Directed By: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly
Tag line: "It's all about the monkey trial that rocked America"
Trivia: To heighten the tension of Spencer Tracy's final summation to the jury, the scene was filmed in a single take
Based on the Scopes “Monkey” trial, an actual 1925 court case that occurred in Dayton, Tennessee, Inherit the Wind opens with the arrest of Bertram Cates (Dick York), a school teacher in the small southern town of Hillsboro who broke the law by teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (a subject banned from all state-funded schools). Those closest to Cates, including his fiancé, Rachel (Donna Anderson), want him to apologize, but he refuses to do so.
When the news of what’s happening in Hillsboro goes national, reporters from all over the country, including Chicago-based newsman H.E. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) descend on the small town, and as a result of all the publicity, Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March), former Presidential candidate and a firm believer in the fundamental view of creation, agrees to prosecute the case. Fortunately for Cates, Hornbeck’s newspaper has secured a defense attorney of equal standing: Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), the best criminal lawyer in America.
With the entire world watching, these two legal superstars square off against each other in the courtroom, leading to a trial that will ultimately determine much more than the fate of a single man.
Directed by Stanley Kramer, Inherit the Wind should be subtitled “The Spencer Tracy / Fredric March Show”. Portraying characters inspired by real-life historical figures William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, the veteran actors play off each other perfectly, bringing an almost explosive energy to the film’s trial scenes. Personality-wise, these two couldn’t be more different. March’s Brady is an outspoken religious leader who can quote bible verses from memory, and loves the attention the case has brought him; surrounded by supporters at a dinner table, he pontificates on the importance of winning this trial, and is convinced God is on his side. As played by Tracy, Drummond is much more subdued, a man who’d rather do his talking in front of a judge, and who strongly believes in his client’s cause.
One of the most interesting aspects of Inherit the Wind is how it explores the relationship between Brady and Drummond, who, despite being adversaries this time around, are the oldest of friends (in one of the film’s quieter moments, the two sit together on a porch, reminiscing about the past). Yet the fact they’re still on friendly terms doesn’t prevent them from trading jabs in the courtroom, resulting in some truly tense showdowns (the climactic scene, where Drummond calls Brady himself as a witness, is positively unforgettable). There are other fine performances as well, notably Gene Kelly as the acerbic reporter Hornbeck and Claude Akins as Rev. Brown, the town’s overzealous minister, but as good as the supporting cast is, its March and Tracy who steal the show.
As much a critique on closed-mindedness and the fundamentalist view of religion as it is a slice of American history, Inherit the Wind ranks among the best courtroom dramas ever made, and is one of the finest motion pictures I’ve ever seen.