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Courtroom dramas usually provide a bonanza for film extras, who can count on several weeks of work filling in the background as prosecution and defense attorneys battle it out. When producer-director Stanley Kramer brought the Broadway smash, Inherit the Wind to the screen in 1960, they got an added bonus - free acting lessons as two of the screen's very best locked horns.
The fireworks had really started in 1925 when high-school teacher John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee. The "monkey" trial that followed attracted national attention. With crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow defending Scopes in the name of intellectual freedom and one-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryant assisting the prosecution in the name of Christian Fundamentalism, it became the true trial of the 20th century, a battle for the hearts and minds of the nation.
Next came the stage production, adapted from actual trial transcripts but with the names changed to avoid litigation (some of the original participants were still alive). Paul Muni and Ed Begley won Tonies for performances based on Darrow and Bryant respectively, while Tony Randall scored an early hit as a newspaper reporter modeled on professional cynic H.L. Mencken, who convinced Darrow to take the case.
For the film version of Inherit the Wind, Kramer only had two choices for the leads, Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. He had no problem convincing the latter. March had scored an Oscar® nomination for his performance in the film version of Death of a Salesman, which Kramer had produced in 1951. Tracy was another matter. The veteran actor had been in poor health and hadn't made a film in two years. But he was flattered at the offer, saying, "I might as well do it. Nobody else wants me." When he protested that he might not have the energy for the role, Kramer assured him that he would shoot around his problems, even guaranteeing him a two-hour lunch break each day.
The first day of shooting, however, Tracy and Kramer faced off. The director asked for a second take because Tracy had mumbled the end of his line. Tracy stared at him for ten seconds, then said, "Mister Kramer, it has taken me just about 40 years to learn to read a line that way. Now do you want some college kid from UCLA to come over here and do this? Just say so, and we can arrange it." Kramer stared back for what seemed an eternity, and then calmly said, "Well, OK Spence, can we do another take?" and his star agreed. The two became close friends after that, and Tracy would make three more films with Kramer.
Tracy and March were great admirers of each other's work, but that didn't stop either from trying to upstage the other. March would fuss with his props during Tracy's lines, while Tracy would react to March in ways that drew the camera to him. But each knew the acting duel perfectly reflected the courtroom battle between their characters. And the challenge lifted both to new heights. As word of their performances got out, the set began filling with visitors eager to watch the two masters at work. During one courtroom scene, Tracy delivered a speech so effectively the onlookers began applauding before March could finish the take. In another exchange, the two delivered their increasingly heated dialogue so convincingly that Kramer was convinced they would never speak to each other again. But when it was over, March said, "You played the scene magnificently," and Tracy replied, "That's because you fed me my lines magnificently."
Inherit the Wind opened to glowing reviews, but ran into problems around the country, where theatres showing the film were picketed by religious fundamentalists convinced the picture was "anti-God." Fearing more protests, the distributor, United Artists, cut back its advertising budget to nearly nothing. Kramer had to tour the nation on his own in a futile attempt to drum up box office. Yet the film was well enough liked in Hollywood to garner OscarÆ nominations for Tracy, the screenplay, the cinematography and the editing, all of which had helped ensure that this particular courtroom drama would be anything but static.
Director/Producer: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: Nedrick Young, Harold Jacob Smith (Based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee)
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Editing: Frederic Knudtson
Music: Ernest Gold
Production Design: Rudolph Sternad
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Henry Drummond), Fredric March (Matthew Harrison Brady), Gene Kelly (E. K. Hornbeck), Dick York (Bertram T. Cates), Donna Anderson (Rachel Brown), Harry Morgan (Judge), Elliott Reid (Prosecutor Davenport), Florence Eldridge (Mrs. Sarah Brady).
by Frank Miller