Many filmmakers returning from WWII were convinced it was time for Hollywood to grow up and start telling adult stories about the real world at last. Some award-winning pictures followed: The Lost Weekend (1945) dealt with alcoholism and won a Best Picture Oscar; in 1946 that award went to The Best Years of Our Lives, which tackled reintegration of WWII veterans. The trend continued with Gentleman’s Agreement, directed by Elia Kazan and examined a topic long ignored in movies. Anti-Semitism was something that Hollywood and its Jewish stewards was not yet comfortable to put in the public’s eye.
The movie’s virtues still outweigh any shortcomings of being dated: remember that in 1947 The Holocaust was not yet in school textbooks (only in cinema newsreels) and the creation of Israel was still a subject for debate. Even after nearly 70 years, few other Hollywood films have confront bigotry as intelligently because unlike, say, In the Heat of the Night (1967) or Mississippi Burning (1988), Gentleman’s Agreement deals not with violent prejudice or obvious racism, but with the subtle attitudes that minorities confront on a daily basis and as such can still cause discomfort in these politically correct times.
Widowed star reporter, Phil Green (Gregory Peck) recently relocated to New York City with his son (Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere), is assigned to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism. He’s told not to fill the piece with statistics, but say something about the human aspect of visceral feelings against Jews. Green decides that a proper expose requires him to feel the injustice and so he pretends to be Jewish. His best friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield) tries to tell Phil that he is playing with fire but soon the injustice starts to burn. Although nothing appears to change and he is apparently tolerated by his peers, few get close to him – with the exception of fashion editor, Anne Duttrey (Celeste Holm, below) – and gradually Phil learns that although nothing about him has changed and he ultimately manages to fool everyone … other truths start to come into focus.
What the film revealed to a 1947 audience was what every Jew in America knew at the time: that you had to play down your Jewishness; that you had to let go any and all prejudice and become indifferent; that nothing could be done to change minds; that though many non-Jews may cringe when they witnessed anti-Semitism and go home feeling terrible – maybe even regret not saying anything – but ultimately they do nothing. And that included your so-called best friends – it wasn’t their fault.
Critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times complained in 1947 that Green’s character failed to fully explore anti-Semitism, noting that Green’s purview was flawed by being based solely on high society, business and social settings. Anti-Semitism for Green, he said, amounted to no more than “petty bourgeois rebuffs.” But perhaps this dismissal was in itself an avoidance strategy by a member of the very class Crowther sought to exonerate. It side-lines the film’s articulation that until you really experience something first-hand, you haven’t really experienced it. You may read and study and think you know what it feels like, but its cruelty takes on a new intensity when it happens to you.
And it is a mark of how well the film is put together that the most obviously flawed premis is easily missed: that if a magazine editor really wanted a first-person account of what it means to be the victim of anti-Semitic prejudice, why not just hire a Jewish writer?
But that would have prevented the film from exploring its most important and moving moments – and indeed its subtleties concerning Phil’s high society girlfriend (Dorothy McGuire) and the trials of his son’s integration in a new school and city.
Adapted from a novel by Laura Z Hobson and with a screenplay by Moss Hart and Elia Kazan, Gentlemen’s Agreement received several nominations and three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm (a hard bitten fashion editor).
Although some reviews complain this is the “preachiest” film ever to win Best Picture, for me a heavy-handed ‘message’ is exonerated by good dialogue, excellent filmmaking and exceptional performances. Even Sam Jaffe’s fictional professor Lieberman – a thinly veiled caricature (above) of Albert Einstein – manages to walk a line between humour and astute observation. But maybe this was because he was probably the most famous Jewish figure in the world at the time.