5/20/20: Law and Order in Hollywood

By Fred Muenz

The great Hollywood films come in a number of genres: Westerns, Detective films, Comedies, Biographies, Historical films, etc.

Appearing on every list of the greatest films ever made are two courtroom dramas, both written as stage plays and later adapted for the screen: 12 ANGRY MEN (1957) and INHERIT THE WIND (1960).

12 ANGRY MEN is unique in several ways. Only three minutes of the 96-minute film are spent outside of the jury room, and the only time names are used is at the very end of the film when two jurors introduce themselves before going their separate ways. Throughout the jury deliberations the defendant is referred to as “the boy” and the witnesses as “the old man” and “the lady across the street”. The question is whether the defendant, a teenage boy from the slums, stabbed and killed his father. The jury is instructed that a guilty verdict will carry a mandatory death sentence.

The film revolves around the jury’s difficulty in reaching a unanimous verdict. It depicts the different personalities of a group of people likely to be called for jury duty, those who take the job seriously and consider the evidence, and those who, for whatever reason, are likely to rush to judgement. Upon entering the jury room, it’s already apparent that some have prejudged the defendant. In the preliminary vote, only juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is not willing to vote “guilty” without talking about it first. The personalities, and prejudices, of each of the jurors become apparent as they discuss the evidence and witnesses, eventually moving toward a “not guilty” verdict. United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated that seeing 12 ANGRY MEN while in college influenced her decision to pursue a career in law. A TV version of the story was produced in 1997 and, although this is a story about the American judicial system, adapted versions of 12 ANGRY MEN have been produced in Germany, Japan, China, India and Russia.

INHERIT THE WIND is a fictionalized play and film closely based on the real-life trial of John Scopes, a Tennessee teacher who was arrested and charged with violating the state law prohibiting the teaching of Evolution. The 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial became a national sensation. While the names of the actual parties to the trial were changed: Dick York plays teacher Bertram Cates (John Scopes), Spencer Tracy plays defense attorney Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) and Fredric March plays Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan), the film includes events from the actual trial. Officials of the small southern town are excited when Matthew Harrison Brady, a noted statesman, three-time presidential candidate, Biblical scholar and foe of Darwinism comes to town to aid the prosecution of the local science teacher. Facing him for the defense is the noted attorney, Henry Drummond, brought to town by a newspaper and Chicago radio station covering the trial. While some characters and events are fictionalized, many others are factual. When his defense is frustrated by the judge’s refusal to allow Drummond to call any scientist or authority figure to the stand to discuss Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, he finally calls his opponent, Brady to testify. Flustered by Drummond’s cross-examination, Brady cannot explain Biblical contradictions, while Drummond hammers home the point that people have the right to think for themselves. “It’s not science versus religion…it’s about the right to think.”

INHERIT THE WIND was remade for TV three times. First, starring Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley in 1965, again in 1988, starring Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas and finally in 1999, starring Jack Lemmon as Drummond and George C. Scott as Brady.

John Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. The verdict was overturned on appeal two years later. William Jennings Bryan suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep five days after the trial ended. The Butler Act, the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of Evolution remained in force until finally repealed in 1967.



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