MF 346 : Summer movie series: Inherit the Wind (1960)
Updated: Jun 16
This week, I talk about the classic legal drama, Inherit the Wind (1960). More at www.bemovingforward.com.
Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.
A classic that stands the test of time and is still timely
A few weeks ago, I shared one of my favorite legal dramas that has no courtroom scene and wasn't even about lawyers but rather law students or "pre-lawyers." This week's film represents the other half of the professional life cycle with two battle-scarred veterans of the courtroom. They are brilliantly portrayed by Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, both Academy Award winners. The setting is a hot, sweltering courtroom in the middle of July within a small midwestern town. Inherit the Wind (1960) is a classic black and white film that could just as easily be set in 2021.
The film opens with a high school science teacher, named Bertram Cates, played by a pre-Bewitched Dick York. He begins his lecture, introducing his kids to Darwin's theory of evolution. Before he can complete his first sentence, a group of townsfolk, including the mayor, town minister, and sheriff come and arrest him for breaking a local law that prohibits teaching this particular theory.
This arrest sparks a nationwide spectacle in the newspapers as many deride the town, calling it "antiquated," while others praise its adherence to traditional values. The case attracts the attention of Matthew Harrison Brady, a former secretary of state and presidential candidate. He is played with bravado and righteous spirit by Frederic March. Cates seems down and out for good until a newspaper reporter from Baltimore; E.K. Hornbeck played by a non-singing, non-dancing Gene Kelly arrives to tell him that his newspaper has retained the legendary attorney, Henry Drummond (Tracy) to represent him.
Drummond and Brady are equally famous for their courtroom battles and were once allies. As the film unfolds, we discover that Drummond campaigned for Brady in his bid for the presidency. Now, they find themselves on the opposite sides of a case that represents a fundamental shift from the 1950s to the 1960s.
One of the most affecting scenes is when Brady and Drummond sit on rocking chairs outside of the idyllic inn they're both staying at. They drop their armor to reminisce about old times while discovering that new times have put them at odds. It's a brilliant, quiet moment that elevates the original play with stellar performances by two actors who were at the top of their game.
As the case proceeds, we see a split within the town itself. Progressives begin to side with Cates while older generations see him as a threat to their way of life. In an ironic twist and a smart avoidance of cliches, a banker and a farmer become allies; banding together to arrange for Drummond's bail when he is held in contempt of court.
Inherit the Wind may not be a good primer for modern day legal practice but this does not detract from its status as a premier legal drama. Moreover, this is a film that stands the test of time with issues we are still wrestling with today.
Stellar performances, especially from Spencer Tracy and Frederic March.
Gorgeous black and white cinematography that captures the bubbling tensions underneath the idyllic small town setting.
Faithful adaptation of the original play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Some missed opportunities that were hinted at in the story (this is more aimed at the play than the film, though the film could have expanded upon these):
Drummond's cross-examination of Rachel Brown.
The testimony of the scientific witnesses, in particular one who is a noted professor of geology and a church minister.
The ending and Brady's character arc conclusion are a bit over the top.
****1/2 (out of five)
Where you can watch Inherit the Wind (1960)
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Purchase and read the original play, Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (Amazon affiliate link) ****
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