Friday, August 24, 2012

Gene Kelly, Monkeys. Republicans, and Ignorance

Yesterday would have been Gene Kelly’s 100th birthday.

I’m the first to admit that I have never seen either of Kelly’s 2 most famous films: Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, although I have seen clips of the former, mostly of his performance of the movie’s titular activity. I’m sure everyone has.

But he appeared in another movie that he is probably far less well-known for: The 1960 movie Inherit the Wind. The movie also starred Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, both of whom were Oscar-winning actors and who were both in the twilight of their movie careers. The movie also starred a pre-M*A*S*H Harry Morgan and a pre-Bewitched Dick York, as well as a pre-“Sheriff Lobo” Claude Akins.

The movie is based on the play co-written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (no relation to the Confederate General). It centers around the trial of a schoolteacher (York) who was arrested for breaking a state law banning the teaching of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and who is prosecuted by a renowned state attorney (Matthew Harrison Brady, played by March) and defended by an equally renowned defense attorney (Henry Drummond, played by Tracy.) Kelly played the part of journalist E.K. Hornbeck, a caustic, cynical, far-from-neutral observer of the trial.

The play and subsequent movie versions were inspired by the events surrounding the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925. Brady and Drummond were based on real-life lawyers William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, respectively, and the character of Hornbeck was based on journalist H.L. Mencken who covered the real-life trial. The original play, however, makes no mention of the state of Tennessee or its then on-the-books law against the teaching of evolution. The production notes for the play simply state that it takes place in “A small town” and at a time “not too long ago”.

The 1960 movie version has become one of my favorite films. I first became interested in the film and the events it was based on after seeing a made-for-TV version starring Kirk Douglas and Jason Robards. This version was somewhat mediocre, despite the talents of both men. But it’s really the play that interests me. I’ve seen a few versions, and even managed to wrangle a bit part for myself in a performance given by a local amateur troupe (2 appearances, 4 short lines.)

The trial and even the law itself became a public joke to most of the rest of the country, aided in no small part by the reporting of Mencken, who took every opportunity to belittle the state, the town, the local populace, and the prosecution team in print. There is even some speculation that the town of Dayton, Tennessee staged the whole thing as a publicity stunt, albeit one that grew wildly out of control, to drum up revenue for the local businesses.

Although both Tracy and March gave fine performances (Tracy received an Oscar nomination), it was, in my opinion, Kelly’s caustic performance as the cynical Hornbeck that drove home – to me, at least – just how silly the entire thing was. Perhaps it was simply jarring to see the usually genial Kelly portraying someone so abrasive and unlikable, and that made his part all the more noticeable. More likely, however, it was the way the character laughed at the nonsensical nature of the trial itself, and at how ridiculous the cause of the Prosecution team, the state government, and even the citizens themselves, was.

The refusal of someone to listen to anything they don’t want to hear was and is nothing new. An astonishing number of these incidents involve religion. Galileo was punished by the Catholic church for daring to suggest that the Earth revolved around the sun. Thousands were put to death by the Inquisition because they refused to acknowledge there was only one “acceptable” religion. Darwin himself was threatened with death for his research.

And next week, an entire Political Party will assemble under a platform that denies the existence of global warming, denies that women have any rights, and encourages the teaching of “intelligent design”, which is Creationism in a fancy suit. The scary part? These people have a better than average chance of ending up running the country for at least the next four years.

Somewhere, H.L. Mencken is laughing his ass off at us.

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