A Windfall of Words, Thoughts and Connections
When Leslie Uggams’ piercing rendition of Old Time Religion rang out on the soundtrack during the opening credits of Inherit the Wind (1960) on its opening in New York 56 years ago today, it wouldn’t surprise if savvy moviegoers felt a sense of déjà vu, since United Artists had also delivered a cinematic adaptation questioning the effects of and motives behind religious fundamentalism, Elmer Gantry (1960), just three months prior. (Indeed, UA’s 1960 slate of infidelity- and promiscuity-laced fare like The Apartment, The Facts of Life and Never on Sunday would, with Gantry, propel the studio to a vigorous haul of 12 Academy Awards® that year.) But producer/director Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation of the 1955 Jerome Lawrence/Robert E. Lee stage hit inspired by – but by no means a hard-and-fast recreation of – the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” was more than anything else about the unsearching minds behind the fervent faith. And because much of its screen time was spent in the courtroom, it also mostly came to be about the exchange of words on both sides of the debate between scientific thought and creationist dogma. Lawrence, who would later go on to write a biography of the original Broadway production’s star Paul Muni, recalled this reminiscence by the great actor who created the role of the Clarence Darrow-derived Henry Drummond: “One day Muni took us aside, and said, ‘Boys, I didn’t do this play because I want to see my name in lights. I’ve had that. I didn’t do it because I needed the money or wanted to show off.’ Then his voice became soft. ‘I did it because I liked the words.’ Can any playwrights ever hope for higher hosannas? Needless to say, we are two very happy writers. For seeing Muni is an experience. Working with Muni is a delight. Knowing Muni is an inspiration.” Kramer’s choice for that same role’s screen incarnation, Spencer Tracy, had a different reaction, more centered on the work and the ideas motivating it, as blogger Sarah Ganske related earlier this year in her The Basement Tan piece Spencer Tracy & Stanley Kramer: Eye in the Storm: “Kramer was concerned about what he perceived to be Tracy’s conservatism and reserve (although Tracy himself had also been an unflinching supporter of [Franklin] Roosevelt). To allay fears over their potential partnership, Stanley Kramer and Spencer Tracy went to dinner. Kramer recounts Tracy asking him harshly, ‘Just how self-important and self-indulgent are you?’ But Kramer, still the little boy slugging it out in Hell’s Kitchen, defended himself (one gets this impression that this was not a common occurrence around Tracy), asking Tracy, ‘Are you suspicious of every progressive idea you hear?’ With that bit of spunk, Tracy must have somehow known that he was in safe hands.” More than in the play, and particularly relevant to today’s rhetorical political divide, the film of Inherit the Wind (as adapted by screenwriters Nathan E. Douglas – aka HUAC-blacklisted Nedrick Young – and Harold Jacob Smith, who shared Best Original Screenplay Oscar® honors two years earlier for Kramer’s The Defiant Ones) powerfully addresses the notion of common ground between opposing viewpoints, aptly cited in the American Studies at the University of Virginia’s http://xroads.virginia.edu/ essay Inherit the Wind Comes to Hollywood – 1960 in its analysis of the camaraderie between Tracy’s Drummond and Fredric March’s William Jennings Bryan-inspired Matthew Harrison Brady: “Although the Drummond and Brady of Lawrence's and Lee's creation were not the best of friends, there is nostalgia throughout the play of some camaraderie which different beliefs ultimately tore apart. In the 1960 film, however, there is a startling relationship between Brady and Drummond, which is cooperative, respectful and warm. Even more notable is the similarity in their beliefs. The two great opponents of the Monkey Trial sit on a Hillsboro porch and discuss religion as if there were no legal battle looming between them. The film's version of Brady makes him much less a raging fundamentalist than a speaker for the people. In a moment of candor, Brady tells Drummond: ‘These are simple people, Henry...poor people. They work hard and they need to believe in something beautiful. Seeking for something more perfect than what they have.’ Although Brady's explanation for hope is touching, where is the fervent religious orator of Inherit the Wind? In his place is a man who sounds almost like Drummond himself at the end of the play. Neither professes the irrefutability of religion, but both ask what harm is there in people believing. The film carries this idea even further when Sarah Brady [Florence Eldridge] speaks to Rachel [Donna Anderson] about her faith in her husband. There is no mention of God, only her belief in another human being and his right to be human. ‘You see my husband as a saint and so he must be right in everything he says and does; and then you see him as a devil and so everything he says and does must be wrong...My husband's neither a saint nor a devil. He's just a human being and he makes mistakes...What do you stand for? I believe in my husband. What do you believe in?’ Kramer's version of Inherit, therefore, became an affirmation of the worth of all people, modernist or fundamentalist, orthodox and progressive. Even the final scene is an attempt to downplay this cultural conflict and look for some consensus. As Drummond walk out of the courtroom, with the Bible and Darwin side by side in his briefcase, an old religious hymn begins to play. As Glory, Glory Hallelujah [again, a haunting Uggams solo of The Battle Hymn of the Republic] echoes throughout the courtroom, this atheist evolutionist, defender of the modernist viewpoint, seems more religious than ever.” [Visit here for the entire article, with links to further coverage of other stage and screen incarnations of the material: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/inherit/1960home.html] A critical if not a commercial success, Inherit the Wind explodes with words and ideas that still matter deeply and merit repeat visits on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.