music friday: 1986
film fatales #204: the blue caftan (maryam touzani, 2022)

inherit the wind (stanley kramer, 1960)

This is the thirtieth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 30 is called "Classic Performers: Frederic March Week":

Celebrated film and stage actor Fredric March was born in Wisconsin in 1897. He began his career as an extra before making his debut in 1929's The Dummy. A year later he earned his first of five Oscar nominations for The Royal Family of Broadway. His accolades include two Oscars (for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Best Years of Our Lives), two Best Actor awards at the Venice Film Festival, and a Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin Film Festival. He is also one of only two actors, along with Helen Hayes, to win two Oscars and two Tony awards.

This week's challenge is to watch a film starring Fredric March.

I have a personal connection to Inherit the Wind. In high school, I played Matthew Brady, the William Jennings Bryan stand-in. I wondered if I would remember any of his lines, 50+ years after the fact, but alas, those brain cells are gone.

There's a problem with this movie, and its name is Stanley Kramer. Kramer was nominated nine times for Oscars, six as a producer of Best Picture nominees, and three nominations as Best Director. He won none of those, but it's a sign of the high regard for Kramer that he was nominated so frequently. Perhaps most appropriately, in 1961 he received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, given for "creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production." The year after Kramer's death, the Producers Guild of America created the Stanley Kramer Award, given to "a production, producer, or other individuals whose achievement or contribution illuminates and raises public awareness of important social issues."

Important social issues ... these things interested Kramer, inspired much of his work in film. His movies, as producer and director, included The Defiant Ones, about two escaped convicts, one black, one white, who must learn to move beyond racial animus. On the Beach took place at the end of the world after nuclear war, and was hailed by Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling as "the movie that saved the world". There was Judgment at Nuremberg, which fictionalized the Nazi trials at Nuremberg, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, about interracial marriage. All important social issues, which are supposed to imply important movies. One feels a bit embarrassed at complaining about the quality of Kramer's films ... isn't it enough that he made them?

And so, Inherit the Wind, based on a stage play that dramatized the Scopes "Monkey Trial". A high-school teacher in Tennessee taught evolution in the classroom, which was illegal at the time in Tennessee. The actual trial was purposeful, intended to showcase the problems with the law. A national brouhaha ensued, with three-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan joining the prosecution, while famed lawyer Clarence Darrow took part in Scopes' defense. The highlight of the trial came when Darrow put Bryan on the stand to essentially defend the Bible.

There is a lot of drama inherent in this story, and it's hard to screw it up too much. I imagine even our little 11th-grade production was fairly engrossing. If it was just a courtroom drama with some added interest from the based-on-truth story and big-name lawyers, Inherit the Wind would be tolerably good. But it's not just a courtroom drama ... Kramer was perhaps unable to just make such a movie. No, it had to have a Big Theme about an Important Social Issue. And then everything had to be simplified, so that Scopes/Darrow were always in the right, and Bryan and the fundamentalists are wrong. Darrow (in the play/film, the character is named Drummond ... Bryan becomes Brady) shows how right he is by showing with manganous brilliance that he is not perfect, that he knows that Bryan/Brady is a decent guy. This is used to make the character seem to have depth, but it's phony.

Spencer Tracy plays Drummond effectively, but he doesn't break a sweat (in-joke, since everyone sweats during the movie). Fredric March overplays as Brady, and the part is written that way ... I wouldn't be surprised if I overplayed back in high school. But March's makeup is awful ... it looks like they hired a high-school student for the job. The battle over what can be taught in schools still remains sadly relevant in this country, which means Inherit the Wind is as relevant as ever, for what that's worth.


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