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The film's title, as noted in the picture, comes from the Biblical passage of Proverbs 11:29: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind." Although the picture was copyrighted twice by Lomitas Productions, Inc., the first copyright, dated September 2, 1960 under number LP17779, lists the production company as Lomitas Productions, Germany, and was for a 16mm version. This version was probably shown at the film's premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on June 25, 1960. The second copyright, also held by Lomitas Productions, Inc. and for a 35mm version, was registerd on November 12, 1960 under number LP17367, and the company is listed by the copyright records only as Lomitas Productions. Director Stanley Kramer stated in a November 1959 New York Times article that he considered Inherit the Wind the third in his trilogy of socially provocative films beginning with The Defiant Ones (1958, ) and On the Beach (1959, see below).
The film is based on the play Inherit the Wind, which was inspired by the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Dayton, TN. During that trial, then dubbed "The Trial of the Century," Chicago labor lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) defended teacher John T. Scopes (1900-1970). Scopes was accused of propounding Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in defiance of Tennessee's Butler Law, which prohibited the teaching of any theory other than creationism. The prosecution was led by fundamentalist politician William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), who was known as "The Great Commoner." Bryan ran for United States President three times, in 1896, 1900 and 1908 and served as Secretary of State from 1913-1915. Unlike as depicted in the film, Bryan died not on the day the trial ended but five days later, of complications from diabetes.
Another famous figure represented in the play and film versions of the story was H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), a journalist celebrated for his clever wit and iconoclastic liberalism. In the play and film, the names of the major characters are changed from Clarence Darrow to Henry Drummond; William Jennings Bryan to Matthew Harrison Brady; H. L. Mencken to E. K. Hornbeck; and John T. Scopes to Bertram T. Cates.
Although the film's version of the trial hewed closely to actual events, in other areas many facts were changed. For example, unlike in the film, the real trial was initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which considered the Butler Law, prohibiting the teaching of evolution in Tennessee classrooms, unconstitutional. When Dayton resident George W. Rappelyea learned of the ACLU's desire to test the law, he convinced Scopes, who rarely even taught evolution, to join the case. According to modern sources, because the theory of evolution was included in the state's textbook, many Tennessee teachers included it in the curriculum. Also in contrast to the film, according to some historians, Darrow wanted Scopes to be found guilty so he could appeal the decision to a higher court.
As shown in the film, the trial began on July 10, 1925 during an extreme heat wave. The town filled with onlookers and salespeople, and the trial was covered by reporters from around the world. After Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, the decision was overturned on a technicality by a higher court. Although the Butler law was upheld by the court, the trial succeeded in embarrassing its proponents, and no one in the state was ever again prosecuted for defying it. In 1967, the Tennessee courts overturned the law.
In 1950, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote the play Inherit the Wind, which opened on Broadway on April 21, 1955, directed by Herman Shumlin and starring Ed Begley (as Brady) and Tony Randall (as Hornbeck). Paul Muni originated the role of Drummond, which was later taken over by Melvyn Douglas. Contemporary reviewers saw the play as a parable of the anti-Communist fervor pervading society in the 1950s. The playwrights added the fictional characters of "Reverend Brown" and "Rachel" and lightly fictionalized much of the action. The printed play contained a note cautioning that "Inherit the Wind is not history."
Modern sources note that, unlike the playwrights, the film's writers, Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, took most of the courtroom scenes' action and dialogue from the real court transcripts. Other changes invoked by the filmmakers included expanding the romance between Bert and Rachel; promoting Bert to a major character; the addition of the focus on economics and the boon to Hillsboro's business; and the polarization of Drummond and Brady, who in the play were not presented as old friends.
In March 1956, Los Angeles Examiner reported that Kramer had acquired the screen rights to the play for an "astronomical" amount "in six figures." Kramer reported in his autobiography that he paid $200,000. In March 1959, Los Angeles Examiner stated that Theodore Bikel had agreed to play the role of Hornbeck, but by September 1959 Hollywood Reporter reported that Gene Kelly had been cast in the role. The Hollywood Reporter news item also mentioned Roddy McDowall and Anthony Perkins as contenders for the role of Bert. Kramer wrote in his autobiography that he considered no one but Tracy and March for the starring roles and that he asked Kelly to play a rare dramatic turn because of his mixture of intelligence and devilish humor.
Controversy surrounded the film's production and release. In December 1960, Limelight reported that critics of the film were accusing Kramer of "attempting to burlesque religion." As noted in Kramer's autobiography, religious groups complained throughout the production and protested the picture's release.
Kramer also came under attack for hiring Young, a blacklisted writer. Young had earlier written The Defiant Ones with Smith, and although he used the pseudonym of Nathan E. Douglas, his real identity was revealed in a January 1, 1959 New York Times news item. Two weeks later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences repealed an amendment that prohibited Academy Award recognition to anyone admitting or refusing to deny membership in the Communist Party. Douglas and Smith were then nominated and subsequently won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for The Defiant Ones. In September 1959 New York Times reported that the American Legion had condemned Kramer and United Artists for hiring him for both films, and in February 1960 Hollywood Reporter noted the statement of Legion commander Martin B. McKneally specifically condemning Kramer for contributing to "a renewed invasion of American filmdom by Soviet-indoctrinated artists." Days later, New York Times published an interview with Kramer's response rebuking the Legion and the film industry in general, and asserting that "he would hire any writer he pleased." As a result, on February 14, 1960 Kramer and McKneally engaged in a debate televised on CBS's FYI program. As noted in a July 30, 1996 Hollywood Reporter article, the Writers Guild of America officially restored Young's credit in 1996.
The film's production ran from October-December 1959. According to press materials, Kramer shot the courtroom scenes, in continuity, for twenty-two days, before a crowd of 300 spectators. Many modern sources relate that Tracy and March competed playfully during their scenes together. Modern sources describe the banter between the two, spurred on by the many visitors who came to watch their scenes being filmed, including reporters, studio personnel and friends.
Inherit the Wind marked the seventh and last onscreen pairing of March with his wife, Florence Eldridge. Although a December 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Kramer placed the name of On the Beach on a cinema marquee in the town of Hillsboro, no such marquee was visible in the viewed print. 1959 Hollywood Reporter news items add John Lawrence, Peter Virgo, Gloria Clark, Jay Jostyn, Susan Vann, Hank McGuire, William McLean, Hampton Fancher, Doodles Weaver, David White, Burt Ramsey, Bernard Sells, George DeNormand, John Barton, Tony Regan, Sally Vernon, Syl Lamont, and Harry Spear to the cast. However, their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Modern sources also add Donald Elson, Sam Harris, Frank Mills, Bob Perry, Snub Pollard and Harry Tenbrook.
The film first screened at the Berlin Film Festival on June 25, 1960, where it represented the official United States entry and won awards for Best Foreign Actor (March) and Best Feature Film Suitable for Young People. The London premiere took place on 7 Jul, after which the film had its American premiere in Dayton, TN on 21 Jul, the 35th anniversary of the trial's conclusion. Although a June 1960 Newsweek article reported that Scopes was unsure if he would attend the premiere, as noted by an July 8, 1960 Hollywood Reporter news item, he was the guest of honor.
Although Time magazine called Inherit the Wind "a sluggish, confused manipulation of ideas and players" that caricatured both sides of the debate, most reviewers praised the film highly. New York Times called it "one of the most brilliant and engrossing displays of acting ever witnessed on the screen." The Variety review stated that the "pairing of Tracy and March was a master stroke of casting....If they aren't top contenders in the next Academy sweepstakes, then Oscar should be put in escrow for another year." However, only Tracy was nominated, as well as Ernest Laszlo for Best Cinematography (black-and-white), Frederic Knudtson for Best Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay, Young and Smith. In addition, the picture was nominated for the BAFTA Best Film Award and has gone on to be recognized as a classic of its genre. Despite the critical acclaim, the film was not a box-office success. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, in December 1960, Trans-World Airlines tested its new in-flight film program by showing Inherit the Wind on a 707 en route from New York to Los Angeles, using a miniaturized screen in the first-class cabin. The screening was meant to showcase new technology, which the Hollywood Reporter article called "a possible new source for distributors."
Other versions of the film include a 1988 NBC television movie, starring Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas, and a 1999 cable movie starring Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott. In 1996, Tony Randall, who appeared in the first staging of the play as Hornbeck, directed a stage version of the play starring Scott and Charles Durning.
The story's central conflict has continued to have resonance in the American justice system and in American society. For example, in 1968 the Supreme Court invalidated a law in Arkansas similar to the Butler law, and in 1987 they ruled unconstitutional a Louisiana law requiring public schools to teach creationism alongside evolution. On January 19, 2005, New York Times published an editorial criticizing creationist activists for attempting to modify state science curricula in Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, to preclude the teaching of evolution. The article stated that "Recent surveys of high school biology teachers have found that avoidance of evolution [for fear of reprisals] is common among instructors throughout the nation."