COMMENTARY: Stanley Kramer's 1960 masterpiece 'Inherit the Wind' still relevant
EmptyHollywood has been home to more dreamers and schemers than any other town in the world. It's also been home to its share of geniuses. But there have been damn few visionaries. To my mind, Hollywood's greatest visionary was Stanley Kramer, the writer, director and producer whose "Inherit the Wind" celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
I was lucky enough to grow up during some of Stanley's greatest years, and when I saw "Inherit" in the theater for the first time in 1960, it changed my life. I knew then that I wanted to be a lawyer. (Two years later, when I saw "Dr. No," the first James Bond movie, I decided I wanted to be a secret agent.)
I was an impressionable kid. What I learned about the evils of racism, the threat of nuclear war and the danger of religious intolerance, I learned in theaters watching Kramer movies with a box of popcorn in my lap. "The Defiant Ones," "On the Beach" and "Inherit" each made a huge impact on me. So too did "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "High Noon," one of the best Westerns ever made.
All of his message films resonate today, but none, sadly, does so more powerfully than "Inherit," which is to my mind the quintessential parable about McCarthyism.
Not only is it the finest courtroom drama ever filmed, full of the spellbinding give-and-take of competing ideas, but its lesson is one that America still struggles to learn today, a half-century after its premiere in November 1960. The arguments that creationists make in the film haven't gone away, they've only gotten dumber and shriller.
The film, based on the 1955 stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which high school biology teacher John Scopes was accused of violating a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools.
But Kramer, who died in 2001, wasn't content to just bring a controversial piece about science, religion and freedom of thought to the screen. He wanted to take a shot at the Hollywood blacklist. One of those he hired to pen the script was banished scribe Nedrick Young. And when the American Legion -- which in those days considered itself a clearinghouse for Americanism -- criticized Kramer for hiring Young, Moss Hart, president of the Authors League of America, rose to his defense.
"The Authors League of America council, which has always unalterably opposed any form of blacklisting of writers, unanimously voted at a meeting today to commend and applaud you for your courageous stand in rejecting publicly the effort to interfere, on pseudo-patriotic grounds, with the right of writers to work," Hart wrote in a telegram to Kramer.
Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger are widely credited with having broken the blacklist the same year that "Inherit" was released, when Douglas and Preminger hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to pen "Spartacus" and "Exodus," respectively. But it was Kramer who courageously hired Young three years earlier to write "Defiant Ones" just as the witchhunts were becoming their most virulent.
Young co-wrote the film, which won the Oscar that year for best original screenplay, under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas, but everyone in Hollywood knew who the writer was. As Time magazine reported on Jan. 29, 1959, "One of the co-authors of 'The Defiant Ones' was Nathan E. Douglas, who in 1953 pleaded the Fifth under his legal name of Ned Young during a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing."
The 50th anniversary of Kramer's "Inherit," which takes its title from a saying in the Old Testament, was commemorated Sept. 11 by the Burbank International Film Festival, and the Malibu Film Society on Oct. 3 will host a panel discussion that will feature the filmmaker's widow Karen Kramer.
The film, Karen Kramer says, is about "freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of exploring all possibilities. It's about our First Amendment. Its message is probably even more relevant today than it ever was. Taking evolution out of the schools is so wrong. It should be required reading."
Panelists also will include Donna Anderson, the last surviving cast member (she played Scopes' girlfriend); Edward J. Larson, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book "Summer of the Gods," which re-examined the Scopes trial; and Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Karen Kramer and her daughter Katharine, whose godmother was Katharine Hepburn, will host the evening.
"We're really excited about it," said Scott Tallal, executive director of the Malibu Film Society. "Given the fight over evolution and creationism, this film is as relevant today as it was in 1960 because the fight is far from over.
"The arguments in that film were stunning, really compelling. It really was a pivotal film and was emblematic of the socially conscious films that Stanley Kramer was noted for."
And for that, "Inherit," as well as the legacy of Kramer as the conscience of Hollywood, are worth honoring.
David Robb is a regular commentator for The Hollywood Reporter. He has covered Hollywood's unions for more than 20 years and is author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies." He can be reached at [email protected]