April 24, 2003

Under The Radar

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Stanley Kramer spent his career making movies about the prevailing social issues of the day: the Nuremburg trials (Judgement at Nuremburg), interracial marriage (Guess who’s Coming to Dinner), nuclear war (On the Beach), and McCarthyism (Inherit the Wind). He made movies not to entertain, but to educate the public about itself with films that were the older, more respectable sibling of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama’s. To call Kramer’s work didactic is an understatement. Needless to say, all of his work appears dated. None of it has weathered so interestingly as Inherit the Wind, which obviously hails from another age, but the question is which. Wind is three movies (or possibly four) in one, and each of them is indebted to a different era.

The film is based on the Lawrence and Lee play of the same name and is a fictionalization of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1924. It focuses on the events of the trial and the various legal machinations which obsessed the nation over one long, hot summer. Wind is also Kramer’s thinly veiled attack on McCarthyism. What results is a solid mix of 1940’s legal drama, early 1960’s social outrage, and 1920’s small town life and romance. The movie is unusual for more than its background; it takes place in a world where people are passionate about ideas, and serious about them. It’s a world where lawyers and politicians are treated the way we treat rock stars and actors. It’s a world where rights and facts we perhaps take for granted are fiercely contested. It’s a world where a lot of scenery gets gloriously chewed and Darren from Bewitched is something of a hero.

Bertram T. Cates (Dick York) teaches science in Hillsborough, Tennessee. Although the state legislature has recently outlawed teaching (or even mentioning) evolution, Cates includes it in his curriculum, is arrested in due course, and goes to prison to await trial. All of this is understandably distressing to his fiance, Rachel (Donna Anderson) and to the town fathers, who have no wish to be regarded as citizens of a backwards state. The opening scene of the town’s mayor, banker, and resident intellectuals bemoaning the law, the likely blow to their reputations, and agonizing over how the ensuing public mockery will affect their kids’ college chances is one of the best in the film. It presents one of the film’s best insights: very few of the people involved with the “case of the century” are really interested in seeing the case tried, and those who are view it as entertainment.

The people who truly care about the outcome (besides Bert and Rachel) are, for the most part, from out of town, and in Hillsborough for their own reasons. There’s Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) for the prosecution, a thrice failed presidential candidate, champion of the common man, and staunch opponent of the forces of “evilution.” His adversary is Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), the legendary agnostic and defense attorney. Drummond is based on Clarence Darrow, who once said he didn’t care wether he went to heaven or hell, as he had so many good friends in both places. His alter ego is equally unflappable, which, given the way the trial goes, turns out to be a good quality. Observing the whole thing with a cigarette in his mouth and a cynical quip always at hand is E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly). How much any of these people care what happens to Bert is somewhat debatable; they are there not for a man but a cause. Therein lies the fourth strand of the movie. Though Kramer frames it as a simple case of right and wrong, there are undercurrents of self-advancement and manipulation even in saintly lawyer Drummond.

Balancing that disregard is the true zeal both Brady and Drummond have for their respective causes. Brady is presented as a self-aggrandizing windbag who gets deflated quite satisfyingly in the end, but March digs into this ruin of past great promise and finds a man who truly believes the ridiculous statements he makes. March knows that it’s all very well for the film to know a character is a fool, but it is disastrous for the character to realize it. Tracy is his usual unbelievable self as Drummond. He is perfectly at home with the character whether accusing, flirting, orating, or teasing. Drummond is a holdover from those times when public speaking was an art form, and he is a master of it. His speeches are the most electric part of the film, and he delivers each line perfectly, impassioned, rueful, pleading, and frustrated. His goal is not only to win the trial, but to win the mind of the town. He certainly wins the audience.

And, as the most maligned character in the film, there’s Gene Kelly. Kelly is dapper, rakish fun as Hornbeck, who does not tap dance except verbally. Hornbeck has a genial mistrust of everyone, and no one escapes his mockery. The film takes the brilliant, dishonest, action of making Hornbeck the villain. Drummond, after all, is as much of a believer as Brady, albeit of a different faith, while Hornbeck believes in nothing. Kramer’s viewers could respect the lawyers, even if they didn’t agree with them, but no one likes a smartass. It’s not for Kramer’s time, but ours, to realize that belief in the necessity of mocking and questioning all authority is still a much needed faith.

Archived article by Erica Stein