Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Monkey trials stand in for witch hunts in this famed courtroom drama

Illustration for article titled Monkey trials stand in for witch hunts in this famed courtroom drama

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The Oscar-nominated Trumbo and the Coens’ ’50s-set Hollywood farce Hail, Caesar! have us thinking back on films by or featuring artists blacklisted during the Red Scare.


Inherit The Wind (1960)

Director Stanley Kramer solidified his reputation as Hollywood’s preeminent producer of socially conscious mainstream entertainments with Inherit The Wind, his critically hailed 1960 adaptation of the 1955 Broadway play that was loosely based on the controversial 1925 “Scopes monkey trial.” As with his source material, Kramer’s film takes great liberties with that real-life case, and thanks to the contributions of screenwriter Nedrick Young—who, like many others, suffered greatly thanks to the anti-communist Hollywood blacklist—it also doubles as an allegorical condemnation of the Red Scare era. Nominally about the battle over teaching evolution in classrooms, Young’s script resonated at the time, and still does today, as a fierce critique of groupthink oppression, and as a celebration of the preeminent value placed by a democratic society on freedom of thought and expression.

Led by twin titanic performances from Oscar-winners Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, Inherit The Wind takes place in a small Southern town where schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Dick York) is forced to stand trial for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. For the prosecution is loudmouthed, perpetually hungry Matthew Harrison Brady (March), a former presidential nominee who vigorously whips the religious community into a lather—albeit not quite as much as the zealous local pastor (Claude Akins) whose daughter (Donna Anderson) is dating Cates. To defend Cates, Baltimore Herald newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly, in a rare dramatic turn) brings in revered Henry Drummond (Tracy), whose atheism—and personal relationship with Brady—help create much of the ensuing war-of-ideals drama.

Kramer’s direction is straightforward but shrewd, highlighting his protagonists’ contentious dynamics via confident, understated camerawork. There’s nothing low-key about the film’s stars, as an unbridled March sweats, blusters, and makes exaggerated expressions while Tracy exudes everyman folksy charisma and bellowing-mad righteousness. Amidst their showdown, however, it’s Kelly who often steals the show, with his wry, world-weary cynicism—about man’s capacity for logical thinking, or tolerance of opposing viewpoints—continuing to resonate most strongly, especially in light of the fact that, in certain parts of the country, this fight remains ongoing.

Availability: Inherit The Wind is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.