In a world where 21st century presidential candidates avow biblical “truth” and state school board chairmen declare that “somebody has to stand up to the experts,” Malibu Film Society’s screening of “Inherit the Wind” resonated Sunday night to a packed audience.
The screening of Stanley Kramer’s 1960 classic film about the 1925 State of Tennessee vs. Scopes trial was filled with Malibu residents ready to watch two great American actors (Spencer Tracy and Fredric March) go head to head, as much as to hear from a speakers’ panel that not much has changed in the 85 intervening years between the trial and today.
More than just a historical treatise on the power of narrow-minded majorities (in this case, fundamentalists who prefer biblical dogma over true science taught in their schools), Kramer’s film was an indictment of the threat to intellectual freedom represented by McCarthyism.
As described by Karen Sharpe Kramer, the director’s widow, the reasons for making “Inherit the Wind” go back to his 1952 film, “High Noon,” when the House Un-American Activities Committee indicted one of Kramer’s filmmaking partners.
“Yep, they called ‘High Noon’ a Communist film,” Sharpe Kramer said. “All studio employees had to sign the Waldorf Agreement that declared they never were affiliated with the Communist Party. People had to resign from the studios. When Stanley got out of his contract to Harry Cohn and made ‘The Defiant Ones’ independently, he hired his blacklisted writer friends.”
In an era when producers were meeting with blacklisted writers at out-of-the-way cafes to negotiate scripts and paying very little for “tainted” work, Kramer not only hired Harold Jacob Smith and Ned Young openly to write “The Defiant Ones,” he paid them more than he had ever paid for a script, brought them onto the studio lot and even cast them in the film. When credits rolled, instead of listing the screenwriters’ names, he showed clips of their faces as actors in the film.
“This film is as relevant today as it was the day it opened,” Sharpe Kramer said of “Inherit the Wind.”
Also speaking Sunday night was Donna Anderson, the actress who played the role of Rachel, the preacher’s daughter who is conflicted by her father’s teachings and her love for the young science teacher who has been arrested for teaching Darwinian theory to his classes.
“I wish this movie wasn’t so relevant today,” Anderson said, who also worked with Kramer in his 1959 film about a nuclear Holocaust, “On the Beach.”
“I wish we’d just get over it,” Anderson continued. “A lot of doors opened for me with Stanley. Because of him, I became a political person.”
Pepperdine University history and law professor Edward J. Larson spoke of his 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Summer for the Gods,” which explored the Scopes trial, McCarthyism and its ongoing cultural influence.
“McCarthyism was sort of dying out by 1960, but one reason the movie was made was because of the 1960 presidential election,” Larson said. “Kramer premiered it three weeks before the election and everyone was reminded of Nixon’s work on HUAC. He lost, of course.”
Eugenie Scott, of the National Center for Science Education, spoke of how her organization advises parents’ groups around the country on legal challenges to school boards’ efforts to stymie teaching of evolution.
“Five years ago we were in Dover, Pennsylvania at the trial that successfully prevented teaching so-called Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution,” Scott said. “The last day of the trial, there was a performance of ‘Inherit the Wind’ by a theater company in nearby Harrisburg. It was amazing to see this play after going through six weeks of the very same issues.”
Scott said that Intelligent Design was yet another iteration of the argument for teaching creationism in public schools and speaks to the conundrum facing Christians: Can I be a good Christian if I believe in science-based evolution?
This argument is at the heart of the drama of “Inherit the Wind,” which begins with an ominous a cappella rendition of “Give Me That Old Time Religion.”
The movie, filmed in black and white by iconic cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, is full of images that could be ripped from the headlines of today, with angry demonstrators marching in the street, demanding the right to integrate their theology with public education.
Screenwriters Smith and Young also adapted “Inherit the Wind” and the lines are as pertinent today as ever: “Man wasn’t planted on Earth like geraniums in a flower box,” “Why did God give us brains to reason if we are supposed to only rely on faith,” and “This man wishes to be accorded the same privilege as a sponge [a sentient creature according to the pro-biblical character in the film] – he wishes to think!”
Sharpe Kramer couldn’t have agreed more.
“This film is about First Amendment rights as much as science,” she said. “Stanley always stood for progress.”
On Oct. 24, the Malibu Film Society will screen “Flipped,” by director/producer Rob Reiner, who has been name Filmmaker of the Year by the society. Prior to the film’s screening, there will be a cocktail reception and a special presentation, beginning at 6:30 p.m., with opening remarks from Rob Reiner’s father, Carl Reiner. All events take place at the Malibu Screening Room, 24855 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu (located in the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue). More information and tickets can be obtained at www.malibufilmsociety.org.