We have to give it to Spencer Tracy; a consummate professional deemed ‘America’s greatest actor’ by MGM VP, Dore Schary, and considered a peerless, seemingly effortless talent by virtually all who knew and worked with him. Arguably, Tracy’s last act in pictures was as distinguished as his first – and his middle. Tracy is one of those rarities in Hollywood: ‘a natural’ whose craggy visage and gravel voice emanate volumes of potent human emotion at a glance. In his youth, he appeared every bit as implacable, stubborn and stoic as Wallace Beery. Indeed, when Tracy first came to the attention of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, the old-time star maker was rumored to have said, “We don’t need another galoot loafing around the backlot!” Mayer, however, was likely unconvinced of his own snap assessment, seeing enough in Tracy to allow Fritz Lang to cast him in Fury (1936). The picture didn’t make the studio much money, but it gave Spencer Tracy a very lucrative start to his career. When Mayer hit upon the idea to tag his unlikely new ‘leading man’ opposite Katherine Hepburn, the New England blue nose only recently come out from under her own labelling as ‘box office poison’ (thanks to the overnight Broadway – and later – film success in The Philadelphia Story 1940) the results were instant box office magic. Ultimately, their on-screen chemistry would spill over into their personal lives. And although Hepburn and Tracy would prove their mettle together in 9 pictures throughout the next three decades, it’s their movies apart – particularly Tracy’s – that fascinate.
Tracy made everything he did look so unforced few knew of the sacrifices and self-doubt plaguing the actor. His lifelong affair with Hepburn, begun on the set of Woman of the Year (1942), only complicated what was already a very tumultuous personal life as a devout Catholic (married with two children), prone to bouts of extreme depression, capped off by drunken binges impacting both Tracy’s health and career. MGM’s publicist, Howard Strickland, kept it all hush-hush (as only Strickland could in those days with just about any human foible afflicting Metro’s stable of stars – either to their everlasting, Teflon-coated public image or as a detriment to their finding genuine salvation). Yet, even as the ravages of his alcoholism began to outwardly mark his already craggy façade, the results somehow deepened and enhanced Tracy’s acting. By the early 1960’s, Spencer Tracy had mellowed considerably. He also seemed to genuinely be enjoying his last hurrah. He would be dead by 1967. But in 1960, Tracy was riding a high on a commitment to one of his best pictures: Stanley Kramer’s potent drama, Inherit the Wind (1960).
Inherit the Wind is a clever reconstitution of 1925’s Scopes ‘monkey trial’, redressed with the then topical and timely trappings of McCarthyism – unapologetically investigated in the Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith screenplay. Young had been blacklisted in Hollywood under his real name, Nathan E. Douglas. A brief history lesson: in early 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy began what would ultimately be known as a ‘witch hunt’ on members of the Hollywood community deemed ‘subversives’: code for communists and communist sympathizers. In what can only be referenced as a rather hideous moment in American history in which entertainment and politics collided, some of Tinsel Town’s most prominent talents were forcibly prevented from working; their immediate slalom from fame into oblivion predicated, in most cases, on the flimsiest of speculations about their political affiliations. The results of these hearings were several high profile imprisonments and, at least in hindsight, the premature death of actor, John Garfield – who succumbed to a heart attack after his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Apart from Spencer Tracy’s monumental performance in Inherit the Wind, as defense attorney, Henry Drummond (patterned after Clarence Darrow) the film is immeasurably blessed by two other truly outstanding enactments from Fredric March and Gene Kelly: more on March in a moment. One of the great ironies in Hollywood is that Gene Kelly’s formidable backlog of iconic moments in musical comedy has successfully managed to eclipse his versatility – both in front of and behind the camera. Indeed, Gene Kelly had liberated the male dancer from what, until his time, had been largely misperceived as a sissified profession for any man to pursue. Kelly’s first wife, Betsy Blair, has pointed out how Kelly’s frequent movie musical ensemble of “a sailor suit or white socks, loafers and T-shirts on his muscular torso gave everyone the feeling that he was a regular guy.” Kelly would further reflect on these perceptions – also, those who had rather cruelly misjudged him as the ‘Astaire-not’. “I used to envy his (Astaire’s) cool aristocratic style”, Kelly once mused, “…so intimate - contained. Fred wears top hat and tails as to the manor born. I put them on and look like a truck driver!”
In Inherit the Wind, Kelly is impeccably sardonic as E. K. Hornbeck; a self-effacing, razorback reporter for the Baltimore Herald, patterned after Henry L. Mencken. In hindsight, and from what’s been written about Kelly since, his performance in Inherit the Wind is perhaps marginally truer to his own self than all those toothy, bright-eyed innocents Kelly played as broad ‘leading man’ pantomime in films like An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Brigadoon (1954). Hornbeck has been sent by his paper, not only to cover the story, but also to help stir the pot of popular opinion in the accused’s favor for the sake of a good byline. What he quickly discovers is a town so mired in its own addlepated religiosity it absolutely refuses to even entertain the notion of an outside influence having a positive effect.
When pertly told by one of the town’s small-minded busybodies (Hope Summers), “Hmph…I’ll bet you’re looking for a nice warm place to stay” Kelly’s cool reply, “No madam, I had a nice warm place to stay…and I left it to come here,” immediately sets up his character’s considerable disdain for humanity in general, and his complete lack of tolerance for those with steel-traps as minds. In some ways, Kelly’s performance is the most compelling in the movie; Hornbeck experiencing something of a mild conversion in his own cynicism; beginning his coverage of the trial and its participants with generalized contempt and mild amusement, but becoming genuinely invested somewhere along the way to see forthright high school teacher, Bertram T. Cates (Dick York, patterned after John Scopes), exonerated for having the guts to teach ‘evolution’ as an alternative to the Biblical theory of creation.
The other marvelous performance in the movie belongs to Fredric March as the bombastic Bible-thumping prosecuting attorney, Matthew Harrison Brady (patterned after William Jennings Bryan). March’s career was, by 1960, in something of an artistic slump. Lest we remember, March had been a very dashing figure in the movies throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, shocking his contemporaries with the quintessential, not to mention Oscar-winning portrait of Dr. Henry Jekyll and his hideously disfigured alter ego for Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 classic chiller, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But by the early 1950’s, March’s reputation in the industry had slipped. Often cast as second or even third string support to other rising stars in films like Executive Suite (1954) or The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), the solidity in March’s craft frequently made him the obvious choice for such ‘character’ parts tinged with an air of sadness, even as he played something of the closeted and marginally despicable pseudo-tragic cad.
Despite its superb evocation of the Scope’s trial, its intriguing parallels to the McCarthy era, and virtues critically praised, Inherit the Wind lost $1.7 million at the box office. Arguably, it wasn’t the movie the public wanted to see, or perhaps was – just not in the numbers necessary to earn back its initial outlay. Yet, the film’s reputation has only ripened with age; the public coming around to embrace Inherit the Wind as a masterpiece. Our story begins outside the infamous Hillsboro courthouse, an off-camera somber soloist singing ‘Old-Time Religion’, a traditional Gospel dirge dating all the way back to 1873. ‘Respected’ members of the community, including Mayor Jason Carter (Philip Coolidge) and pompous Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins) prepare to arm themselves against the teachings of the town’s science teacher, Bertram Cates, whose only ‘blasphemy’ is he dares educate the youth of today with Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. In the middle of his lecture, Bert is promptly arrested by Deputy Sam (Robert Osterloh), the minor incident sparking a national debate with headline-grabbing ridicule for the town: “Heavenly Hillsboro – does it have a hole in its head or its head in a hole?”
The town’s council passionately debates the pros and cons of standing their ground. Yet, it seems their woes are at an end when noted evangelical, Matthew Harrison Brady volunteers to prosecute the Cate’s affair. Even local Prosecutor Tom Davenport (Elliot Reed) is smitten with the idea of standing side by side with a man of Brady’s caliber, whose reputation as a fundamental moralist and brilliant legal mind precedes him. Reverend Brown suggests council give thanks to the Lord for having sent them a redeemer. Actually, it is Hillsboro’s pious collective of faux morality that will ultimately bring down the very turpitude they perceive to have festered and thrived in bigger cities like New York; especially when Henry Drummond is hired to take on the case for Cates. Drummond is the Clarence Darrow of his generation. In fact, the Smith/Young screenplay borrows a few parallels from Darrow’s famous defenses to make a pitch for its own.
Rev. Brown may not realize it, but he has greater concerns closer to home; for starters, his daughter, Rachel (Donna Anderson), who also happens to be desperately in love with Cates. Rachel pleads with Bert to apologize for his indiscretions and to throw himself on the mercy of the court. It’s no use. As Bert explains, what good is a free body if the forces against him are allowed to imprison his mind? Bailiff Mort Meeker (Paul Hartman) quietly agrees. And a ray of hope materializes for the couple when Baltimore newspaper hound, E. K. Hornbeck surfaces with news his publication is preparing to back Bert’s defense. The Boy Socrates will be judiciously given counsel by either an old lawyer with new tricks or a new lawyer exploiting time-honored slights of hand to dazzle the jury. What does it matter so long as Bert wins? Alas, it matters a great deal to Rachel, who rightly views the press as intrusive and disruptive to their very private lives.
The Young/Smith screenplay affords Gene Kelly’s slickster some of the film’s juiciest dialogue, delivered by Kelly with such acerbic panache that one could almost mistake his ease in the part as a soft shoe shuffle excised from one of his much-beloved MGM musicals. Hornbeck is, as Kelly astutely surmises, much admired for his ‘lovable detestability’. “I may be rancid butter,” Hornbeck tells Rachel, “But I’m on your side of the bread.” Matthew Brady’s arrival in Hillsboro is greeted with all the flavorful pomp and circumstance befitting a king; Brady and his wife, Sarah (Florence Eldridge) escorted in open-top car by a proud delegation, belting out ‘Old-Time Religion’; the film’s musical leitmotif. Hornbeck is swept up by the ebullient mob, marveling at their blind-sided ferocity to condemn an innocent man. Puncturing their balloons of hypocrisy, Hornbeck announces Drummond’s candidacy to defend Cates. Brady publicly accepts the challenge, but later criticizes Hornbeck for his ‘bias’ reporting. “Mr. Brady,” Hornbeck points out, “It is the duty of a newspaper to bring comfort to the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!”
Drummond’s arrival in town is met by a far less glamorous, though much more genuine contingent of young college-bound men who have long since admired his prowess in the courtroom. Equally warm-hearted is the reception Henry gets from Sarah in the lobby of the town’s hotel. It seems the two were very much ‘friendly’ with one another in their youth. In fact, after Sarah married Matt, Henry even campaigned for Matt’s electoral nomination as President of the United States – twice. Brady’s failure to ascend to the highest order in the land has been offset by his lightning reputation in the courtroom. Alas, he is artificially congenial to a fault – two-faced even, as he introduces Mayor Jason Carter (Philip Coolidge) and his co-council to Henry in the lobby; determined to put on a false front of mutually accessible goodwill. Matt is unimpressed, but polite. The next day, the initial courtroom sparing between Brady and Drummond is full of bombast, if congenial amusement; the air humid and stifling, spirits high as jury selection begins. Indeed, the aura of these early sequences takes on an almost carnival-like atmosphere.
Soon, however, the mood turns darker, uglier; Brady and Drummond both attacking the issues at stake; free speech and the right to worship as one pleases; the town of Hillsboro investing in a candlelight vigil in which Rev. Brown preaches eternal damnation to all those who oppose the will of the Lord. Rachel throws herself at her father’s feet, pleading for her lover’s redemption. Brady encourages prudence. He urges Rev. Brown to reconsider the book of Proverbs and Wisdom of Solomon; “He that troubles his own house shall inherit the wind.” Rachel knows her father’s hatred for ‘sinners’ only too well and realizes in his eyes she will always be considered evil. Matt and Sarah are a comfort to Rachel, haunted even by the zealousness of the moment and how their presence has stirred the town into an inhospitable fervor. But Brady falters in his own zealousness to win the case, using confidences told to him by Rachel about Bert and twisting her words to corrupt the jury. “Sit down, Samson,” Hornbeck tells Bert, “You’re in for a haircut.”
Drummond attempts an ill-fated cross examination of the prosecution’s perceptions; that anyone even engaged in discussions contrary to those written in the Holy Bible is committing blasphemous acts against the Lord. Alas, Drummond is stifled at every possible opportunity to further explore this line of defense by Brady’s barnstorming semantics. On the witness stand, Rachel reveals how the community turned against ‘the Stebbin’s boy’; a nine year old who went swimming in the lake with the other boys and drowned, causing her own father, the Reverend, to damn his soul to hell as a non-believer of the Christian faith. When Drummond is cited for contempt, the boy’s father, John (Noah Beery Jr.) offers to put up his farm in lieu of bail for Drummond’s anticipated incarceration.
At trial, Judge Mel Coffey (Harry Morgan) excludes all of Drummond’s experts on evolution, forcing Drummond to call upon the only witness at his disposal to help disprove the prosecution’s case; none other than Matthew Brady. Believing his turn on the witness stand can only strengthen his case, and cock-sure he has already won, Brady becomes his own worst enemy under cross examination. He not only exposes his own hypocrisies but also reveals the parallels between the Bible and Darwin that Drummond sought to expose in the first place. Finally, Drummond manages to draw from Brady the notion God speaks to all men through their conscience, thus revealing Brady’s own failing; he believes he is personally anointed by God to speak on His behalf. His audaciousness is enough to turn the wide-eyed believers into disillusioned cynics.
That evening, Rachel confronts Sarah about her husband’s tactics. The women reveal their great – and complimentary – sadness to each other; Sarah asking Rachel if she believes in Bert Cates as much as she continues to remain steadfast at her own husband’s side. The next afternoon a guilty verdict is rendered against Bert Cates by the nervous jury who, alas, are anything but impartial. Having already been forewarned about what such a verdict could do to his chances of getting re-elected, Judge Coffey softens the blow by levying a miniscule fine of $100 against Cates and dismissing the case. Brady, who prepared a lengthy summation he had hoped to deliver at the end of trial, is chagrined. The courtroom devolves into a circus-like atmosphere, Brady hollering over the roar of the crowd, only to suffer a fatal heart attack as a result.
Sometime later, Hornbeck finds Drummond quietly packing his belongings in the abandoned courtroom. He accuses Drummond of being a fraud; of pretending to be an agnostic when he just as readily believes in the Bible and a goodly portion of the preachy resolve that buoyed Brady throughout his lengthy career. Drummond declares with humility that “there was much good in the man” before countering Hornbeck’s accusations with a few of his own, well-placed, chastising Hornbeck as the worst kind of human being; one who clearly feels for nothing and no one – not even himself. When Drummond coolly suggests to Hornbeck that he is all alone, that no one is apt to attend his miserable funeral, far from being insulted, Hornbeck lets out with a gentle smile. “Oh yes they will…” Hornbeck reasons, “You’ll be there. You’re just the kind.” Thus concludes the story on a fairly ambiguous note of contemplation and self-reflection for each of the characters.
Inherit the Wind is a potent, often visceral zeitgeist, more about the popularized notion America was built on an ideology of free-thinking individualism, than it is a faithful reenactment of the Scope’s monkey trial; Stanley Kramer using the patina of the actual case to resurrect the consciousness of a nation and force it to reexamine its’ own collective morality. Wherein lay its strengths and weaknesses? Kramer isn’t saying and it’s just as well. Fascinatingly, none of these polarized discussions have dated since. If anything, the issues at stake have been magnified with the passage of time, with some of the implied ‘immorality’ Brady linked in his admonishments of science and progress - infecting man’s soul - creepily come to pass. The best of Stanley Kramer’s movies are all variations or critical analyses of man’s inhumanity inflicted upon his fellow man, whether through self-destructive pride (as in this film), via the spirit of warped nationalism (Judgment at Nuremberg) or politically strong-armed to the point of all out extinction of the human race (On the Beach). Kramer is, of course, immeasurably blessed to be working with Spencer Tracy, whose performance anchors the story in a sort of self-effacing solemnity. Perhaps Tracy’s character harks to Kramer’s own motivations and principles for making the movie. In the final analysis, Inherit the Wind is a potent slice of America – hardly at its most beautiful – but decidedly at its most probative.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray at long last rectifies MGM’s ole original sin of not enhancing its movies framed in 1.66:1 for widescreen TV’s – an idiotic practice of yore. The results are astounding. Inherit the Wind shows very minimal signs of age-related damage and virtually no minute speckling for a considerably smooth and very film-like 1080p presentation. A few transitions between scenes are grainier than expected, and some long shots lack the overall crispness one might expect. But film grain looks very organic and close-ups (of which there are a great many) reveal an astounding amount of minute detail in hair, skin and fabric. The gray scale is exquisite with richly saturated blacks and very clean whites. All the tonality between these diametrically opposed points on the scale is amply represented. Bottom line: you are going to love the way this disc looks. We get a DTS 1.0 sound mix, adequate for this dialogue-driven film, plus TT’s usual commitment to providing us with an isolated score and effects track in 2.0 mono. Alas, the only other extra – aside from Julie Kirgo’s liner notes – is the film’s original trailer. For a movie of such importance it would have been prudent of either TT or MGM to provide us with an audio commentary at the very least. Otherwise, this one is a no brainer and a must have.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)