Gentleman’s Agreement: Anti-Semitism in America

From the end of World War II until the first Soviet atomic test in August 1949, the United States was the world’s foremost military, political, and financial power. After the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on each Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945, America demonstrated its unbelievable industrial might and capacity for total war, winning a global conflict on two fronts. The United States could now unleash destruction that, up to this point in history, had only been imagined in the minds of geniuses like Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

With all this power on the world stage, domestically, the United States was far from a utopia, especially for its oppressed and under-represented citizens. Jim Crow laws were still in effect in the south, homosexuality was illegal, and there existed serious discrimination towards others in non-Protestant religious sects, particularly Jewish Americans.

Elia Kazan’s 1947 Best Picture winner, Gentleman’s Agreement tries to tackle the scourge of American anti-Semitism. Starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire, the film tries to tell the story of being a Jew in a powerful Land of the Free.

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I’ll admit, anti-Semitism so near the horrific events of the Holocaust did surprise me. But another surprise was the fact that Hollywood not only made, but gave an Oscar to a film that so brazenly threw American exceptionalism back into the face of the establishment. In fact, the movie and many members of its production staff drew the ire of the House Un-American Activities Committee, with Kazan called to testify before Congress. While the HUAC was a gross overreach of governmental power in the realm of free speech, I won’t debate its ethics here. However, it’s amazing to me that a movie about being a better human being to those who suffer from bigotry was a controversial film in its time. In a way, the outrage over the film, and the government’s attention on it, helped set the stage for obedient films in the 1950s like The Greatest Show on Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days.

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But, throughout this week, when I imagined what I was going to write about Gentleman’s Agreement, the first image that popped in my head was of a blank piece of paper, the cursor on a word processor blinking into eternity. This is a very difficult movie to write about. There are aspects that I truly despise and others that I love, both of which I will get to in time.

By the way, it’s great to be back on the blog. Life gets in the way, you know? Anyway, I’m planning on writing until the week of Christmas. If everything goes to plan, I’ll post an update on December 24, before picking back up in 2019.

Now for the rest of the movie.

Plot
Gregory Peck stars as Philip Schuyler Green, a crusading magazine journalist and single dad to young Tommy (Dean Stockwell. He’s actually still alive and played a number of smaller roles in his career including John Cavil in Battlestar Galactica). After recently moving to New York from California, Green is given an assignment from his editor to write a piece on anti-Semitism in America.

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After struggling for some time to find an angle to the story, he decides to pretend to be Jewish and record his experiences for his article. Along the way, he meets his editor’s niece Kathy Lacy, played by Dorothy McGuire. The two fall in love and yearn for a long life together of happiness and love. Due to the bias shown against Phil and Tommy, and thanks to a Jewish friend Dave’s (John Garfield) reappearance in his life, he decides to act on these biases and do something about them, rather than being a passive observer and write. Kathy isn’t willing to follow this path and the two split.

Checking in at just less than two hours, Gentleman’s Agreement features a confusing plot and a narrative that is better taken in chunks, rather than observed on the whole. The first hour is a slog to get through and couldn’t keep my attention. I found myself scrolling through Reddit or Twitter, rather than paying entire attention to the movie. This is something that hasn’t happened to me since The Greatest Show on Earth. After the hour mark, the story does pick up considerably and it is without question when the bulk of the film’s lecturing rears its head. The ending makes up for the first hour, but I can’t excuse it. By the time it ended, I realized I’d watched a movie that was more dedicated to the love between Phil and Kathy rather than a man’s struggle against prejudice. I’d argue that, with some additional fiddling with the script, you could write Kathy out completely. She’s baggage and frankly Phil doesn’t need her relationship to reach the same conclusion.

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Along the same lines, there are several points in the movie that the movie seeks to distract us from the main point. Phil and Tommy live with Phil’s mother (Anne Revere) and she has several heart problems throughout the movie. These serve no purpose as to the development of Phil’s character, but rather as an excuse to see Kathy and, later in the film, Dave. 0.

Writing/Dialogue
Gentleman’s Agreement is based on Laura Z. Hobson’s novel of the same name. The screenplay was written by Moss Hart and Elia Kazan. The film was nominated for Best Screenplay at the 20th Academy Awards.

This movie is at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and like so many other movies, the dialogue is short and snippy, and sometimes funny. This movie features the kinds of exchanges that I’ve come to expect of old Hollywood and I love them.

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Like some other great films of late, the dialogue pushes the action forward. I might step out and say that the dialogue is the only action in the film, but this is okay too. It’s a drama film with a powerful underlying message and it needs a lot of words to get the point across. 1.

Sound
I have to give this movie a 1 for the sound. It featured almost no music and I could understand what the actors and actresses were saying. That’s a 1 in my book. 1.

Set Design
Just as the dialogue is the very definition of 1930s and 1940s cinema, so too is the set design. Although the film was shot some in Los Angeles and some in New York and Connecticut, the sets remain very basic and essential, weeding out all unnecessary elements. However, the set is not a character. Therefore, the boxy sound stage rooms serve their purpose fine throughout the film.

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One thing I will note, though, is that I’ve always been fascinated with the day-to-day minutia of that time period. The people at the time lived a much different life every day than we do today. I’m a young man and I find it fascinating to see how receptionists, store clerks, and other service people interacted every day. Fascinating differences and this film does a good job of scratching that itch for me. 1.

Cinematography
Arthur C. Miller (he also did How Green Was My Valley) was the director of photography for Gentleman’s Agreement. At a time when black and white was about style, this film breaks that trend and provides us with an essential experience that focuses more on the message, rather than the artistry of the cinematography.

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The movie features few close up shots of Gregory Peck during this emotional movie, yet many of Dorothy McGuire’s beauty and soft eyes. Miller chooses to tell the story in a very “A-B” format, meaning the camera most often alternates between one character and another. This is a tried and true cinema technique, and it’s one that you still see to this day. Therefore, I have no issues with this. 1.

Acting
One of Gentleman’s Agreement’s strongest points are the acting jobs in the film, primarily from Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire, as well as a good performance by John Garfield as Dave and Celeste Holm as Anne Dettrey.

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Gregory Peck plays Phil Green, the magazine journalist. At the beginning of the movie, he is the definition of what I think a magazine journalist should be: serious, mature, worldly, and educated. He’s a loving father, good to his only son Tommy, having to raise him after the death of his wife.

As the movie progresses, he gets more and more involved in his assignment. He is the very vision of a writer in my mind: hunched over the typewriter late at night with a burning cigarette in the ashtray. His assignment takes over his life, pouring out all his emotional reserves on his cause, and being committed to being a better man, even if that means losing Kathy.

Peck plays a role in this film that is not unlike some of his other roles: the seemingly well-composed man of steely nerves, a mature man with big dark eyes that make it easy to get lost in. This is his Atticus Finch role before there was an Atticus Finch. He was nominated for Best Actor for this role.

Opposite Peck is Dorothy McGuire, the aforementioned Kathy Lacy. Kathy has equally amazing eyes to get lost in and, from the start, she and Phil seem to set each other off perfectly. She is more than a trophy girlfriend for Green, though. It was her idea to her uncle, Phil’s editor, to write the anti-Semitism piece. She and Phil have similar views on life and politics.

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She is nothing but supportive and doting for a time, even accepting Phil’s proposal for marriage. But after Tommy is attacked for having a “Jewish” father, Phil springs into action, yet Kathy remains behind, growing weary of the task of standing up to the invisible force of bigotry. At this point in the story, Kathy could have gone on living her life of talking the talk, but not walking the walk. Instead, she bravely tries to change and atone for the rift between she and Phil. Her change, however, is not greatly explored, but it’s there. McGuire was nominated for Best Actress for this role.

A couple of other performances to take note of in this film: Celeste Holm plays the spunky journalist Anne Dettrey who ends up being Phil’s friend down the stretch. She won Best Supporting Actress. Also of note is John Garfield, a Jewish actor who plays Dave Goldman, Phil’s Army buddy, upon whom Phil must rely for inspiration as he himself is hated because of his Jewish heritage. 1.

Directing
Winning his first of two Best Director awards for this film was Elia Kazan. We’ll take a look at his other Best Director piece On the Waterfront next week.

This section, as always, is probably the hardest one to write and Gentleman’s Agreement is certainly no exception. There are good and bad things in this movie. As I stated above, the narrative doesn’t flow as well as it could, and it seriously detracts from my enjoyment of an otherwise good movie.

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Additionally, there is the nature of the hero himself. I have no problem with Gregory Peck in this role. In fact, I prefer him over Cary Grant to whom the role was offered originally. But the choice to make him a Protestant who must become a Jew in order to experience how the other half lives is both a good and bad decision.

On the one hand, this film is about our hero’s perspective and his response to the bigotry. He matches outrage with his own outrage. Phil’s struggle helps to shed light on an issue that many people may not experience. His perspective is their perspective.

At the same time, it takes a white protestant man step in and save the Jews. Our hero isn’t Jewish and Hollywood didn’t have the foresight at the time to make a hero that is Jewish, rather than one that pretends to be. There’s a degree of the white savior trope here, although it isn’t an exact definition. Rather than Jews standing up for themselves, a white protestant must do it for them. Gentleman’s Agreement seems to misplace its hero, relying instead on Dave to give the most poignant speeches and to moralize the whole story at the end.

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The film does a good job of getting its point across, even being a little preachy at times. Phil is one that once he’s Jewish, seems to accentuate his “Jewishness” more than others. It uses words to tell it’s message, while also stating that actions do speak louder than words.

However, it’s not all bad. The film is fairly aged, yet it uses anti-Semitism to speak to larger messages about life today. Anti-Semitism still exists, but to what extent, I’m not sure. It’s normally hidden by other forms of discrimination and bigotry today, particularly against people of Islamic faiths. While watching Gentleman’s Agreement, I kept drawing parallels to modern society and bigotry against other groups in our world.

Without even intending to do so, the last three movies I’ve reviewed, Moonlight, In the Heat of the Night, and Gentleman’s Agreement have illuminated issues of the day over time. This one covers anti-Semitism, and the first two cover struggles over race. In the 70 years from Gentleman’s Agreement to Moonlight, these three films demonstrate how far we really need to go in our society to achieve our utopian dreams. Marginalized groups have always been the bane of the American experiment and these three movies show that struggle in the 20th and 21st centuries.

While the film does do things very well, and there are things I don’t like, I still encourage everyone to see the movie just once. It helped me to learn of a critical time in American history, post World War II. But it also showed me that life was not all pow-wows and campfire songs after defeating the Germans and the Japanese, either. For this reason, I have to give this category a 1, even though it doesn’t deserve it at times. 1.

Bonus Points
None.

Final Score: 6/10

Oscar Facts

Gentleman’s Agreement won the 20th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 20, 1948 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. It beat out The Bishop’s Wife, Crossfire (which was another film about anti-Semitism), Great Expectations, and Miracle on 34th Street. The award was presented by Fredric March and accepted by 20th Century Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck, producer. In total, Gentleman’s Agreement received the most nominations with eight and was tied for the most awards with three.

Other winners that night included Ronald Colman winning Best Actor for A Double Life, Loretta Young winning Best Actress for The Farmer’s Daughter, and Edmund Gwenn winning Best Supporting Actor for Miracle on 34th Street. The ceremony was hosted by Agnes Moorehead and Dick Powell.

Final Notes
Next week, I’ll take a look at Elia Kazan’s other Best Picture winner, On the Waterfront. After that, it’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, The Great Ziegfeld, Rain Main, and Cavalcade.

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