Notes on Inherit the Wind 5*
Spencer Tracy, playing Harry Drummond (based on Darrow) examines Fredric March, playing Matthew Harrison Brady (based on Bryan) in the 1960 film version of Inherit the Wind
Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote Inherit the Wind as a response to the threat to intellectual freedom presented by the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era. Lawrence and Lee used the Scopes Trial, then safely a generation in the past, as a vehicle for exploring a climate of anxiety and anti-intellectualism that existed in 1950.
Inherit the Wind does not purport to be a historically accurate depiction of the Scopes trial. The stage directions set the time as “Not long ago.” Place names and names of trial participants have been changed. Lawrence and Lee created several fictional characters, including a fundamentalist preacher and his daughter, who in the play is the fiancé of John Scopes. Henry Drummond is less cynical and biting than the Darrow of Dayton that the Drummond character was based upon. Scopes, a relatively minor figure in the real drama at Dayton, becomes Bertram Cates, a central figure in the play, who is arrested while teaching class, thrown in jail, burned in effigy, and taunted by a fire-snorting preacher. William Jennings Bryan, Matthew Harrison Brady in the play, is portrayed as an almost comical fanatic who dramatically dies of a heart attack while attempting to deliver his summation in a chaotic courtroom. The townspeople of fictional Hillsboro are far more frenzied, mean-spirited, and ignorant than were the real denizens of Dayton.
Nonetheless, Lawrence and Lee did draw heavily from the Scopes trial. A powerful Darrow condemnation of anti-intellectualism, an exchange between Darrow and Judge Raulston that earned Darrow a contempt citation, and portions of the Darrow examination of Bryan are lifted nearly verbatim from the actual trial transcript.
Although Lawrence and Lee completed Inherit the Wind in 1950, the play did not open until January 10, 1955. The Broadway cast included Paul Muni as Henry Drummond, Ed Begley as Matthew Harrison Brady, and Tony Randall as E. K. Hornbeck (H. L. Mencken). The play received rave reviews and was a box office success.
Nathan Douglas and Harold Smith wrote the play into a screen script in 1960. The Douglas and Smith screenplay differs from the stage version in several respects, most notably perhaps in its downplaying of some academic and theological points, and its playing up of the trial’s circus atmosphere.
A made-for-TV rewrite of the 1960 Stanley Kramer movie ran on NBC in 1988. In this Inherit the Wind adaptation, Jason Robards played Darrow, Kirk Douglas played Bryan, and Darren McGavin played Mencken. The TV rewrite departed in only minor respects from the plot of the earlier Hollywood version.
Cast of Inherit the Wind (1960)
Produced by: United Artists
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Black and White
Directed by: Stanley Kramer
Spencer Tracy — Henry Drummond [Clarence Darrow],
Fredric March — Matthew Harrison Brady [Wm. Jennings Brian] ,
Gene Kelly — E. K. Hornbeck [H. L. Mencken],
Dick York — Bertram T. Cates [John Scopes],
Henry Morgan — Judge [John Raulston],
Florence Eldridge — Sara Brady ,
Donna Anderson — Rachel Brown,
Claude Akins — Rev. Jeremiah Brown,
Elliot Reed — Davenport,
Phillip Coolidge — Mayor,
Paul Hartman — Meeker,
Jimmy Boyd — Howard [Howard Morgan],
Noah Beery, Jr . — Stebbins,
Ray Teal — Dunlap,
Norman Fell — Radio Announcer,
Hope Summers– Mrs. Krebs
Movie Reviews of Inherit the Wind
Jay Brown, Rating the Movies **** (of 4) “A fascinating slice of American history brought brilliantly to the screen….Tracy and March are superb as Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, respectively.”
Bowtey Crowther, New York Times (10/12/1960) “Kramer has wonderfully accomplished not only a graphic fleshing of his theme, but he also has got one of the most brilliant and engrossing displays of acting ever witnessed on the screen…. When the two men come down to their final showdown and the barrier of dogma is breached, it is a triumphant moment for human dignity–and for Mr. Tracy and Mr. March.”
Variety (7/6/60) “A rousing and fascinating motion picture. Virtually all the elements that make for the broadest range of entertainment satisfaction–drama, comedy, romance, social significance, even suspense–are amply present…. Pairing of Tracy and March was a masterstroke of casting…. If they aren’t top contenders in the next Academy sweepstakes, then Oscar should be put in escrow for another year.”
Jay Nash and Stanley Ross, Motion Picture Guide ***** (of 5) “In their scenes together, Tracy and March are nothing less than spellbinding, working off each other and holding their own–two of the most forceful images to grace the screen…. Tracy never lost a scene to anyone except in this film, where March uses every histrionic trick in his acting arsenal to bring the scene to his own presence, his face, hands, and body contorting and moving with every measured line Tracy uttered….The film contains some of the most witty, literate lines ever put on the screen.”
Karl W. Weimer, Jr., Magill’s Survey of Cinema “Inherit the Wind is infused with Kramer’s liberal sensibility…. The play, following closely on the heels of the McCarthy era, was very much an allegory of its time, and this dimension is fully exploited by Kramer and his screenwriters. Indeed, if the film can be faulted at all, it is on this level: The townspeople seems a trifle too bigoted, while Drummond’s (Darrow’s) unrelenting altruism is equally suspect….Kelly, in one of his few straight dramatic roles, brings just the right degree of cynical detachment to the pivotal role of E. K. Hornbeck (H. L. Mencken) without once sacrificing the empathy of the audience.”
Carol Inannone, “First Things” (WWW) “Inherit the Wind reveals a great deal about a mentality that demands open-mindedness and excoriates dogmatism, only to advance its own certainties more insistently…. A more historically accurate dramatization of the Scopes Trial might have been far richer and more interesting–and might also have given its audiences a genuine dramatic tragedy to watch. It would not have sent its audience home full of moral superiority and happy thoughts about the march of progress.”
Robert Harsh, “Exposing the Lie: Inherit the Wind” (WWW) “Christians, particularly William Jennings Bryan, are consistently lampooned throughout, while the skeptics and agnostics are consistently portrayed as intelligent, kindly, and even heroic. I simply cannot escape the conclusion that the writers of the screen play never intended to write a historically accurate account of the Scopes trial, nor did they seriously attempt to portray the principal characters and their beliefs in an unbiased and accurate way.”
John Leonard, New York Magazine (3/21/88) In liberal melodrama, we feel bad the morning after. Thus, in Inherit the Wind, after freethinker Darrow humiliates fundamentalist Bryan, both turn on the cynical Mencken: ‘Where will your loneliness lead you? No one will come to your funeral….’ For liberals, winning is guilty, gloating is indecent, and cynicism is un-American. This nostalgia for a consensus that never existed is one of the differences between, say, Arthur Miller and Henrik Ibsen.”
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