Thursday, September 17, 2009

Scattered thoughts on Inherit the Wind

Even when you’re aware of the extent of Christian fundamentalism in America, it’s surprising to read this news item about the British film Creation not finding distributors in the US because Charles Darwin and evolution are still considered loaded subjects. I was talking recently with a friend about religious intolerance/sensitivity in India probably being greater today than it was 50 years ago, when a revered prime minister was known to be agnostic; today, it’s highly doubtful that an Indian PM or a state chief minister (in north or central India at least) would be able to criticize organised religion or the idea of a personal God as sharply as Nehru did in Discovery of India (a book that was recommended reading for the country’s youngsters). Perhaps this is true of the US too.

A few days ago I re-watched a favourite old film, Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind, about the trial of a schoolteacher arrested for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The movie is based on the real-life Scopes Trial of 1925 and it stars one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, the 60-year-old Spencer Tracy, as a rationalist lawyer who defends the schoolteacher, fiercely challenges literalist interpretations of the Bible and refers to the Book in a decidedly offhand manner. In light of recent developments, this film seems more topical and bolder than ever.

Stanley Kramer (whose work I wrote about in this post) wasn’t renowned for cinematic inventiveness – his films were mainly issue-based, with lots of dialogue – but Inherit the Wind opens with a sinister, visually striking scene, as the camera draws back from the Hillsboro Courthouse. A group of men silently walk across deserted streets, the opening credits appear and the soundtrack plays the gospel song “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”, its lyrics a paean to unquestioning belief:
That old-time religion...
If it’s good enough for Joshua,
It’s good enough for me
If it’s good enough for dad and mother,
It’s good enough for me...
The men are joined by a reverend and there’s something menacing about the group – they’re like a sheriff's posse in a Western, heading in single formation for a shootout, or to haul in a notorious criminal. It turns out that this isn’t far from the truth, except that the “criminal” in question is the mild-mannered teacher Bertram Cates, and his crime is explaining Darwin’s theory to his students and encouraging them to think for themselves.

For townsfolk living in America’s “Bible Belt”, such an act is intolerable. It’s also against the law that states that nothing that contradicts the Bible’s version of Creation can be taught in a school. The incident draws countrywide attention and gets politicized; the veteran conservative politician Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) is called in to prosecute Cates, while the liberal-rights champion Henry Drummond (Tracy) leads the defence. For the duration of the trial, the town turns into a carnival, with barkers sitting about displaying chained monkeys to people and handing out placards that say “I’m not descended from no ape!” and “Don’t monkey with us”. Meanwhile, inside the courthouse, the two men go hammer and tongs at each other. “Is nothing holy to you?” asks the exasperated Brady at one point. “Yes. The individual human mind,” replies Drummond. “In a child's power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted ‘amens’ and ‘holy holies’ and ‘hosannas’.”

“An idea,” he continues, “is a greater monument than a cathedral.” This is the nub of the film – Drummond’s impassioned defence of the schoolteacher’s right to think and question, and to encourage others to do the same. "The Bible is a good book," he says, "but it is not the only book."

More than one critic has said that Inherit the Wind scores an easy victory against Creationists by turning Brady – the exemplar of the religious fundamentalist – into a soft target, a caricature. My two responses to this: 1) Anyone who sincerely believes that the earth was created at 9 AM on October 23rd, 4004 BC, and who tries to throw someone else into jail for teaching an alternate theory, is already a "caricature" beyond anything that the drunkest scriptwriter can create (also see Poe’s Law, which states that a parody of a religious fundamentalist can be indistinguishable from the real thing), and 2) Though Brady is deservedly portrayed as a pompous, closed-minded old fool in the courtroom scenes where he gives speeches and stirs up the general public sentiment, the film spares time to show shades to his character. One of the most moving scenes in the film is the one where he quietly admonishes a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher for being too harsh on his daughter (though again, his objection is voiced in Biblical terms): "I know you speak from the great zeal of your faith,” he says, “but it is possible to be over-zealous, to destroy that which you ought to save, so that nothing is left but emptiness...He that troubleth his own house will inherit the wind.”

The other great sequence in this vein – and I insist that it's great, even though it plays like a scene that was carefully designed to give two giants of American acting a non-antagonistic moment together – is the one where Drummond and Brady sit together on two rocking chairs late one evening, more old friends reliving the past than courtroom adversaries. "Why is it that you’ve moved so far away from me?" asks Brady. "Maybe it’s you who moved away by standing still," Drummond says laconically. Understanding the implication of this remark, Brady replies that he has no time for “progress” if it means abandoning God. Then he gets reflective, and you see a shadow moving beneath the surface of the Bible-thumper. "These are simple people," he says, “they are poor, they work hard and they need to believe in something ...something beautiful...something more perfect than what they have, like a golden chalice of hope.” (It's an argument often employed by those who believe that religion is essential for the world; even if you don’t agree with the argument, you believe that Brady does.)

“In other words, they’re window-shopping,” snaps Drummond, and he gets the final word with a story about a beautiful rocking horse he had coveted as a child, which turned out to be made of rotting wood. “All shine and no substance, and that’s how I feel about your religion. As long as a prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.”

March and Tracy are both superb in this scene (arguably even better than in their more flamboyant courtroom confrontations), which is all about two actors listening carefully to each other and reacting, with smiles, grimaces and nods of the head, rather than thinking about their own lines.

In praise of Fredric March

When two different acting styles – one subdued, the other loud – occupy the same frame, there's a kneejerk tendency in some circles to rate the former more highly, even when both performances are completely true to the characters being portrayed. Note: I'm not talking here about personal preference or sympathy for a character. It's one thing to prefer Amitabh's Jai over Dharmendra's Veeru because the former is quiet, intense and ultimately tragic while the latter is boisterous and gets his girl. But it's quite another thing to devalue Dharmendra's superb performance because you're confusing the unsubtlety of the character with that of the actor, or because Veeru's cartoonish romantic exploits don't pull at your heartstrings the way Jai's wooing of the widow does. (Longer post about Dharmendra in Sholay here.)

Fredric March's Brady in Inherit the Wind is a classic example of the sort of performance I'm talking about. It's unsubtle, it plays to the gallery, it's marked by very visible and repetitive character tics ... and it's utterly authentic. Brady is, above all, a showman: as a rabble-rousing politician who has run thrice for president and made numerous self-aggrandizing speeches over the decades, certain traits have become intrinsic to his personality, and March displays this masterfully. One of Brady’s defining mannerisms is when he thinks up a "witticism" (usually something quite banal) in response to something that has been addressed to him, and March's performance allows us to see the whole process: the light-bulb appearing over the man’s head, his “Aha!” moment, and how he ostentatiously says the words for maximum effect.

In his first scene, where he is addressing the adoring masses after arriving in Hillsboro, a man shouts out "We all voted for you, three times!" Brady initially just smiles and looks set to continue his speech, but then he does a sudden double-take, wags a finger at the man and says "I trust it was in three separate elections!" This is followed by a short laugh; it's hard to say whether this is because he's genuinely impressed by his own wit or because he's giving the audience their cue to laugh with him. You see the same thing on a number of other occasions, including when he tosses off the line “I am more interested in the Rock of Ages than in the age of rocks!”, in response to Drummond holding up a fossilized rock and asking him how old he thinks it is.

P.S. March is one of my favourite actors. He was hugely respected by critics and by his peers for his stage and screen work, but he never became part of the star system to the same extent as his contemporaries such as Tracy, Bogart and others did. For anyone interested in seeking out his work, these are some of my recommendations: Nothing Sacred (one of the best screwball comedies I’ve seen, co-starring the great Carole Lombard), A Star is Born (the first of many film versions of the story about an acting couple whose careers follow different trajectories), Death Takes a Holiday, The Best Years of Our Lives, An Act of Murder, The Iceman Cometh.


  1. Any idea if I can pick up a copy of this movie in Bombay?

  2. Completely OT - how come you haven't put up a review of either Dev D or Kaminey...? Just curious - one would think they would pique your interest at least...

  3. Nice post.
    You didn't mention Gene Kelly, in one of his few notable non-musical roles. Liked the film drawing the contrast between the somewhat pretentious, badge-wearing atheism of Kelly and the more thoughtful, understated variety as practised by Tracy.

    However, I do find Kramer's films a touch heavyhanded and humorless. I think he gets credited more for intention than execution. Reminded of Manny Farber's distinction between "White Elephant" art and "Termite" art.

    Need to explore more of Fredric March. Liked the 30s A Star is Born a lot more than the 50s musical remake.

  4. Anand: no idea what the pirated-DVD scene in Bombay is like (I haven't seen this film in any of the legit-DVD stores in Delhi yet). But the complete film is on YouTube, starting with this link. I don't usually recommend that people watch films that way, but I suppose it's okay if there's no other option.

    Anon: I wasn't asked to write anything about Dev D or Kaminey for official publication, plus I didn't have anything especially new to say about them that hadn't already been said in other reviews. Also, not especially keen to write about movies that are already being talked about everywhere you look. For what it's worth I liked Dev D a lot overall but thought it was too long (probably wasn't in the right sort of mood for it on the day). Found Kaminey a bit confusing, it lost my attention beyond a point - though strangely enough I thought the apocalyptic shootout at the end was awesome; most people I know thought that was the film's weakness!

  5. shrikanth: yes, there was that nice ambiguity in the last scene between Tracy and Kelly, with the latter standing for sneering, militant atheism.

    I get what you mean about Kramer getting more points for intent than execution, but I also think there has to be more than one way of judging a film. Plus, if you're defining "execution" in broad terms, many of his films have bloody good screenplays as well as at least a couple of excellent performances.

    Technically speaking, the worst thing I can find to say about Judgement at Nuremberg or Inherit the Wind is that they play like solidly directed, extremely well-shot teledramas. Now, sure, that doesn't make them Citizen Kane (or anywhere close), but given the type of films they are trying to be, I think one has to give them points for execution as well.

  6. ...Gene Kelly, in one of his few notable non-musical roles

    Interesting that Kramer also gave Fred Astaire one of his better dramatic roles the year before, in On the Beach. And Judy Garland the next year in Judgement at Nuremberg! (Though Garland already had a whimsical, little-girl-lost persona even in her best musical roles like The Wizard of Oz and The Pirate.)

  7. I agree with you about Frederic March. Perhaps because of his voice and diction, he reminds me of James Mason,who incidentally,also starred in A Star is born.
    I would recommend "Odd man out" for James Mason's work.

  8. p.s. Have you read Irving Stone's biography of Clarence Darrow?
    I wonder why they didn't use the real names in this film.Too lazy to google,there must be a valid reason.

  9. I saw this movie two weeks ago. Was lucky enough to find the DVD of this classic in Union City(California) Library. One of the best movies I have seen recently. Dialogues are real strength of this movie.

  10. @Rahul: Interesting comparison with Mason. However, Mason wasn't from a stage background unlike March. I can't quite imagine him giving performances as stylized as Matthew Brady.

    I liked Mason best in Lolita (Kubrick's most atypical and underrated film) and Bigger than Life

  11. Rahul: I don't completely get the March-Mason comparison, though they both certainly were very elegant actors. Maybe I should watch some of Mason's early films again.

    Shrikanth: I thought Mason had a theatre background? Heck, I thought any major British actor of that era had a theatre background. Maybe he wasn't as prolific as the others - or maybe he just stuck with films.

    Yes, he was excellent in Lolita, but he was really outstanding in The Seventh Veil and Carol Reed's Odd Man Out. He also did rakish roles in some atmospheric films of the early 40s (The Man in Grey, The Wicked Lady etc), which apparently made him quite a heartthrob.

  12. I wonder whether you have seen the 1999 remake of 'Inherit the Wind' featuring Jack Lemon. While the sheer passage of time makes the 1960 original far more compelling, the new version is not that bad either. Hulu has both but unfortunately Hulu does not work in India. The rhythm in the delivery of both movies' lines is as crucial as the way they are written. In that sense I was reminded of Casablanca.

  13. Mayank: I don't see why the sheer passage of time should make any film more compelling - as far as I'm concerned the original is compelling because it's a solid, excellently performed film (with two of my favourite actors in the lead roles, which of course biases me towards it!).

    No, I haven't seen the Lemmon-Scott version, but there have been others as well - including one with Kirk Douglas as Brady.

  14. The bit about the passage of time was purely about how when a fine work of art ages it seems to acquire that something extra. It was a great film in 1960 and remains one today.


  15. @J'wock: Mason's lack of theatre experience was something I read more than once on IMDB forums.

    At any rate, he definitely wasn't as much a theatre person as Olivier, Gielgud or Richardson. And I think that shows in his performances.

    Need to check out his early British films. His turn in Lolita is I think the best and most natural acting performance I've seen in a Kubrick film. Which is most unusual given that Kubrick-directed performances tend to be over the top and not very subtle (think Peter Sellers, Nicholson)

  16. Jai, as I said earlier, I find a similarity in their voices. Anyway,its just an excuse to discuss movies you know.On that note Carol Reed was a brilliant director.On the sheer beauty and charisma of Orson Welles's performance probably one would choose Third Man over Odd Man Out but there's very little between these two movies.

  17. Rahul: Mason = smooth, catlike British purr, March = American drawl with a midwestern tinge. I think you might be thinking about specific March performances, where he modulated his voice - his urbane roles in films like Death Takes a Holiday and Design for Living, or as Dr Jekyll, or his parodying of John Barrymore in The Royal Family of Broadway. His diction as Brady in Inherit the Wind is as far from the James Mason voice as it's possible to get.

    P.S. The Fallen Idol was another very beautifully shot, atmospheric Carol Reed film.

  18. "His diction as Brady in Inherit the Wind is as far from the James Mason voice as it's possible to get."
    Agreed with that.And thanks for the Fallen Idol recommendation.

  19. By the way, here's a recording of the famous 'Cross of Gold' speech made by a young William Jennings Bryan in 1896 -

    It is plausible that a young Fredric March may have heard Jennings Bryan make speeches as a young man in the 1920s.

    I think movies of the Golden Age (30s-50s) were a lot more successful in recreating the past in period films such as these. The acting seems a lot more authentic than period films made today. Gone with the Wind for all its flaws, has an authentic ring to it. I guess this is because the actors of the day had an understanding of how people behaved back in the late Victorian period by observing their grandparents.

    Today's period films have a much harder time transporting us back in time. Watch De Caprio and Winslet in Titanic or Daniel Day Lewis in The Age of Innocence. The characters are too "modern" and 21st century-ish in their behavior to have actually drawn breath in the 19th. It is really hard for actors today to portray the prudery and sexual reticence of an earlier era.

  20. "Today's period films have a much harder time transporting us back in time."
    It has to be a combination of many reasons. One reason could be that we instinctively and unconsciously associate movies made with a certain technology to belong to a certain period. I am thinking if a movie may feel more authentic if it is made with the technology we have come to associate with a movie made about a particular time.

  21. Excellent post and a very good review . For no reason whatsover , I am reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird after reading this . Will definitely watch this movie ...

  22. British film Creation not finding distributors in the US because Charles Darwin and evolution are still considered loaded subjects.

    The Producer is wrong. Very few documentaries and non-US feature films find theatrical release in US. Even Sundance winners do not get distribution. Here it is not Charles Darwin or American right, but the marketplace which is stopping the film from reaching theatrical audience.

  23. It was surprising to know about "creation" facing problems - read about it in
    This post is very interesting..telling so many things. would love to read more of you :)

  24. S: thanks. And, well, there are over a thousand posts in the blog archives - enjoy!

  25. Very nice blog. I enjoyed reading your movie reviews, especially this one on inherit the wind, which, IMHO, is massively under rated and exceptionally courageous for its time. Infact, it is courageous for these times also.
    Check out Judgement at Nuremberg also. Tracy gives a beautiful performanceas a world weary gentleman, with an innate sense of goodness inside him.

  26. maxratul: I've linked to my post about Judgement at Nuremberg in the third para of this post. And yes, I loved Tracy's performance in that film.

  27. Beautiful post on one of my favourite films. Have watched it umpteen times, for the performances, for the dialogues and for the sheer timelessness of the subject.

    I noticed someone asking for a copy of the film. I'm based in Pune & have a copy. Would be glad to share it with anyone interested.