Without revealing the verdict, here are the basics: Inherit the Wind follows the trial of a man accused of teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution to his high school science class. Here we have elements of McCarthyism teaming up with the Scopes Trial of 1925, which called into question a Tennessee man’s violation of the Butler Act (this prevented citizens from denying the Bible’s account of Creation). When it comes to recommending films that address what many consider to be blasphemous subjects, we run into a common problem — those who need to see it undoubtedly will refuse. It is really a shame, because as it turns out, the best (and worst) feature of Inherit the Wind is that it packs a stronger punch with every viewing.
Indulge me for a moment, and allow me to ask what brings out the child in you? Songs, smells, and especially certain foods are overwhelmingly powerful in their suggestive nature. One bite of a chocolate It’s-It, and immediately I’m back at summer camp, praying that the days would last . . . they went so fast! The last time I watched Inherit the Wind, making an appearance was not my happy, carefree child within, but rather the kid who looked up at those around him with the simplistic worldview of which only children are capable. He hasn’t visited me in quite some time, but there he sat, once again comprehending the definition of “hypocrisy” long before he learned how to spell it. To that young boy, the silent conclusion of “Gee, grown-ups are so stupid” was completely reasonable, not to mention applicable to too many adults. When I came in spitting distance of becoming an adult myself, I realized that, with little room for argument, that sassy little boy was right on the money about a few of them.
Five years before Inherit the Wind made its way to the silver screen, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play debuted on Broadway and has been revived multiple times. And why not — aside from being a wonderful script often placed in the hands of our most gifted actors, apparently its point remains lost on many Americans. Now, in this dark abyss of an election season, my child within remains utterly bumfuzzled by a deeply religious political party that fills itself with more and more hatred every day. When I pulled my dusty copy of Inherit the Wind off the shelf, the two of us sat there, that confused child and I, amazed that this absolutely brilliant film has become one of the most frustrating and agitating movie experiences.
“There’s only one man in this town who thinks at all, and he’s in jail.” The man in jail is Dick York, easily recognized as the original Darrin from the television series Bewitched. And the man who has arrived to defend him is the great Spencer Tracy. Ahh Mr. Tracy in a courtroom . . . it’s the next best thing to watching him play opposite Kate the Great. It’s easy to root for both Tracy and his character, Henry Drummond, as he defends not necessarily the validity of Darwin’s theory but the basic right to think and talk about it. On the other side of the table is prosecutor Matthew Brody, a man of God who is beloved by the pious, hateful little town, and played to perfection by Fredric March. Rounding out the cast is a steadfast Gene Kelly, who brings to the role of a liberal reporter the vocal rhythm of — you won’t believe it — a character in a musical. The chemistry between Tracy and March is spellbinding, and I love the fact that on each of their resumes is a film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Students of literature, theatre, and film could all go to town finding parallels between Jekyll, Hyde, Drummond, and Brody, but one joy of a blog is avoiding any style of writing that starts to read like a term paper. Naturally at this point I can’t resist throwing in one little story.
For months I had been on pins and needles waiting for the Super Bowl. Admittedly I understand not a single thing about football, but this year the NFL decided not to go for second best, baby — Madonna was scheduled to perform the half-time show. For various reasons, the team members and I all had trouble sleeping the night before the game. Later that week when I called Dad to see how his Super Bowl experience was, I got an earful about a woman who was at the party he attended, and how she left the room in a huff before our sacrilegious pop star took center field. Apparently this woman is one of many who not only continue to find Madonna offensive after all these years but also can’t get enough of those athletes who have turned religion into part of their uniform. At one point in the afternoon, after he let a few devout comments slip by, finally Dad turned to her and asked, “I wonder what team is Jesus is for today?” No blood test needed . . . that’s my father!
“He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind” (Proverbs 11:29). When he’s not looking around at the nonsensical grown-ups who surround him, my child within is absolutely frightened these days and turns to me for protection. Chilling is the realization that, when viewed in the 21st century, this fiery battle between the opposing sides of Inherit the Wind teeters on the edge of losing its entertainment value. Who could have predicted that a 1925 case challenging the right to think, later fictionalized for the stage in 1955 and then adapted for the screen in 1960, would remain astonishingly relevant in 2012? I guess that’s evolution for you . . .