#560) Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
OR “Green’s New Deal”
Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Moss Hart. Based on the novel by Laura Z. Hobson.
Class of 2017
The Plot: Journalist Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) moves to New York to work for Smith’s Weekly, where his first assignment is an article about anti-Semitism. As a gentile, Green does not feel he is up to the challenge, but comes around when he decides to pose as a Jewish person. Under the name Phil Greenberg, Green discovers how prevalent anti-Semitism is in society, from being banned from “restricted” hotels, to passive remarks from his seemingly liberal circle, including his fianceé Kathy (Dorothy McGuire). “Gentleman’s Agreement” isn’t a takedown of the kind of vicious anti-Semitism the Nazis displayed during the war, but rather the more subtle prejudices that everyday people express, consciously or not.
Why It Matters: The NFR states that the film was “considered daring at the time” and praises Elia Kazan for “masterfully craft[ing] scenes that reveal bigotry both overt and often insidiously subtle.”
But Does It Really?: “Gentleman’s Agreement” was certainly an Important Movie of its day: the first major Hollywood movie to tackle anti-Semitism. But beyond that, it’s just fine. It has no memorable lines or iconic moments, and beyond how it propelled Kazan’s career in Hollywood, it has had no real impact on the movies. Like Stanley Kramer’s oeuvre of the next 20 years, “Gentleman’s Agreement” is a movie of its time that has never fully graduated to classic status. The film’s now antiquated stance on anti-Semitism is worth a modern viewing, and its standing as a Best Picture winner no doubt helped garner its eventual NFR inclusion, but I wouldn’t consider “Gentleman’s Agreement” an essential in film history.
Wow, That’s Dated: The film calls out three public figures known for their open racism and anti-Semitism by name: Senator Theodore Gilmore Bilbo of Mississippi, Representative John E. Rankin (also of Mississippi), and Gerald L.K. Smith, founder of the Christian Nationalist Crusade. Smith attempted to sue the film for libel, but the case was eventually dismissed. As for the film’s other major issues, keep reading.
Title Track: Dorothy McGuire utters the title once, referencing that while her Connecticut neighborhood isn’t openly anti-Semitic, there is a “gentleman’s agreement” between neighbors not to sell or rent to anyone Jewish.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Gentleman’s Agreement” led the Oscar pack with eight nominations. The Oscars were pretty evenly handed out that year, with “Gentleman’s” tying “Miracle on 34th Street” for the most wins of the year with three: Best Picture, Director, and Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm. Gregory Peck lost his third consecutive Best Actor nod to overdue veteran Ronald Colman in “A Double Life”.
- Darryl Zanuck was inspired to purchase the film rights to “Gentleman’s Agreement” after he was refused membership to the Los Angeles Country Club (they assumed Zanuck was Jewish, he wasn’t). Many studio heads urged Zanuck not to make the movie and risk a rise in anti-Semitism, and Gregory Peck’s agent told him taking the lead role would be career suicide.
- While there are a handful of early Hollywood movies that touch upon Judaism (see “Humoresque” and “The Jazz Singer“), the religion more or less disappeared from the movies once the Production Code was in place. Part of this was in response to Hitler’s rise to power in Europe, with the predominantly Jewish studio heads not wanting to draw attention to their “otherness”. With the war over and knowledge of Hitler’s concentration camps more widespread, the time was right to discuss anti-Semitism without repercussion.
- Green’s son Tommy is played by a young Dean Stockwell. It’s so crazy to think that this adorable nine-year-old boy would grow up to become the skirt-chasing, cigar-chomping hologram from “Quantum Leap”.
- The cast is…fine. Gregory Peck gives his standard Gregory Peck performance (though he later felt he was miscast), Dorothy McGuire does alright as the love interest, and Anne Revere provides some much needed humanity as Green’s mother. Unfortunately, this is one of those movies where the subject matter overshadows the individual elements.
- There’s a lot to unpack with Green’s attempt to go “undercover” as a Jewish person. First of all, everyone refers to him simply as a “Jew”, which is just shy of politically incorrect these days. But my main issue with this whole premise is that Green doesn’t really do anything to understand Judaism, other than say he’s Jewish. There’s no scenes of him learning Jewish traditions or visiting a synagogue or consulting with a Rabbi. It’s clear that this Hollywood production would rather play it safe by simply mentioning Judasim than showing any explicit part of it. There’s not even a single Star of David in sight! We are a long way from “Fiddler on the Roof”.
- In the brief yet important role of Green’s secretary Elaine is June Havoc, whose childhood in vaudeville is depicted in the musical “Gypsy” (which, for the record, she hated).
- John Garfield was fresh off his performances in such films as “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and, coincidentally, a remake of “Humoresque” with Joan Crawford. The child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and subject to anti-Semitism himself, Garfield agreed to take the supporting role of Green’s Jewish friend Dave because he believed in the project so much. Despite his lack of screentime, Garfield still got paid his usual star salary.
- Also dated: the agreed-upon notion that being Anti-Semitic is Anti-American. Oh, to live in a time before cable news and social media.
- As fashion editor Anne Dettrey, Celeste Holm spends most of the movie cracking wise with the main characters, and I questioned how she got an Oscar out of this. Thankfully, her big (and justifiable) Oscar moment comes towards the end, when she lets Phil really know how she feels about Kathy and “all the Kathys” of the world.
- I think my main problem with this movie is: it’s not really a movie. Each individual scene works, but strung together they don’t make a satisfying cinematic experience. The camera doesn’t help tell the story, it just points at the story. There’s no artistic license. As it stands, “Gentleman’s Agreement” plays less like a film and more like a mouthpiece for liberal Hollywood (back when they were the outliers).
- While “Gentleman’s Agreement” received glowing reviews upon release, the film’s controversy has died down over the years. Interestingly enough, two of the film’s biggest critics were Elia Kazan and Gregory Peck. Kazan admitted he wasn’t fond of the film, feeling it “lacked passion”, while Peck felt the concept “seems a little dated”, and both agreed that their on-set differences led to an inferior performance from Peck.
- There was some worry that “Gentleman’s Agreement” would perpetuate the rumor that linked “Jewish-friendly” media with Communism. Unfortunately, many involved with the film would be called to testify for HUAC in a few years, with stars Anne Revere and John Garfield being blacklisted. Kazan, however, managed to remain unscathed…
- Oh, how I wish I could say that anti-Semitism has faded into obscurity. Thankfully there’s plenty of ways to fight anti-Semitism both big and small these days. You can start by checking out and supporting such organizations as the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Voice for Peace. Neither organization is fully without their share of controversy, but it’s a start.