Tuesday, July 07, 2015

He That Troubleth His Own House ...

Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March): I do not think about things I do not think about.

Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy): Do you ever think about things that you do think about?

I remember one Christmas when I was maybe 14 or 15, and my mother gave me a copy of Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee's acclaimed stage script for the play, "Inherit the Wind," which was made into a movie that premiered on this day in 1960.

Mom frequently gave me books that she thought I would like, even if most people thought the books were beyond my years. They probably would have been right, too, if the subject had been anyone other than myself, but I was always reading things that, in most cases, would have been more appropriate for someone a few years older. Mom knew that, and she encouraged me to read things that I might not fully comprehend, that I might need to ask questions about — knowing that I would probably comprehend most, if not all, of it. And she was usually right about that.

Besides, "Inherit the Wind" was based on the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Scopes monkey trial that took place 90 years ago, in July 1925, and Mom knew I was always a history buff. She knew I had read about the Scopes trial before. I don't think we had studied it in school yet, though, so she knew there was a chance I might need to know a few things to fill in the gaps in my mind.

The trial — in a case that challenged a law that prohibited the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in a state–funded school — drew three–time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan and famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow to Dayton, Tennessee, to serve as the legal counsel for the two sides. With oratorical firepower like that in town, the press of the day was there as well. It was the Trial of the Century — or, at least, the First Quarter of a Century.

(Did I say it was based on the trial? That's an understatement. It was practically a transcript of the trial, with the debates between Bryan and Darrow picked up virtually word for word.)

All that activity must have been unsettling for Dayton. In the most recent census, its population was slightly more than 7,000. I'm guessing it was considerably smaller in 1925.

The town's name was changed in the play — to Hillsboro, Tennessee — referred to as "Heavenly Hillsboro" by the press in the story.

The Bryan character was seen locally as the defender of traditional beliefs and values; in the movie, his character was played by Frederic March, and he received a hero's welcome when he and his wife arrived in town.

An equal and opposite reaction was given to the Darrow character, who was perceived as a threat to those beliefs and values. He was played by Spencer Tracy.

You don't have to watch much of "Inherit the Wind" to see clear parallels between the conflict portrayed in the movie and the many social conflicts that permeate our politics today.

"The movie casts the battle as a struggle between the followers of a fundamentalist preacher ... and the snowy–haired agnostic ... who believes Darwinism is as 'incontrovertible as geometry,' as indeed it seems to well over 99 percent of the world's scientists," wrote film critic Roger Ebert.

(Actually, Ebert could have been describing both sides in just about any modern debate, it seems to me.)

In fact, the play does seem to have accurately forecast 21st–century attitudes. The fundamentalists were ridiculed, as they are today, as being hopelessly out of step with modern thinking.

Thinking? The movie was about the right to think, and Gene Kelly's character believed it was in great jeopardy. "There's only one man in the whole town who thinks," he complained, "and he's in jail."

There were others in the cast, of course, including a character who served as the defendant (in the movie, that was Dick York) and Kelly as a reporter for a fictional newspaper, the Baltimore Herald, based on the very real H.L. Mencken and the newspaper that employed him, the Baltimore Sun, which provided financial support for the defense. Harry Morgan played the presiding judge, and there were some witnesses. Nearly all the witnesses testified for the prosecution. The judge ruled that testimony from the defense's academic witnesses was irrelevant, and the defense's only witness was the prosecuting attorney himself.

For the most part, the movie was a two–man show, and you couldn't have asked for two better actors to represent their generation. Tracy received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor; March didn't get a nomination but deserved one as well. (He enjoyed his share of Oscar success, though, receiving five Best Actor nominations in his career — and winning twice.)

("Inherit the Wind" received three other Oscar nominations. Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Ernest Laszlo was nominated for Best Black and White Cinematography, and Frederic Knudtson was nominated for Best Film Editing.)

Writing a few months after a similar court trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, Ebert observed that the movie was "a film that rebukes the past when it might also have feared the future. Beliefs that seemed like ancient history to [director Stanley] Kramer have had a surprising resiliency; two recent polls show that 38 percent of American teenagers believe 'God created humans pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so,' and 54 percent of American adults doubt that man evolved from earlier species. There is hardly a politician in the land with courage enough to state that they are wrong."

Ebert wrote that in 2006. The public's conclusions may or may not have changed in that time — but my guess is that there are quite a few politicians who would be willing to challenge the validity of those conclusions today.

Some might take a page from Spencer Tracy's dialogue in the movie. "The Bible is a book," he asserted at one point. "It's a good book, but it is not the only book."