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    A Window to the Past and the Future: Inherit the Wind

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    As today marks the dark anniversary of the issuance of the 1947 Waldorf Statement that launched the Hollywood Blacklist, it seems appropriate on the eve of Thanksgiving to champion personal freedom of expression and taking a stand against intolerance. Opening nationally in the U.S. 55 years ago this month, Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation of Inherit the Wind (1960) depicts a slightly fictionalized version of the 1925 Scopes Trial, first dramatized in the hit Jerome Lawrence/Robert E. Lee 1955 Broadway hit adapted here for the screen. Substitute schoolteacher John Scopes was charged with teaching the theory of evolution in violation of Tennessee statutes, and the resulting trial pitted two high-profile, highly-public personalities, Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution, against each other. The names are changed in the play and film, but not the passion and oratory of their opposing arguments of religious fundamentalism vs. scientific enlightenment. Spencer Tracy and Fredric March respectively play the Darrow and Bryan figures, and their personal authority as supremely gifted actors – in moments small and homespun as well as grandiose and bombastic – fuels the fire of this taut and still astoundingly timely courtroom clash. The control of thought, the fear of the unknown and the intense juxtaposition of love and hate enmeshed in rigidly institutionalized religion are all present in the text, as well as a not-so-subtle indictment of the media (personified here by a caustic and cynical Gene Kelly, riffing on the legendary journalist H.L. Mencken, a reporter on scene at the Scopes Trial). “What is astonishing in this 1960 film is the gutsy way it engages in ideas, pulls no punches in its language, and allows the characters long and impassioned speeches,” Roger Ebert wrote in a four-star Chicago Sun-Times review in 2006. “There are a lot of words here, well-written and spoken, and not condescending to the audience. Both Tracy and March vent an anger and passion through their characters that ventures beyond acting into holy zeal.” As events in our own disruptive, social media-propelled era have demonstrated, the lessons of history can only be learned when we evolve enough to perceive and absorb them. Available on a pristine, superbly mastered Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, Inherit the Wind is, as Ebert wrote, “a film that rebukes the past when it might also have feared the future.”