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Inherit the Wind (1960)

British scientist Charles Darwin first published his book The Origin of Species in the mid-19th century, but it would not be until 1925 that the once-controversial Theory of Evolution had its first socio-legal impact in the United States — and of all places, in a small schoolroom in a small southern town. John Scopes, a schoolteacher in Dayton, Tenn., was arrested for exposing his students to Darwin, an illegal act under local statutes. Joining the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, famed public speaker, failed presidential candidate, and noted Fundamentalist Christian, while Clarence Darrow — a Chicago lawyer who acted as defense in the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder trial — took up the Scopes cause. The ensuing media carnival created that generation's "Trial of the Century," a landmark event that eventually led to the popular stage-play Inherit the Wind, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Inherit the Wind has had three separate television incarnations, but the definitive version is Stanley Kramer's 1960 theatrical film. Frederic March stars as Matthew Harrison Brady (based on Bryan), the Bible-thumping orator who arrives in the small Tennessee town to be named an honorary colonel in the state militia, and promising to defeat his godless opponents. Spencer Tracy plays Henry Drummond (based on Darrow), a caustic attorney who keeps a low profile when he's not in court defending science teacher Bertram T. Cates (Dick York), and he strikes up an unusual camaraderie with Baltimore reporter E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly, based on H.L. Mencken). Several introductory sequences illustrate the local atmosphere, Drummond's friendship with Brady's wife (Florence Eldridge), and the tensions between Cates' girlfriend (Donna Anderson) and her fire-and-brimstone father (Claude Akins). But what has made Inherit the Wind one of the great dramas of Hollywood's golden age is the courtroom scenes, which belong to March and Tracy, and them alone. Both are perfect in their roles — Tracy the temperamental agnostic, March the middle-American populist — and the sharp script drives a steady pace right up to the final confrontation, when Drummond gets Brady to take the stand and defend his literal interpretations of Scripture. Amidst it all, Kramer's taut direction draws the viewer in, creating a delicate balance between mise en scéne, tracking shots, close-ups, and deep-focus compositions. It's practically a textbook on how to shoot a courtroom picture, rivaled only by Otto Preminger in the previous year's Anatomy of a Murder, another superb legal drama. MGM's DVD release of Inherit the Wind features a clean transfer (1.66:1) from a black-and-white source print that has some collateral flecking but excellent low-contrast definition, while audio is in the original mono (DD 2.0). The original theatrical trailer features comments from Kramer, as well as premiere footage. Keep-case.
—JJB



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