Inherit the Wind on DVD

Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Donna Anderson, Harry Morgan, Claude Akins. Directed by Stanley Kramer. Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (letterbox). Dolby Digital 1.0 (English, French, Spanish). B&W. 128 minutes. 1960. MGM 1002740. NR. $14.95.

The play Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is based on the trial of John T. Scopes, a substitute teacher who was charged in 1925 with breaking the law by teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in a Tennessee schoolroom. Written during the McCarthy era, the play uses the events of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" as a metaphor for freedom of thought and expression, with additional themes of justice, progress, friendship, and parent-child conflicts. All that, and it's a cracking good courtroom drama. I saw the play last summer in a magnificent production at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, and its themes have lost none of their relevance.

In translating the play to the screen, director Stanley Kramer wisely retained most of the play's dialogue, but made the townspeople more extreme in their actions than their stage counterparts. The courtroom drama remains the centerpiece, the action seldom moving beyond the confines of the courthouse. It's classic moviemaking, with long takes that make dramatic points in a sustained, powerful way, and should be mandatory viewing for directors brought up on MTV. (By my estimation, all of Inherit the Wind has fewer cuts than the first 10 minutes of Moulin Rouge!)

Inherit the Wind has a great script, but to be completely successful it needs star performances from the actors playing Henry Drummond, the defense attorney (a character based on Clarence Darrow), and Matthew Harrison Brady, the prosecutor (based on William Jennings Bryan). At Stratford, when William Hutt and James Blendick, playing the two antagonists, took their curtain call, the audience leaped to their feet as one—there was simply no alternative. In a movie, actors don't take curtain calls, but if they did, Spencer Tracy and Fredric March would undoubtedly get a standing ovation. Watching them is like watching a game of tennis between two great players at the top of their game. They get excellent support from the rest of the cast, including Gene Kelly as an H. L. Mencken–type reporter, Dick York (yes, the original Darren in Bewitched) as the teacher in the eye of the storm, Natalie Wood look-alike Donna Anderson as his fiancée, and, as Brady's wife, Florence Eldridge (March's wife in real life).

The DVD is a bare-bones affair, with only a four-minute trailer as an extra; the printed material is all of two paragraphs, and mistakenly names the characters played by Tracy and March as Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. The use of ordinary letterboxing rather than anamorphic enhancement will win no points with videophiles, but since the aspect ratio is only 1.66:1, this probably doesn't make that much of a difference. The video is somewhat grainy, and there are occasional indications that the print it's based on has suffered some damage, but I've seen a lot worse. The sound is good, honest mono.