Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Spencer Tracy, the pillar or liberalism

Speaking of courtroom drama, last week I watched two of Spencer Tracy’s best films, two of the best films ever made (I suppose those two would be synonymous), Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg. I’d never seen the latter but the former is one of my favorites. My God! Did anybody ever play a better combination of grandfatherly curmudgeon and righteousness than Tracy? What performances! And what casts! Inherit the Wind had Frederick March, Florence Eldridge, Claude Aikins, Dick York, Harry Morgan, Noah Beery, Norman Fell and the best dramatic performance Gene Kelley ever gave. Judgment at Nuremberg had Richard Widmark, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Maximilian Schell, Werner Klemperer, and a very very young William Shatner. They are extremely similar movies, both directed by Stanley Kramer one right after the other in 1960 and 61. They should be taken as a matched set. I’m convinced of it. And boy! Are they amazing!

It occurred to me that it would be hard to make Inherit the Wind these days, with the conservativs as vocal and organized as they are. It would have been impossible right after the 2004 elections, when they honestly believed they had a mandate to change the world. I know there was a TV version in 1999, and that it’s on Broadway right now, but a movie is something different. It’s not just the evolution angle, or that they literally do put the bible on trial in the climactic scene. It’s that the whole film is so unabashedly liberal. Remember how I said it’s not hard to make a courtroom drama that’s liberal? This is a good example (as is every episode of Boston Legal). It all depends on who the villain is and who the hero. One of the advantages of courtroom drama is that it allows for a lot of speech making, and Spencer Tracy as the hero of liberalism gets to make long, eloquent pleas for liberal education throughout the film.

Judgment at Nuremberg is just as liberal in that it attacks the types of conservative group-think that led to the rise of fascism (yes, there is liberal group-think that, in Russia, gave rise to communism, but that’s a different movie). There is a lot of talk of doing things out of fear, out of necessity, for the good of the state. Since it is judges and lawyers on trial they don’t utter the phrase “I was only following orders.” The phrase they utter is more insidious: “I was only following the law.” This is a common theme among conservatives—the idea that you follow a law because it is the law and in a democratic society it is your duty to obey the law--laws like the Patriot Act, for instance. Another theme is that it’s ok to bend justice a bit for the good of the state. It’s ok to torture, for instance, if it’s within the law and it keeps the peace, or in the case of Abu Grhaib gets us the information we want. Once again Tracy gets to make marvelous speeches about right and wrong and the dignity of man, and I doubt anybody does it better than he did.

Both of these bookend movies were made in the wake of McCarthyism, that conservative feeding frenzy in which the security of the state was stressed over the rights of its citizens, and the power of the state was used indiscriminately to destroy both the guilty and the innocent. Like a third great drama to come out of this era, The Crucible, these two films are full of outrage toward conservative political values, and they would make a powerful, frightening, and ultimately uplifting double feature.


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