October 12, 2022 – I got it in my head that somewhere, sometime, I had seen a movie version of the powerhouse courtroom drama, “Inherit the Wind” that was better than the 1960 version, so I decided to take a look on the internet to see if I could find it.
What I ended up doing was watching three different versions of “Inherit the Wind” (based on the play of the same name by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee). I watched the 1988 version starring Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas, the 1999 version starring George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon, and finally the version I knew I had seen before, the 1960 Stanley Kramer classic starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly.
The 1960 version is still best of the three, mainly because nobody has ever bested Spencer Tracy (“Adam's Rib”) when it comes to the sheer power and passion of his portrayal of defense attorney Henry Drummond. Fredric March (“Seven Days in May”) also gives a brilliant performance as the prosecuting attorney, Matthew Harrison Brady, and Gene Kelley, best known as a song and dance man (“Singing in the Rain”) shows great acting chops as the cynical reporter E. K. Hornbeck.
The play, and movie, are both loosely based on the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 when a school teacher, John T. Scopes (represented as the character Bertram Cates in the play) is successfully prosecuted for the crime of teaching evolution in school. William Jennings Bryan (represented in the movie as the Matthew Harrison Brady character) a former candidate for president, prosecuted the case, and the defense was led by famed attorney Clarence Darrow (represented by the character Henry Drummond in the movie). Famed reporter and author H.L. Mencken covered the trial (represented in the movie by the character E.K. Hornbeck).
“Inherit the Wind” is especially relevant today as powerful anti-science, anti-inetellectual forces are once again rising in power and influence. Books are being banned, libraries are being closed, school teachers, even doctors, are being censored and threatened. The U.S. Supreme Court is tearing down the Constitutional separation church and state. White Christian Nationalists are on their way to using the government to impose their religious rules on everyone. Both liberals and conservatives are threatening freedom of speech.
It would not surprise me if some teacher might be prosecuted for teaching evolution in school again, 100 years after the Scopes Monkey Trial. Surprisingly, the play was not written as a pro-science, anti-religion screed, but rather a drama to point out the dangers of the national anti-communist witch hunt stirred up by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
Because all three of these movies are based on the same materials, they are all similar, with a few minor differences. The 1988 made-for-television version of the story, for instance, leaves out a scene, included in the other two films, in which Brady confronts a local preacher, Reverend Jeremiah Brown, about stirring up too much hatred at a prayer meeting. Brown seeks to bring fire and brimstone down upon the school teacher on trial, Bertram Cates.The 1988 film also leaves out the scene in which Drummond is held in contempt of court. When Drummond is threatened with jail time, a local farmer in the courtroom, John Stebbins (played by Noah Beery Jr. in the 1960 movie) puts up bail money for Drummond. This same scene is also included in the 1999 movie, but it is far less effective in its use of establishing and reaction shots of Stebbins (played in this version by Paul Vincent O'Connor of “Seabiscuit”).
The 1988 film inserts a scene, a bit different than the other two films, between Brady and Reverend Jeremiah Brown's daughter, Rachel Brown (Megan Follows). This extra scene makes it very clear that Brady (played by Kirk Douglas) is manipulating Rachel into telling him information that he can use against Bertram Cates, who is Rachel's fiancé.
The main differences in the three films come down to performances and casting choices. One of the most interesting casting choices is that of George C. Scott (“Patton”) as Brady in the 1999 version. Scott would seem a better choice to play Drummond. Scott, a magnificent actor, effectively uses body language to indicate his character's physical vulnerability, creating greater sympathy for his character than is found in the other two films.
Kirk Douglas (“Spartacus”) plays Brady as a powerful, vital, more sinister character, which makes his eventual fall that much more dramatic. In the same 1988 film Jason Robards, (“A Thousand Clowns”) another powerful actor, takes a different tack with his canny portrayal of Drummond. His portrayal is more hard driving and determined than that of Lemmon (in the 1999 film) or Tracy's portrayals. Both Lemmon (of “The Apartment”) and Tracy played the Drummond character softer, with more emphasis on the sadness they feel for their old friend Brady, and what he had become in old age.
The newspaper reporter, Hornbeck, played by Kelly, Darren McGavin (in the 1988 movie) and Beau Bridges (in the 1999 movie) is a total cynic. He is not a sympathetic character. I think McGavin (“A Christmas Story”) embodies this character best. He plays it to the hilt, while Bridges (“The Fabulous Baker Boys”) isn't far behind, but Kelly (“Singin’ in the Rain”) proves to be a bit less abrasive than the other two in the role.
Obviously, this is the kind of screenplay that attracts the best actors, and the stars of these three films are the cream of the crop. Besides the main stars, a lot other of well-known actors are seen in these films. Norman Fell (“Bullitt”) appears as a WGN radio technician in the 1960 movie. A few years later, he had an unforgettable scene with Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate”). Harry Morgan, who plays the judge in the 1960 movie, appeared in “High Noon” and “The Ox Bow Incident”) but is best known as Colonel Potter in the MASH series on TV.
Claude Akins, who plays fundamentalist, anti-evolutionist preacher Brown in the 1960 film, ironically played an evolved ape in “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” and he appeared in many other movies, including “Rio Bravo” (1959). John Cullum plays the judge in the 1999 movie, but he is best known for playing Holling Vincoeur in “Northern Exposure.”
Piper Laurie, nominated for three Oscars, plays Brady's wife, Sarah in the 1999 film, but is best known as the overbearing mother of the title character in “Carrie” (1976). Dick York, best known for playing Darrin Stephens on the TV series “Bewtiched” is quite effective in the 1960 film as Bertram Cates, the defendant. Noah Beery Jr., who plays Stebbins, is well known for playing Rocky in “The Rockford Files” series, and for his many appearances in Westerns, including “Red River.”
I rate the 1960 version of “Inherit the Wind” as an A, while both the 1988 and 1999 versions rate a B.
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