Stanley Kramer's "Inherit the Wind" still resonates

Thu Sep 23, 2010 1:47am EDT
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By David Robb

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Hollywood has been home to more dreamers and schemers than any other town in the world. It's also been home to its share of geniuses. But there have been damn few visionaries.

Hollywood's greatest visionary was arguably Stanley Kramer, the writer, director and producer whose "Inherit the Wind" celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

All of his message films -- "The Defiant Ones," "On the Beach," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "High Noon" -- resonate today, but none more powerfully than "Inherit the Wind," the quintessential parable about McCarthyism.

Not only is it the finest courtroom drama ever filmed, full of the spellbinding give-and-take of competing ideas, but its lesson is one that America still struggles to learn today, a half-century after its premiere in November 1960.

The film, based on the 1955 stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which high school biology teacher John Scopes was accused of violating a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools.

But Kramer, who died in 2001, wasn't content to just bring a controversial piece about science, religion and freedom of thought to the screen. He wanted to take a shot at the Hollywood blacklist. One of those he hired to pen the script was banished scribe Nedrick Young. And when the American Legion -- which in those days considered itself a clearinghouse for Americanism -- criticized Kramer for hiring Young, Moss Hart, president of the Authors League of America, rose to his defense. "The Authors League of America council, which has always unalterably opposed any form of blacklisting of writers, unanimously voted at a meeting today to commend and applaud you for your courageous stand in rejecting publicly the effort to interfere, on pseudo-patriotic grounds, with the right of writers to work," Hart wrote in a telegram to Kramer.

Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger are widely credited with having broken the blacklist the same year that "Inherit" was released, when Douglas and Preminger hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to pen "Spartacus" and "Exodus," respectively. But it was Kramer who courageously hired Young three years earlier to write "Defiant Ones" just as the witchhunts were becoming their most virulent.

Young co-wrote the film, which won the Oscar that year for best original screenplay, under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas, but everyone in Hollywood knew who the writer was. As Time magazine reported on January 29, 1959, "One of the co-authors of 'The Defiant Ones' was Nathan E. Douglas, who in 1953 pleaded the Fifth under his legal name of Ned Young during a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing."   Continued...