Inherit the Wind: Argumentative August Blogathon

courtroomAs a bonus for this site, I have included my post for the Argumentative August Blogathon. This movie is more than Thirty years On, so it qualifies on a technicality. Your objections are over-ruled.

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The blogathon that we are participating in here, is designed to focus on films in which a courtroom battle is featured and argument is the main source of drama. I know a little bit about films, a little bit about argument and a little bit about “Inherit the Wind”. I hope that such a background will reassure you that I am not troubling my own house for no purpose. My purpose is to bring attention to a fifty-five year old film that is based on an ninety year old case that will prove that in nearly a hundred years, we as a culture are still capable of being riled up by events that we see as earth shattering, but in the long run are only a small part of human progress.

If you are unfamiliar with the film, let’s start with the fact that it is largely based on real events. The “Scopes Monkey Trial” may be only a hazy memory to you from your American History class, but it was nationally famous in it’s time. If the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, has dominated the news in recent weeks, imagine a similar kind of focus on a local trial in 1925. In reaction to religious anxiety about Darwin’s theories on evolution, in Tennessee, the Butler Act had made it a crime to teach evolution in state funded schools. Nearly a hundred years later, we have the same kind of preclusion against teaching anything that might challenge evolution. Intelligent Design as a theory is heavily criticized by academics and scientists, with similar criticisms as those of evolution from the 1920s. So in essence, the same battle is taking place with the presumptions reversed. The tide of history repeats itself.

One of the reasons that the Scopes trial drew so much attention was the confrontation between two towering figures of the early twentieth century. Clarence Darrow was a renown labor attorney who migrated to criminal and civil cases and in a hundred cases where the death penalty was at stake had lost only once. The year before he was involved in the Scopes Trial, he had defended Leopold and Loeb in one of the early “trials of the century”. The two were University students who had committed a “thrill” killing of a fourteen year old boy. Two other movies have been based on that case, “Compulsion” features Orson Wells playing essentially Clarence Darrow. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”, has no trial in it so it does not fit the criteria for this blogathon, but you should see it anyway. In the current film, two time Academy Award winner Spencer Tracy plays Henry Drummond, the character based on Darrow.

His opponent in the actual case was three time Democratic Nominee for President and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.  Imagine if Hillary Clinton or John Kerry came forward to prosecute a local case and oppose a political philosophy they abhorred. Bryan was a populist who was known as the Great Commoner and he was also a famous orator, which meant so much more in the days before mass media. He was a strong opponent of Darwinism and took his religious faith so seriously that he considered it an obligation to participate in the trial. He had spoken on the Chautauqua circuit for years, arguing that the theory of evolution was a threat to the foundations of morality and an evil force in the world. In the film, he is portrayed by two time Academy Award winning actor Fredrick March as Matthew Harrison Brady.

The events surrounding the trial in the film, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (no not that one) are somewhat exaggerated, and an elaborate background of the town minister, his daughter and the high school teacher who was being prosecuted, was all invented for the film.  The circus like atmosphere of the trial however was real. More than two hundred reporters covered the trial. It was big international news. A radio broadcast of the trial did appear on WGN and there were trained chimps performing on the lawn of the courthouse. The trial  in Scopes was a stunt designed to challenge the law, and substitute teacher John Scopes purposefully incriminated himself to make a prosecution more likely. In the film, Bertram Cates, the teacher on trial is presented in a much more noble light, as a beacon of knowledge to high school students everywhere. Future “Bewitched” star Dick York plays Cates with sincerity more than anyone else in the film.

The play, film and coverage of the original trial by journalist  H.L. Mencken are all heavily slanted against the prosecution case and against Bryan/Brady. In a battle over ideas, the story here is that the media influenced public opinion more than the arguments did.Henry Drumond (Tracy) understands the importance of the media but despises some of it’s practitioners, including the character modeled on Menken,a straight dramatic role from Gene Kelly as E.K. Hornbeck.His job in the story is to ground out any nuance in the arguments of the case and help sensationalize them for the world. His cynicism at everyone else in the story actually results in him being one of the sadder characters in the story. Here is a good example of dialogue that reflects the snide attitude he has toward the locals, but it also extends to everyone else as well:

Townswoman: You’re the stranger, ain’tcha? Are you looking for a nice, clean place to stay?

E. K. Hornbeck: Madam, I had a nice clean place to stay… and I left it, to come here.

Drummond’s approach to the case is to undermine the law under which Cates is being prosecuted. The problem is the judge will not allow any of the expert testimony in defense of evolution to be heard. Henry Morgan as the judge appears to be a strict constructionist who believes it is the legislature that should make the laws, not the courts. He takes the very valid position that the law is not on trial but the accused is. Social Justice warriors will find this belief old fashioned but it happens to be the correct legal interpretation. Ultimately, the importance of a single accused man is not what attracted all the attention. The supposed conflict between religion and science is the draw. Until a key moment in the trial, the prosecution had the upper hand and all the best lines and public support. The film though does go out of the way sometimes to make Brady a figure of ridicule. There is a scene where he is speaking with a bib around his neck and he appears to be picnicking at the trial, burping and wiping his greasy fingers from fried chicken on his clothes. Matthew Harrison Brady is portrayed as being out of touch and a figure from the past. His eloquence is right for a tent show revival or Chautauqua stage, but bellowing on the radio isn’t going to work. He has sincere religious beliefs that are referenced during the trial and that is the mistake that he makes as a prosecutor. Drummond baits him into basing arguments from the bible and then calls on him as an expert witness on the book. In the real world this sort of thing is not likely to happen right? The prosecutor being a witness cross examined by the defense,that’s ridiculous. It’s also just what happened in this case. The real Clarence Darrow cross examined the real William Jennings Bryan for two hours on the seventh day of the Scopes Trial.

This is the key dramatic point for the film. The confrontation of the two political giants and the two acting giants, in a courtroom confrontation. Fireworks do ensue but inevitably the imbalance of the views comes crashing down on the scene. Drummond trips up Brady with inconsistencies in the stories of the bible. He uses the average persons presumption against paradox as a fulcrum to wedge the audience and the jurors away from their inclination to side with the Biblical text. He twists Brady’s word to make it seem as if Brady is holding himself out as God’s spokesmen on Earth, a self concept that would be at odds with any average man’s view of another in most situations. The legal argument is largely abandoned in favor of a generic attack on fundamentalist beliefs, some of which are backed by evidence but many of which are unsupported ad hominem attacks directed at the prosecutor rather than the case. As Brady sputters to reconcile contradictions, Drummond mocks him mercilessly in front of the jury. It makes for a great dramatic sequence but a lousy piece of legal argument. In the Scopes trial, all of that interchange was stricken from the record and the jury was admonished to ignore it. In the drama of the film, one character figuratively performs a  coup de grâce on his opponent.

The freedom to offer controversial points of view in a classroom is sacrosanct from the view of those with tenure. The sciences and math being two fields where not much controversy is supposed to exist, but there is plenty of controversy in science. That is part of the scientific method, to continuously test the theories and beliefs that are “settled”.  For a parallel to the evolutionary debate of nearly a hundred years ago, look at the climate issues discussed now. Imagine a “non-believer” challenging the settled science of climate change in a classroom today. They are very likely to be chastised and hounded (“denier”) because they don’t accept orthodoxy. One thing that has not evolved, is the human desire to control other people’s  thoughts. The difference today is that the shoe is on the other foot.

Modern audiences might find the style and performances of the actors in this film to be stilted or hammy. March’s character is supposed to be that way because he comes from an old school of declamation that cherished bombast and speeches as sermons. Yet even Tracy’s Drummond has moments of corn built into it and that will strike today’s audiences as mannered. The humanist approach taken by Drummond is a fair one. He acknowledges that change comes at a cost. Look in the following passage:

“Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.

Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.

Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat.

Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.

 

The actual Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial

 

When I read arguments on line about films, especially older films, that get criticized for their effects, style, pacing or racism,  I am reminded that progress costs us. Technology may allow us to see things that could not be visualized before CGI, but what happens to our sense of gravity or physics? Editing and digital video may make a story move quicker, but we lose character and suspense. An evolved mind should dismiss the thinking of the past, but you will lose the ability to enjoy the wonder of the past from their perspective.

“Inherit the Wind” reminds us that 1928 was a different time, that 1961 was equally different as well. The argument continues, what is progress and what is worth keeping? Film makers and society continue to try to answer that question, and to honest, the answers are not always satisfactory.

Night of the Comet

The 1980s were full of creative science fiction films. Some of them became influential classics like “The Terminator“, some of them ended up in bargain bins on VHS and may never see the light of DVD day or Blu ray. This one ends up as a well remembered cult film that was done on a very limited budget but it engendered a clever and warm feeling at the end of the experience. It’s alternate title summarizes it well:

Teenage Mutant Horror Comet Zombies

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This is a delightfully wry sci/fi horror movie that never takes itself too seriously but is surprisingly well acted and scripted. It is full of clever quotes, fun twists, and references to the time period that will make the horror of fashion in 1984 haunt you almost as much as the zombies do. Like most films with a limited budget, it has to make up for a lack of special effects with creative set design and storytelling.

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Mass Appeal

This film is not only 30 Years On, it may be closer to 50 years on. In other words, it may only be tolerable to those who are old enough to remember when movies were stories and character rather than spectacle and visuals. There is not a special effects shot, a digital insert, or any type of sound effect worth noting anywhere in this film. Based on a play by the same title, it features two characters and for the most part, they are the only people to attend to. On stage, there were only two parts, in adapting for the screen a couple of other roles were created but they are mostly superfluous. This is an actors piece, paced a a glacial rate that will bore anyone born after 1970. If you have a older persons sensibility, there is probably enough here to be interesting, as long as listening to people talk will entertain you.

mass_appealThe two stars are veteran Jack Lemmon and newcomer Zeljko Ivanek. Mr. Lemmon was a movie star for thirty years before this came out and remained one until his death in 2001. Mr. Ivanek is not a star but he has worked consistently since this came out and he is one of those faces you will recognize from a dozen movies and hundreds of TV episodes. Together they do justice to a piece that is small scale, and very clearly theatrical in it’s roots.

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The Flamingo Kid

Yes, I’m back. I never really left, I have just been going through a lot of adjustments in my life (including a new puppy and a retired spouse), so I have not gotten to the dozen or so films on my original list as quickly as I had hoped to. There is a little more time available here in the summer, so I’m going to continue to stretch out the project and hope that it will not be six months between posts in the future. I return to 30 Years On with a movie that should have been a summer release but actually debuted at Christmas time.

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The Flamingo Kid” is a coming of age story set in the Summer of 1963. Jeffery Willis is a recent high school graduate, very smart but from a working class background and unsure of where he is headed in life. His father, played by Hector Elizando when he still had some hair, wants him to go to college, preferably Columbia, and become an engineer. Like most teens, Jeffery resists doing the thing his father wants and explores some other options. His friends from the old neighborhood take him to their beach club one day and things begin to change right there.

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2010 The Year We Make Contact

If ever a movie did not need a sequel, it would be Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was a film that made intellectual discussion of movies a topic for everyone. So many people had to ask “What the Hell?” that most of us felt compelled to try to answer, and many of us disagreed on the answers. Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the script with Kubrick, based on a short story he had written, decided that he was not done with big questions and wrote three sequel novels. The first of these was turned into a film sixteen years after the original classic.

posterThis movie is more closely set in 1984 than in the future [now past 2010]. A new trip to Jupiter is planned in order to investigate the events of the previous expedition and cope with some strange phenomena occurring on the nearby moons of Jupiter Io and Europa. The Soviets are in control of the most ready spaceship and the Americans are tagging along. Hey, this may be the one thing that these films got absolutely right. In 2015, we are hitch hiking our way to the International Space Station, which we built, aboard Russian launch vehicles because we have no replacement for the Space Shuttle. Continue reading

Starman

This is a movie that at one point was the hot alien visiting Earth property which had a lot of directors attached to it., Of course the other story about an alien visiting Earth got made and released first and that worked out well for Steven Spielberg. John Carpenter made this, his most mainstream film, after “The Thing” failed at the box office and he needed to show he could do a commercial picture. While it did not have the box office success of “E.T.”, it is an artistic achievement and contains one of the most interesting performances by an actor in this, or any other year. Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen lend a sweetness to the film that is totally different than the other film, and a lot more mature in some ways.

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The premise of the movie is that we have invited a visit from Extra-terrestrial beings, but are clearly not prepared to handle such a visit. The alien visitor is detected by the military and SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), but before they get to the site of a space ship crash, the visitor has taken on the form of a recently deceased house painter by cloning a body from DNA found in the widow’s home. He than hijacks the widow to take him to a rendezvous site on the other side of the country, “Arizona Maybe”. Jenny Hayden is confused as hell that her dead husband has come to life, but she recognizes almost immediately that something is wrong. The visitor has a rudimentary understanding of language but not much else and he learns by watching and copying the actions and behaviors of the humans he encounters.

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Micki + Maude

For a period of time in the late 1970s and early 1980s Dudley Moore was a huge star. He was nominated for an Academy Award and he was featured in several very successful comedies. In 1984 he had three films released, “Best Defense” with Eddie Murphy, “Unfaithfully Yours”, and this romantic comedy about a bigamist with two pregnant wives. The movie with Murphy got such scathing reviews, I stayed away from it. “Unfaithfully Yours” opened in February and it probably slipped past me simply because other things were going on. I plan on continuing this project with other older films, including those from 1984 that I did not see that year or have never seen. I’m sure I will eventually get around to it. “Micki + Maude” was a holiday release and I distinctly remember when and where I saw it originally.

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If a movie about a two timing man, getting both his wife and girlfriend pregnant at the same time and marrying the girlfriend while lying to both of them can be funny, then this is the movie that achieves it. The premise is a bit off putting but it is mostly a madcap farce, much less distasteful than say “Blame it on Rio” and executed with a light sense of humor that makes even the awkward physical comedy seem appealing.

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