Gene Kelly, Spencer Tracy, and Fredric March in Inherit the Wind (1960)


(director: Stanley Kramer; screenwriters: Nedrick Young/Harold Jacob Smith/based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee; cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo; editor: Frederic Knudtson; music: Ernest Gold; cast: Spencer Tracy (Henry Drummond), Fredric March (Matthew Harrison Brady), Gene Kelly (E. K. Hornbeck), Dick York (Bertram T. Cates), Donna Anderson (Rachel Brown), Harry Morgan (Judge), Elliott Reid (Prosecutor Davenport), Florence Eldridge (Mrs. Sarah Brady), Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akin), Philip Coolidge (Mayor), Norman Fell (WGN Chicago Radio Broadcaster), Elliott Reid (Tom Davenport); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Stanley Kramer; United Artists; 1960)

“Tracy and March turn in superlative performances, each trying to upstage the other.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on the Jerome Lawrence-Robert E. Lee hit Broadway play, whose inspiration was the landmark 1925 “Monkey Trial,” in which the 24-year-old Dayton, Tenn., schoolteacher John Scopes was arrested for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in violation of state law. It brought on the famous trial covered throughout the country, lasting 12 days, that had two great lawyers volunteer their services in a battle over the Bible’s literal truth of “creationism” vs Darwin’s “Origin of Species” evolution theory, whereby three-time former Presidential candidate, former secretary of State, populist orator and fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan as prosecutor and the reputed greatest lawyer of the day, hired by the ACLU to defend freedom of expression, Clarence Darrow as the defense lawyer. Liberal Stanley Kramer (“The Defiant Ones”/”Judgment at Nuremberg”/”On the Beach”) directs this fictionalized old-fashioned courtroom drama with passion and it’s solidly adapted to the screen by blacklisted writer Nedrick Young (aka Nathan E. Douglas) and Harold Jacob Smith.

The names of the protagonists and location are changed. The idealist high school biology teacher Bertram T. Cates (Dick York) is arrested and put on trial in Hillsboro, Tenn, in what becomes a circus-like atmosphere. He writes to cynical Baltimore Herald reporter E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly), whose role was inspired by sharp-tongued journalist H. L. Mencken, and his newspaper hires the crusty atheist Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) as his big-time lawyer from Chicago. Meanwhile the well-known national political figure and zealous Christian fundamentalist Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) represents the town as prosecutor. The film has a subplot where the town’s fundamentalist pastor, the widowed Reverend Brown (Claude Akins), is disappointed that his teacher daughter Rachel (Donna Anderson) sticks by her fianc√© Cates. Harry Morgan works the gavel as the trial judge. Florence Eldridge plays Brady’s devoted wife.

Tracy and March turn in superlative performances, each trying to upstage the other. The film retains a healthy tension despite its theatrics and downside caused by a weak sub plot.