Inherit The Wind is a Stanley Kramer film: Kramer was a director of mostly socially conscious dramas, and I guess you could make a case that he was the original “Oscar-bait” director. However, he was also a very solid director, and Inherit The Wind finds him at the very peak of his powers.
The story is loosely based upon a true court case of a teacher who was brought to trial over teaching Darwinism. In reality, it’s just smokescreen for a damning indictment of McCarthyism, and it doesn’t attempt to hide it much, either. Kramer had this to say about the film after it was picketed by fundamentalist groups: “The spirit of the trial lives on, because the real issues of that trial were man’s right to think and man’s right to teach. . . the real theme of Inherit the Wind.”
The film is also a showcase of acting from Spencer Tracy. Tracy plays Henry Drummond, who comes to the town to defend the teacher against the fundamentalist Matthew Harrison Brady (Frederic March) and his ridiculous nonsense. The performances, as you may expect, are powerhouses, with Tracy really shining through. It’s far better than his later performance in Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Florence Eldridge also appears as Brady’s wife, who was March’s real-life wife and often appeared with him on film.
The most interesting casting choice was Gene Kelly as reporter E.K. Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald, who gets Drummond to take the case. Kelly was a social democrat and under serious suspicion as a communist sympathiser, so much so his first wife, Betsy Blair, was denied roles until he used his movie-star power to change that. He was basically on a kind of greylist – not listed on “The Red Channels list” but nevertheless probably denied certain roles because of his political views. Kramer obviously knew that, and casting of him in this dramatic role as the wisecracking, arrogant journalist was deliberate. It also shows that Kelly should’ve been offered far more dramatic parts than he was during his career.
The film doesn’t pull any punches with its utter condemnation of McCarthyism and Christian fundamentalism. The performances are great, and the issues raised are still present in the US—even the laws over teaching creationism, nevermind the revival of the red scare with “the intellectual dark web” and their conspiracy theory of “Cultural Marxism.” The film also opens with the most deeply unsettling version of “Old Time Religion.” ever.
The disc includes a 25-minute interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard, the original theatrical trailer and finally a collector’s booklet in the first pressing only, so get your orders in quickly.