings to their “old-time religion” for dear life. Any challenge to their personal beliefs, even when presented in the form of scientific theory, is literally enough to inspire a lynch mob. There remain pockets within the U.S. that would still have public schools put religious parable over science. Inherit the Wind is every bit powerful enough to continue riling such people up, though perhaps many of them wouldn’t be open-minded enough to see such a movie anyway.
It’s hard to overstate the joy in watching Tracy and March (aided by great work by Kelly, York, Claude Akins, and Harry Morgan) puff out their chests and go toe-to-toe in what amounts to a very long courtroom set piece in the film’s second half. It’s certainly testament to the on-going validity and power of the so-called “old school” style of acting that should be seen by anyone who doubts “old” movies have anything vital to offer. It’s ripely theatrical (the film was adapted from a stage play, after all) but that’s entirely the point. Attorneys Drummond and Brady are, in fact, close friends. They’re putting on something of a show for the people of Hillsboro. But it’s Drummond who gets to make all the truly relevant arguments about the importance to free speech and free thought (Kramer’s film is at least as much about McCarthyism as it is the Scopes Trial).
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presentation is good, considering the source materials used in MGM’s transfer have a few problems. Though not frequent by any means, there seems to be some age-related artifacts that crop up from time to time. But by and large this Blu-ray offers an attractive image (Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography was Oscar nominated). The DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack presents no problems. Ernest Gold’s score is offered as an isolated track.
To order Inherit the Wind, while supplies last, visit Twilight Time’s exclusive distributor Screen Archives.