Inherit the Wind On the Small Screen - 1965
Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley (taken during the 1955 production)
from The Selected Plays (20)
Moving Forward and Holding Back
In 1965, when George Schaefer and the Hallmark Hall of Fame produced a television movie version of Inherit the Wind,American society was at a critical juncture on the domestic front. The years of nonviolent civil rights protest had made great strides, but with many miles to go in the quest for social equality, the general tone of the movement became more aggressive, more urgent and more radical. Across the country, other movements followed the lead of civil rights, and the push for women's rights and students' rights, among others, swelled. This growing frustration with the status quo spurred people to demand change through sometimes violent and always fervent methods. Adding to the contentious nature of the 1960s were the inexplicable tragedies which befell the country with the assassinations of first John F. Kennedy in 1963, and then both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The blow of these three deaths inflicted a deep wound in American society and left people scrambling for stability and meaning in a world they thought they understood. Compounding the frustration and apprehension of the era was the prominent foreign policy issue of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. By 1965, the United States had begun a series of critical escalations of the war effort under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the American people questioned more and more the country's justification behind such decisions.
To a significant portion of American society, the 1960s were a time to look toward the future, especially for the younger generation which dominated the more radical movements. These social and political activists, in practice and in policy, were progressives in Hunter's sense of the word. Fitting with Hunter's definition of the progressives, the reforms they were seeking were part of an ever-unfolding process of truth (21). On the other side of society, however, were Hunter's orthodox, or Ransom's fundamentalists. To these people watching society march forward with social reform, the sense began to emerge that something valuable was being lost. As they believed, the fundamental values of the society were trampled under the feet of progress, and the heightened debate over creationism and evolution signaled this apprehension and longing for the apparent stability of the past.
A Sign of the Times
Although there is little background information available on the 1965 version of Inherit the Wind, the slant of the movie reflects this desire to preserve the perceived wholesomeness of the past. The NBC movie is as entertaining as the earlier versions, and the credit belongs mostly to the stellar performances of veteran actors Melvyn Douglas as Drummond and Ed Begley Sr. as Brady (Douglas had replaced Muni in the 1955 production on Broadway).
Rounding out the cast are a collection of lesser known actors whose performances are equally enjoyable. The script for the movie, however, is the surest sign of a difference between the earlier versions and the 1965 Inherit. Though the 1965 version alters the play less than the 1960 film does, the 1965 movie strips the play of much of its humor and its most meaningful passages. The 1965 movie, therefore, is almost a sanitized version of the original, where "heck" replaces "hell", and the evolutionist teacher is the obvious villain. This version takes on a more ideological focus, thereby forcing the modernist-fundamentalist conflict even further to the front. The movie, for example, opens with Cates behind bars, unlike the play which opens on the town square. Thus, there is no doubt who the criminal is in the movie.
This effort to simplify the message pervades the entire movie as the scenes which add depth and meaning to the original play fall by the wayside. Drummond's "Golden Dancer" speech, for example, never surfaces. This crucial passage in the play explains Drummond's reasons for joining the trial and his driving desire to uncover the truth. In addition to these lines, throughout the play, many passages do not appear which could be considered biased against the fundamentalist system of belief. Hornbeck, for one, is entirely less prominent in the movie. His outbursts of cynicism and his biting criticisms of religion are cut to just a few. In addition, the critical confrontational moment, when Drummond examines Brady, appears in a shortened form without the discussion of Original Sin and modern sexuality. In a 1965 television movie, words like these were not spoken, but there is no doubt that their absence detracts from the overall meaning of the play and the lessons Lawrence and Lee intended to teach.
Return to the Public Arena
While the 1965 version of Inherit the Wind as a movie was rather moderate, within American culture the volatile debate continued to burn. The issue of evolution, relatively dormant since the ACLU's protest in 1955, surfaced in 1965 with a few minor incidents. In October of that year, the principal of Vestal High School in Binghamton, New York, canceled the school's production of Inherit the Wind, citing the objections of five Baptists ministers as his motive. As the principal, William B. Mullen, stated, the ministers protested because the play "went directly against what they were teaching," specifically a passage in the play which derided the Book of Genesis (22). Though the fundamentalist beliefs prevailed in this case, the incident represents the weighty and volatile issues at hand in the cultural debate. For the conflict over evolution involves, more than the right to different beliefs, the right to pass on those beliefs to the younger generations.
On the other side if this issue in 1965 were teachers such as Susan Epperson of Little Rock, Arkansas. Arkansas, like Tennessee, upheld a law, this one from 1928, which declared the teaching of evolution illegal. In December of 1965, Mrs. Epperson, a school teacher at Central High School, filed a lawsuit against the local school board claiming the law violated her constitutional right to freedom of speech (23). This case, however, was not resolved for almost two years, when the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the law by a 6 to 1 vote. At issue for Mrs. Epperson, as her attorney stated, was a law which "tends to hinder the quest for knowledge, restrict the freedom to learn and restrains freedom to teach" (24). Once again, the central issue concerns who will have the license to influence the future through the minds of the nation's children. In this issue, the ultimate deciding force eventually would be the Supreme Court, which the following year struck down the Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution even though it did not explicitly mention the Biblical version of the origins of life.
Back in Tennessee, home of the Scopes trial, opponents of the anti-evolution law also were coming to the forefront. Less than two years after the NBC broadcast its own version of the drama, a father in Tennessee filed a suit against the state attorney general and the Knoxville board of education claiming his son was being "limited" in his education without learning about Darwin in school (25). And in Jacksboro, Tennessee, also in 1967, a young science teacher lost his job after violating Tennessee Code, Section 49-1922 - the anti-evolution law. More than forty years after John T. Scopes was released from his position, the law, which few ever thought would be exercised, thrust another teacher from the classroom. Behind the Jacksboro teacher's dismissal, as behind the Vestal High School incident, stood protest from local ministers who objected to the irreligious teaching of evolution (26).
The Finale in Tennessee
By 1967, despite the fundamentalist support for the Butler Law, the issue came to the forefront of Tennessee legislation for a final decisive judgment. On April 12, 1967, the Tennessee Legislature opened with a measure to repeal the 42-year old law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in state supported schools. The House approved the bill in a 58-to-27 vote, sending the measure to the Senate. The success of this bill in the House was quite surprising, especially considering the number of similar measures which the legislature had met over the years and allowed to die in committee to avoid any political embarrassment. By 1967, however, the face of the legislature had changed, and reapportionment had given the urban politicians a majority (27). But although the rural and more traditionally fundamentalist politicians held only a minority vote in the House, their presence in the Senate threatened to stall the bill for another year. When the debate reached the Senate floor, the hour and a half of debate sounded at times like a religious revival:
Speaker after speaker on both sides of the controversy rose to affirm their faith in God and in Jesus. Those favoring repeal denied there was a conflict between the Bible and scientific theory, while those opposing it painted a picture of children losing their religious faith by hearing a story of creation other than that in Genesis (28).
The conflict, therefore, was not between the religious and the irreligious, but between those who felt there was room for both science and religion in their lives and those who felt religion should always prevail. The proponents of the bill may have been religious, but they were also progressives, trying to mediate between the modern world and their faith rather than chose one at the expense of another. For these progressives, the complexity of the issue included the national reputation of the state in light of the law. As one politician stated:
I am tired of Tennessee being held up to ridicule to the nation and the entire world. Lord knows what we will have in the newspapers tomorrow. If we don't pass this bill today, it will come up again in the next legislature and the one after that (29).
As the politician rightly noted, the time had come for the law's end. Although the Senate voted the bill down that day, 16 to 16, just one month later, the Senate was forced to accept it, 20 to 13. The House had refused to pass an amendment which instead would prohibit only the teaching of evolution as "fact." And so the bill repealing the Butler Law waited only for the governor's expected signature (30). The debate which had begun more than forty years earlier came to a close against the wishes of the fundamentalists. The ending which the 1965Inherit the Wind never could have projected finally was realized. But although the modernist-fundamentalist conflict had lost its expression, for the time, in the battle over evolution, the tension itself continued to lurk below the surface, waiting until the climate was ripe once again for friction