This is a rousing and fascinating motion picture. Producer-director Stanley Kramer has held the action in tight check.
One suspects it needed a strong hand to restrain the forensics of Spencer Tracy and Fredric March as defense and prosecution attorneys in this drama inspired by the 1925 trial in Dayton, Tennessee, of a young high school teacher, John T. Scopes, for daring to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution. Roles of Tracy and March equal Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan who collided on evolution.
Tracy and March go at each other on the thespic plane as one might imagine Dempsey and Louis. March actually has the more colorful role as Matthew Harrison Brady (Bryan) because, with the aid of face-changing makeup, he creates a completely different character, whereas Tracy has to rely solely upon his power of illusion, a most persuasive power indeed.
The scenario, which broadens the scope of the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is a most commendable job. It is shot through with dialog that it florid, witty, penetrating, compassionate and sardonic. A good measure of the film’s surface bite is contributed by Gene Kelly as a cynical Baltimore reporter (patterned after Henry L. Menken) whose paper comes to the aid of the younger teacher played by Dick York. Kelly demonstrates again that even without dancing shoes he knows his way on the screen.
1960: Nominations: Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Adapted Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, Editing