Monday, March 04, 2013

Inherit the Wind and Kramer's preachiness

The two best courtroom dramas I've seen- Judgment at Nuremberg and Inherit the Wind- were directed by the same man, Stanley Kramer, and were released one year apart.

Having just seen Wind today, I've now seen six Stanley Kramer films: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Defiant Ones, Ship of Fools, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (the only one of his film to make it to  AFI's Top 100 at #99) in addition to the above-two mentioned films. 

With the exception of the decent-but-lackluster Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, I highly recommend all the other films, and think they have all held up well. Defiant Ones is better remembered than any other Sidney Poitier film, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World has been the template for all-star comedies, Inherit the Wind (along with the 1955 play) is the reason people still know about the Scopes trial today, and I've heard a Ship of Fools theory referenced in my film history courses.

All of his films are social message pictures. Even It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a comedy, can be easily read as a morality tale about the all-encompassing power of greed. For some reason I'm not too sure of, Kramer isn't a particularly well-respected director and I've even heard some backlash against him. Perhaps, his films are too preachy?

What's ironic about Inherit the Wind is that it's preachiest elements are taken from real life. The actual 1925 Scopes Trial was somewhat of a publicity stunt. The teacher, John Scopes (renamed Cates for legal purposes), was in cahoots with the prosecution the whole time, to boost publicity for the town by putting Scopes on trial:

"The Scopes Trial had its origins in a conspiracy at Fred Robinson's drugstore in Dayton. George Rappalyea, a 31-year-old transplanted New Yorker and local coal company manager, arrived at the drugstore with a copy of a paper containing an American Civil Liberties Union announcement that it was willing to offer its services to anyone challenging the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute. Rappalyea, a modernist Methodist with contempt for the new law, argued to other town leaders that a trial would be a way of putting Dayton on the map....The conspirators summoned John Scopes, a twenty-four-year old general science teacher and part-time football coach, to the drugstore....Herbert and Sue Hicks, two local attorneys and friends of Scopes, agreed to prosecute."

It was after all this that stalwarts William Jennings Bryan (renamed Matthew Harrison Brady) and Clarence Darrow (renamed Henry Drummond) offered their services to the trial and made it more and more outrageous. The most cringeworthy moment, for example, when Drummond tried to disprove the bible by putting Brady on the stand, actually happened. This changes my whole view of the film: What I originally viewed as a blatant attempt to make a school teacher's trial as an excuse to espouse on the absurdity of the bible, I now see a historical recreation of what became an absurdist spectacle in and of itself.  

Similarly, Bryan/Brady seems painted as a straw man, but he appears to have been just as extreme in real life and insisted on reading his speech despite the fact that the trial was over. 

If anything, I found the film morally more ambiguous once I knew the real-life story. The past friendship between the two adversaries (the movie added the fabrication that they used to be professional colleagues) and the positioning of Brady as less extreme than the Reverend Brown is somewhat complimentary to the legacy of William Jennings Bryan.

I still think, to some degree, Inherit the Wind has somewhat of a bias against the Bible Belt, but it also works as an effective framing device because history has also rendered its own verdict about the validity of evolution (although, there are some small pockets still holding that debate today) so we're watching two different trials as the audience and two different sources of anticipation: 1) who will win the actual trial at steak and 2) who will look less embarrassing to our 21st century sensibilities. 

Of course, the closing scene in which Gene Kelley's cynical reporter Hornbeck and Drummond go at each other's necks only confirms that Kramer didn't want us to relate to any one character as the author avatar. Hornbeck, a charming storyteller played by a debonair matinee idol cast against type, would seem to be the best fit until he's torn into pieces by Drummond. 

At the same time, the closing scene was the one that felt the most false to me, because I never thought that Hornbeck deserved to be made out as the soulless villain. It might just be the fact that I'm a reporter and idolize them, but I do think that uncovering the truth behind false facades is a truth worth standing for and he was championing the rights of Cates. It should also be noted that the person who Hornbeck was based on Baltimore Sun reporter H.L. Menken who was a very warm and beloved figure.

Overall, I think pretty highly of the film. It's cluttered up with a number of characters and storylines, I wish the Reverend Brown-Rachel storyline got more attention, for example. The film clocks in at 2 hours and 7 minutes and ten minutes before the end, I was actually hoping that we'd see a whole second trial. In that sense, this is the mark of a good film: I can't complain about a 127-minute film if I wanted to watch another hour.

In the larger scheme of Kramer's filmography, Kramer's films don't conceal that they have a social slant but they're complex and thought-provoking. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner doesn't really have an easy answer and Judgment at Nuremberg isn't about defeating Naziism but rather the aftermath. The defense for the Nazi judges is portrayed in a respectful enough light that Maximilian Schell won an Oscar for Best Actor.

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