Thursday, June 2, 2016

He That Troubleth His Own House Shall "Inherit the Wind"

Fredric March and Spencer Tracy.
Based on the celebrated stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, this 1960 film adaptation is a fictionalized account of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In that landmark case, renowned attorney Clarence Darrow defended John Scopes, a Tennessee schoolteacher prosecuted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. William Jennings Bryan, a former Presidential nominee and Secretary of State assisted the district attorney. In the play and film, the names have been changed, although opposing lawyers Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) are clearly based on Darrow and Bryan.

Dick York played the defendant.
Tracy and March, both in the twilight of their distinguished acting careers, give powerhouse performances. March portrays Brady as an overzealous evangelist determined to wear down detractors by the sheer strength of his convictions and the power of his voice. However, he is also a man clearly torn by common decency (represented by his wife) and his overwhelming drive to win a last big case. When the local minister whips a crowd into a lynching frenzy, it is Brady who calms them down. Yet, the very next day, he betrays the trust of a young woman in the courtroom.

Gene Kelly in his best dramatic role.
Tracy’s Henry Drummond is the opposite of the flamboyant Brady. His goal is to preserve the law—its very consistency, which is threatened by unreasonable state statutes like the one that prevents a schoolteacher from teaching Darwin's theory. Grim, but as determined in his low-key way as Brady, Drummond represents the moral center of the film (Brady is the Conservative and Gene Kelly’s cynical reporter the Liberal).

The other major character in Inherit the Wind is the town of Hillsboro. Director Stanley Kramer expertly shows the town’s transformation from quiet hamlet to frenzied carnival, complete with side shows, hucksters, and a ferris wheel. Even the courtroom is a circus, a media circus with reporters typing and sending reports on telephones during the trial.

Kramer stages these courtroom theatrics with an astonishing attention to detail. The stifling Southern heat hangs heavily over the room—people actually sweat…profusely. Kramer carefully positions his camera to capture contrasting actions in the same frame. It’s a textbook example of how to adapt a stage play to film, although a couple of talky scenes could have been trimmed.

The film's title comes from Proverbs: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” Ironically, it is Brady that paraphrases this moral, cautioning that one can be “overzealous to save that which you hope to save, so nothing is left but emptiness.”

Spencer Tracy received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The film also earned Academy Award nods for screenplay, editing, and cinematography--though it didn't win in any category. The play has been adapted for television three times with Drummond and Brady being played by: Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley in 1965; Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas in 1988; and Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott in 1999. On Broadway, the roles were originated in 1955 by Paul Muni as Drummond and Begley as Brady. Muni had to drop out temporarily due to cataracts and was replaced by Melvyn Douglas.


  1. One of my favorite films, the script was an textbook example of how to adapt an already pretty impressive play and improve it (i.e. fleshing out minor characters like the Stebbins' with minimal dialogue, changing the locale and participants in the 'golden dancer' speech).

    What an impressive supporting case of familiar faces: Claude Akins (though probably a bit young for his part, great as the overzealous Reverend), Norman Fell, Harry Morgan and, impressive with only two lines of dialogue, Noah Beery Jr.

    1. I agree, Hal. It's a terrific cast from top to bottom.

  2. Love this film. It is by its nature very theatrical though Kramer does try and open it up with a few scenes out of doors.

    But it's the courtroom scenes that pack the punch and this is one of my favorite performances by both leads.

    I'm also especially fond of Florence Eldridge's work as March's conflicted wife Sarah, it's beautifully balanced and knowing that she and March were husband & wife in real life adds an extra layer to their scenes.

  3. I was introduced to this film by my late father, who was a major Tracy and March fan. I have no idea how many times I have seen it as turning away is unthinkable.

    The other versions lose me with their lack of the swelter which you mentioned. A brilliant touch from Kramer.

  4. As CW said, I can't turn away from what I consider one of the greatest films of the 20th Century. There was not one even mediocre performance. I was amazed that Gene Kelly held his own against Tracy and March, and those 2 were spectacular. I don't think any other pair ever did justice to the parts, even though they were good actors.

  5. Yes, this is a terrific example of how to do a stage adaptation. And such great performances too! Casting Tracy and March in this film was brilliant.

  6. A phenomenal adaptation of a stage play with spot-on performances. The story is compelling and thought provoking. It is interesting to note that today evolution is taught not as a theory but as a fact.