Inherit/1960 review

Century on Trial - John Leonard
from New York magazine - March 21, 1988

IN THE 1955 BROADWAY PLAY, THE 1960 Stanley Kramer movie, and this made-for-TV rewrite of Inherit the Wind (Sunday, March 20; 9 to 11 P.M.; NBC), William Jennings Bryan is called Matthew Harrison Brady, Clarence Darrow is called Henry Drummond, and H. L. Mencken is called E. K Hornbeck. I'm going to call them Bryan, Darrow, and Mencken because it's easier. John T. Scopes was accused in Dayton, Tennessee, in July 1925, of teaching the theory of evolution to high-school students, in violation of a brand-new state law. "Cross of Gold" Bryan—populist, Bible thumper, and three-times-defeated candidate or the U.S. presidency—appeared for the prosecution. Darrow—de-fender of anarchists after the 1886 Haymarket Riot, of Eugene V. Debs after the 1894 Pullman Strike, of Big Bill Haywood in 1907, and of Leopold and Loeb in 1924—appeared for the defense. Mencken was there for the Baltimore Sun. The judge ruled out pro-Darwin testimony and any challenge of the law's constitutionality. Scopes lost the legal battle (he was fined $100) but won the publicity war in the history books.

From these American-mythic materials, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee made a semi-classic liberal stage melodrama. It was also tailored perfectly to the tastes of filmmaker Kramer, who, in a long career of grandstanding on the Big Issues, has heaved a sigh at race hatred (The Defiant Once), world guilt (Judgment at Nuremberg, and nuclear holocaust (On the Beach). This was his chance at God.

In liberal melodrama, we feel bad the morning after. Thus, in Inherit the Wind, after freethinker Darrow humiliates fundamentalist Bryan, both turn on the cynical Mencken: "Where will you loneliness lead you? No one will come to you funeral!" In the TV rewrite, these lines are mysteriously omitted, but we're still supposed to disapprove of Mencken for having enjoyed himself too much at Bryan's expense, just as in a similar reverse twitch at the end of The Caine Mutiny we were suddenly asked to sympathize with Captain Queeg. For liberals, winning is guilty, gloating is indecent, and cynicism is un-American. this nostalgia for a consensus that never existed is one of the big differences between, say, Arthur Miller and Henrik Ibsen.

A padded-for-bulk and shamelessly hammy Frederic March played Bryan in the Kramer movie. As Darrow, Spencer Tracy was naturally too thick and would have made a better Bryan, but Tracy had to be the hero. Gene Kelly was a nasty Mencken, and we were nudged from the start to root against him. On TV, Darren McGavin is a more interesting Mencken, and Kirk Douglas a more dignified Bryan, although he looks far too fit to be a candidate for heart attack. And as Darrow, Jason Robards is superb. It's been a long time since he was anything less, even in Laguna Heat. My worry about Robards is that he's too predictably quintessential. He shows up, like Hal Holbrook, whenever a producer tells typecasting, "Send me a grown-up with abiding values." Between them, noble Holbrook and irascible Robards monopolize the American-male-quintessence-with-abiding-values category.

If NBC had commissioned a fresh take on the Scopes trial, as it did on Leo Frank's in the recent Mary Phagan mini-series, we might have had something to a chew on, especially with creationism versus evolutionary theory still a lively issue in so many of our Stone Age school districts. (The Scopes law remained on the books until 1967.) We're asked instead to stick our heads in the same old feed bag of pieties. Inherit the Wind still has its' moments—when, for instance, Robards deconstructs "the pleasant poetry" of the Book of Genesis—but they're out-numbered by its mothballs. A sort of innocent bad faith obtains.


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