This evening I was happy to attend the first night of a three-month, 27-film series of Spencer Tracy films at UCLA. Although there was a brief series of Tracy films at the University of California at Irvine in the late '60s, shortly after Tracy's 1967 passing, this is the first-ever film series looking at Tracy's career in depth.
Tracy biographer James Curtis was in attendance. He's a congenial gentleman, and I was appreciative of the opportunity to have him sign my copy of his book. I just got the book, but have to say I'm quite impressed with what I've seen of it to date. This heavy volume, over 1000 pages including the index, appears to be remarkably comprehensive; at the same time, each page I flip open to looks interesting and highly readable.
Prior to the screening, Curtis briefly interviewed actress Donna Anderson, seen here at the right; Anderson played Rachel, the preacher's daughter in love with the teacher. She shared that she was very intimidated by Tracy's acting ability. She said the set would fill with people watching Tracy's scenes and there would be applause after the takes. She also mentioned that director Stanley Kramer liked to move the camera around a lot, but while most of the actors would carefully dance out of the camera's way, Tracy would just stay put, saying "The camera will find me."
Just before the movie began, Curtis announced that Susie Tracy, Spencer Tracy's daughter, was in the audience. It was special to know that we were watching the film with a member of the legendary actor's immediate family.
As for the film itself, I'm a bit surprised, given the talents involved, that I found this film's style overwrought and smug, but I have to be honest and call 'em as I see 'em. I was expecting something a little more thoughtful and nuanced, but I felt that depth and complexity gave way to caricatures, with some of the actors too often engaged in self-consciously showy scenery-chewing.
The film, of course, is a fictional depiction inspired by a real-life case, in which a teacher (Dick York) was put on trial for teaching Darwinism in high school in the 1920s. He was prosecuted by Matthew Harrison Brady (an almost unrecognizable Fredric March), inspired by the real-life William Jennings Bryan. Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), based on Clarence Darrow, was the attorney for the defense.
Too often the film left me with questions about the characters and their backgrounds. With the film running two hours and eight minutes, there didn't seem to be much time left over from the trial and scenes of hysterical anti-Darwinism marchers to delve into matters of substance such as: Who are these people, and why should we care? Where are they from? What motivates them?
For instance, what do we know of Henry Drummond by the end of the movie, who he was or what his motivations were? We know he tilts at windmills, rubs his face a lot, respects his opponent, and might be a Christian. That's about it. Drummond's character introduces a bit of complexity into the story, such as in the scene where he makes the case that the Bible and Darwinism aren't necessarily at odds. But when it comes to the character itself, we're told very little. Tracy is fun to watch and seems more real than a number of the other characters, but there's only so much he can convey to an audience without the cooperation of the script.
Along those lines, I also had questions about Bert, the teacher. He was unsurprised by the town visitors to his classroom in the opening sequence. We know Bert believed in speaking his mind with his students, but had he consciously decided prior to that day to test the law? His closing statement to the judge seemed to indicate so, when he said he would continue to fight what he believed was an unjust law. Since the film begins with the arrest, viewers are robbed of knowing anything more about his background and motivations at the outset, and not much is filled in later. The story of the little boy who died, while used against Bert in court, comes down to a motivational red herring as far as actually explaining his character.
And for that matter, I was never clear if Bert had taught Darwinism as a theory or as an absolute scientific fact. That's a detail I would have found interesting to have filled in.
Many of the characters are mere placeholders, not fleshed-out, fully rounded people. Drummond is the Cagey Rumpled Lawyer, Bert is the Noble Martyr, and Rachel is the Distraught Fiancee, while newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) -- based on H.L. Mencken -- is the Helpful Cynic. This was one of just a handful of Kelly films I'd never seen, and while he adds a certain liveliness to the proceedings, his dialogue is also very stagey. In the final big close-up, as he's silently listening to Drummond analyze him, we see the "wheels turning" just a little too obviously as his face reacts to the comments.
That prompts an interesting side note -- Spencer Tracy may have relied a little too much here on the crutch of rubbing his face and flopping his body around, but at the same time you never see the thought process behind his character, the "wheels turning" which I just mentioned in regard to Kelly. For Tracy acting was, in the words of his wife Louise, "that natural thing," which is also the subtitle of the film series.
A character such as Claude Akins' minister never comes across as a real person, with strengths, foibles, or genuine human emotions. He's just a Bad Christian, and the portrayal seemed like a parody, about on the level of a Saturday Night Live skit. Similarly odd were the angled shots of the church ladies rigidly marching and singing in a parade behind Matthew Brady; they looked completely unreal, apparently caught up in a religious hysteria of sorts. I couldn't help thinking that the cartoonish way the filmmakers chose to depict these Scary Church Ladies represented its own brand of unthinking hysteria. Real life is generally a little more complicated than two-dimensional cartoon characters.
Delving more deeply into the film's perspective, I also found it interesting that for all of the film's focus on the teacher's right to say and act on what he believed, there was no parallel examination of the rights of the parents in the community to decide -- for good or ill -- how their children would be educated. This angle was brushed aside, although it's percolating under the surface, as far as the fact that the law exists in the first place. Apparently giving even momentary consideration to the notion that the teacher might not be the only one with rights didn't fit the film's point of view.
Regardless of where one comes down on Darwinism, it strikes me that there are all sorts of interesting implications if the door is opened for a teacher to have carte blanche to teach whatever he believes to a captive audience of young people at taxpayer expense. Worth mulling over? The film was already lengthy, but a line or two acknowledging that issue would have been welcome.
The characters I found most interesting were those who seemed the most genuine and real. The single character I enjoyed the most was Harry Morgan as the calm and deliberate judge. Although I have to say his final scene, strategizing with the mayor over the sentence and its political repercussions, reminded me for all the world of the courtroom climax of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947); but that was the fault of the script, not Morgan's acting. He was top drawer in this.
Dick York and Florence Eldridge (Mrs. Fredric March) also brought more humanity to the characters of the teacher and Matthew Brady's wife than was present in many of the other performances. Wendell Holmes also impressed in his brief scenes as a thoughtful banker who steps forward to help the teacher at a key moment.
It's curious I've nearly come to the end of my thoughts and not even mentioned Fredric March. I admire him greatly and have enjoyed him in many films, but my reaction to him in this was a shoulder-shrugging "Meh." James Curtis mentioned that the performance has been criticized as over the top, but may have been faithful to what is known of the real Williams Jennings Bryan and his style. That said, I didn't find March or his character interesting -- again, surprisingly lacking in any depth. (Although what was that business near the end calling his wife "Mama" and her calling him "Baby"?) I was expecting an acting clash of the titans, so to speak, between Tracy and March, and for me it just didn't materialize.
The supporting cast also includes Elliott Reid, Noah Beery Jr., Jimmy Boyd, Philip Coolidge, Paul Hartman, Ray Teal, and Norman Fell.
Based on everything I've read about the film over the years, mine seems to be a minority opinion, but hopefully this rather contrarian view will provide some interesting ideas for consideration. Perhaps it's curious that although I didn't care for the film, I nonetheless enjoyed watching and analyzing it; I think it's worth other viewers doing the same and arriving at their own conclusions.
INHERIT THE WIND is available on DVD and VHS. The DVD is available from Netflix. It can also be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.