Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with Gene Kelly. I, who had been courted by Fred Astaire, found my loyalties shifting. Yes, I can and do love both. Their different styles deserve to be celebrated, and both contributed to the Hollywood musical in innumerable, undisputed ways. But I’m a Gene Kelly girl now. There’s the dancing, the mega watt smile, the good looks, and the fact that he was strongly committed to civil rights and anti Joseph McCarthy. And as if all that wasn’t enough, he was a skilled actor too.
Inherit the Wind (1960) is Stanley Kramer’s stellar courtroom drama based on the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Gene Kelly, the song and dance man, trades in the musical shine for a straight dramatic performance. It wasn’t the first time. In 1952 he had starred opposite Pier Angeli in The Devil Makes Three, set in post WWII Germany, but this film is the more memorable and superior.
Few American actors commanded the screen like Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. A film starring both is a big deal, one of those rare battles of greatness. How is Gene Kelly supposed to compete with either of them? But not only is he a more than worthy co-star, he nearly steals the film.
Called the trial of the century, the Scopes trial was a showdown in Tennessee between prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan and defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. John Scopes was a high school teacher who had violated North Carolina law by teaching evolution to his students, which was prohibited. In the film, all the names of the major players have been changed. Bryan becomes Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March), Darrow is Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), and Scopes is Bertram Cates (Dick York). Gene Kelly plays newspaper man E.K. Hornbeck, hungry for drama.
Drama is only to be expected in a small town like this, filled with fierce, ferocious little people. The townspeople work themselves into a furor over Brady, their savior against atheists and intellectuals. They want Cates and Drummond destroyed. The townspeople here refuse to believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. The atheists can go back to the apes. Yet they all behave like animals. Ironically, Brady is a god to them.
Hornbeck arrives in eager support of Cates. He views him as a martyr. And his intent is not merely to drum up sympathy for the teacher, but to expose the fanaticism within this small town and to humiliate Brady. As Hornbeck himself tells Cates and his fiancee,
“I may be rancid butter but I’m on your side of the bread.”
Even in his musical roles, Gene Kelly never played nice guys. Oftentimes he was a cad. In this film, he’s cynical and smug, but he remains likable. He doesn’t have to overload his scenes or lines with charm. Perhaps it’s his dogged pursuit of truth and his belief in Cates’ innocence.
Brady believes that God is on trial. He’s rigorously defending the Holy Word. Drummond rigorously defends a man’s right to think. His speech at the film’s climax is a warning bell against the forces that accused Cates. If you can pass a law that prohibits someone from teaching evolution, what else can you outlaw?
Inherit the Wind is a masterful film, one of Stanley Kramer’s most effective. What I was most struck by, aside from Gene Kelly’s performance, was its humanizing effect. Brady might be bombastic, foolish and pathetic even, but his humanity isn’t ever diminished. Fredric March broke my heart.
The best kinds of films are the ones that remind us that some things never do change. What Kramer indicted in 1960 is still alive today.
A bonus for you all: young Fredric March and Gene Kelly. The resemblance is uncanny to me!
Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film is hosting this year’s Summer Under the Stars blogathon. Head on over and read the entries and be sure to celebrate Gene Kelly day!