Sunday, 11 December 2016

Inherit the Wind

'Inherit the Wind' is one of my favourite movies of all time and tells the tale of the Scopes Monkey Trial in America back in 1925

The villain of the piece is a chap named William Jennings Bryan, a populist demagogue in the mould of Donald Trump who regarded the Bible as the immutable and literal word of an almighty God.

A century later and William Jennings Bryan is a mere footnote in history which with a bit of luck is the same fate that awaits Donald Trump.


Inherit the Wind (13/04/14)

I mentioned the late, great, American actor - Spencer Tracy - in a recent post, but here he is in one of my favourite films of all time, 'Inherit the Wind'.

Now the movie tells the tale of the 'Scopes Monkey Trial' as it became known back in 1925 in which the 'redneck' State of Tennessee prosecuted a local school teacher (John Scopes) for teaching his students about human evolution and Charles Darwin.

Spencer Tracy plas a famous defence attorney, Clarence Darrow, and wipes the floor a courtroom confrontation with his rival William Jennings Bryan, a well-known political figure and religious bully.    

William Jennings Bryan was a fundamentalist Christian and argued that the word of God as revealed in the Bible took priority over all man made laws and human knowledge - which is of course what the Catholic Church used to say in medieval times and no different to what Islamic fundamentalists say toda. 

But how encouraging it is that science and logic finally prevailed over fear, prejudice  and religious bigotry.  

I Can't Hear You....(11/02/14)

Here's a wonderful letter from Katherine Hepburn to her beloved Spencer Tracy which was written many years after his death.

In one sense Katherine Hepburn's letter would 'bring a tear to a glass eye', but in another her words are so tender, joyful and uplifting it is impossible to do anything other than crack a big smile - at the warmth and love she still feels for someone who played such a huge and satisfying role in her life. 

Spencer Tracy was one of my favourite actors and starred in many great films and Katherine Hepburn was right, you know - Spence could play just about any part: he was 'it' in an instant.

Perhaps my favourite Spencer Tracy movie was 'Inherit the Wind' which made a lasting impression on me as a young man, but so too did 'Captains Courageous', a real sentimental tearjerker, as they say - they just don't make films like that any more in Holywood. 

The letter from Katherine Hepburn comes, by the way, from the Letters of Note web site which can be found at:
Dear Spence,

Who ever thought that I'd be writing you a letter. You died on the 10th of June in 1967. My golly, Spence, that's twenty-four years ago. That's a long time. Are you happy finally? Is it a nice long rest you're having? Making up for all your tossing and turning in life. You know, I never believed you when you said that you just couldn't get to sleep. I thought, Oh—come on—you sleep—if you didn't sleep you'd be dead. You'd be so worn out. Then remember that night when—oh, I don't know, you felt so disturbed. And I said, Well, go on in—go to bed. And I'll lie on the floor and talk you to sleep. I'll just talk and talk and you'll be so bored, you're bound to drift off.

Well, I went in and got an old pillow and Lobo the dog. I lay there watching you and stroking Old Dog. I was talking about you and the movie we'd just finished—Guess Who's Coming to Dinner—and my studio and your new tweed coat and the garden and all the nice sleep-making topics and cooking and dull gossip, but you never stopped tossing—to the right, to the left—shove the pillows—pull the covers—on and on and on. Finally—really finally—not just then—you quieted down. I waited a while—and then I crept out.

You told me the truth, didn't you? You really could not sleep.

And I used to wonder then—why? I still wonder. You took the pills. They were quite strong. I suppose you have to say that otherwise you would never have slept at all. Living wasn't easy for you, was it?

What did you like to do? You loved sailing, especially in stormy weather. You loved polo. But then Will Rogers was killed in that airplane accident. And you never played polo again—never again. Tennis, golf, no, not really. You'd bat a few balls. Fair you were. I don't think that you ever swang a golf club. Is "swang" a word? Swimming? Well, you didn't like cold water. And walking? No, that didn't suit you. That was one of those things where you could think at the same time—of this, of that, of what, Spence? What was it? Was it some specific life thing like Johnny being deaf, or being a Catholic and you felt a bad Catholic? No comfort, no comfort. I remember Father Ciklic telling you that you concentrated on all the bad and none of the good which your religion offered. It must have been something very fundamental and very ever-present.

And the incredible fact. There you were—really the greatest movie actor. I say this because I believe it and also I have heard many people of standing in your business say it. From Olivier to Lee Strasberg to David Lean. You name it. You could do it. And you could do it with that glorious simplicity and directness: you could just do it. You couldn't enter your own life, but you could become someone else. You were a killer, a priest, a fisherman, a sportswriter, a judge, a newspaperman. You were it in an instant.

You hardly had to study. You learned the lines in no time. What a relief! You could be someone else for a while. You weren't you—you were safe. You loved to laugh, didn't you? You never missed those individual comics: Jimmy Durante, Phil Silvers, Fanny Brice, Frank McHugh, Mickey Rooney, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Smith and Dale, and your favorite, Bert Williams. Funny stories: you could tell them—and brilliantly. You could laugh at yourself. You enjoyed very much the friendship and admiration of people like the Kanins, Frank Sinatra, Bogie and Betty, George Cukor, Vic Flemming, Stanley Kramer, the Kennedys, Harry Truman, Lew Douglas. You were fun with them, you had fun with them, you felt safe with them.

But then back to life's trials. Oh hell, take a drink—no-yes-maybe. Then stop taking the drink. You were great at that, Spence. You could just stop. How I respected you for that. Very unusual.

Well, you said on this subject: never safe until you're seven feet underground. But why the escape hatch? Why was it always opened—to get away from the remarkable you?

What was it, Spence? I meant to ask you. Did you know what it was?

What did you say? I can't hear you…

Populist Chumps (08/12/16)

Here's an article from The Conversation web site which draws an interesting parallel between America's new president-elect, Donald Trump, and one of the most iconic movies of al time - The Wizard of Oz.

Apparently, Donald Trump's brand of America-first protectionism is nothing new and actually gave birth to a new Populist Party back in the 1880s led by another demagogue named William Jennings Bryan of the 'Scopes Monkey Trial' fame.  

The author of the piece, Janet Greenless, is a senior lecturer in history at Glasgow's Caledonian University where I studied once upon a time. Another former student, by the way, is the President of Iran Hassan Rouhani who has his work cut out in trying to modernise and reform this Shia dominated Islamic state. 

For my part, I'm joining the long line of people who are queuing up to call Donald Trump a 'humbug'

Why Donald Trump should read the Wizard of Oz before becoming president

Janet Greenlees - The Conversation

If he only had a heart. Wikimedia

Donald Trump may have won the American presidency by promoting himself as the candidate for the common people to overthrow the Washington establishment, but this recent populist surge is certainly not the country’s first. Populists originally threatened to overwhelm American politics in the late 19th century in reaction to changes brought about by industrialisation. They became widely known as the Populist Party.

Concentrated primarily in Midwestern farming communities, starting in Kansas in the 1880s, the Populist Party sought to assert the rights of the farmer. They challenged the railroad companies, bankers and East Coast businessmen who kept agricultural prices low and freight costs high and insisted America remain on the gold standard.

The gold standard had kept interest rates high and caused deflation, combining with the other problems to push farmers into debt. The Populists wanted silver coins to become legal tender to expand the money supply and counteract the deflation. Led by one of America’s greatest orators, William Jennings Bryan, the party became a viable force in American politics in the 1890s, and attracted some urban workers to their movement by promoting an eight-hour work day and restrictions on immigration.

In the congressional elections of 1894, the Populists secured nearly 40% of the votes. Bryan ran in the 1896 presidential election, representing both the Populists and the Democrats and made a famous speech in which he accused the banks of crucifying the farmer on a “cross of gold”. In the end he lost to the Republican candidate, William McKinley, by 95 electoral votes. McKinley’s campaign spent five times as much on the election.

Not in Kansas anymore

The story of this original American populist movement is well told through The Wizard of Oz, written by Lyman Frank Baum in 1900. While the musical and 1939 Hollywood movie ensured it became one of the best-known children’s stories ever written, many people may not be aware of the political allegory behind it.

Oz is a reference to gold, as the abbreviation for “ounce”. Dorothy represents Everyman, the Scarecrow the farmer, the Tin Woodman the industrial worker and the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan. The Wizard is the president, the Munchkins the “little people” of America and the Yellow Brick Road the gold standard

Baum’s original. Wikimedia

The story begins with Dorothy and her house being swept away from Kansas to the Land of Oz by a tornado, landing on and killing the Wicked Witch of the East (the coastal bankers and capitalists), who had kept the munchkin people in bondage. Dorothy begins her journey along the Yellow Brick Road wearing magical silver slippers to represent the desire for silver coinage (note that the ruby slippers were introduced for the movie).

Dorothy meets the Tin Woodman who was “rusted solid”, in reference to industrial factories closed during the 1893 depression. But the Tin Woodman’s real problem was he did not have a heart, having been dehumanised by factory work that turned men into machines.

Later Dorothy meets the Scarecrow who is without a brain. Baum believed the farmer lacked the brains to recognise his political interests. While midwestern farmers backed the Populists, many southern rural people did not out of traditional loyalty to the Democrats and racism – this was only decades after the effective end of Reconstruction in 1877. Next Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, who needs courage – Baum is saying William Jennings Bryan had to offer the party more than his loud roar.

Together these friends head for the Emerald City (Washington, DC) in the hope the Wizard of Oz (the president) might be able to help them. But like all politicians, the Wizard plays on their fears – appearing in different forms to each character. To Dorothy he is a disembodied head, to the Woodman a bright ball of fire, to the Lion a predatory beast. 

Wizard of Oz (1939). Insomnia Cured HereCC BY-SA

Soon they discover the Wizard to be a fake – a little old man who likes “making believe”. In other words, the president is only powerful so long as he fools people – and corrupt leaders cannot do this for long. The core of Baum’s message comes when the Scarecrow shouts: “You’re a humbug!”

After Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch of the West, who is just as evil as her counterpart in the East, the Wizard flies away in a hot-air balloon to a new life. The Scarecrow is left in charge of Oz and the Tin Woodman rules the East. Yet Baum seems to realise that the Populist dream of farmer and worker gaining power would never materialise because the Cowardly Lion goes back into the forest. And when Dorothy returns to Kansas, she has lost her magical silver shoes – representing the end of the fight for silver coinage.
The Populists recede

The Populists of the 1890s quickly faded after economic prosperity returned under President McKinley. Their anti-immigrant policy was recognised as anti-American, while increasing numbers of people moved to cities and embraced industrialisation. Bryan’s involvement with the Democrats in 1896, who shared the Populists’ views on silver, also saw the parties increasingly become one. Bryan ran again under both nominations in 1900, but by then the Populists were rapidly fading from America’s political scene.

We shouldn’t miss the parallels between the near-miss of the Populists in the 1890s and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Trump pushed for economic, social and political change against the elites, despite running on the Republican ticket. Both movements also played on people’s fears of immigration. 

Hail the Donald. EPA

The big difference, of course, is that Trump will make it to the White House. He certainly had a loud roar, but it is hard to know what he will now do. He has not yet offered any substantial plans for the future and his message regularly changed during the campaign. In particular it will be interesting to see if he carries out his immigration policies, especially if they too come to be seen as anti-American in the years ahead.

Either way he would do well to remember the message of the Wizard of Oz. If he was merely fooling the people and does not represent those who voted for him, he may not remain powerful for long. Some other group of friends will be on their way to the Emerald City to declare him a humbug. Some things change, but others stay the same.