Gentleman's Agreement (United States, 1947)

August 15, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Gentleman's Agreement Poster

In 2010, anti-Semitism exists (witness Mel Gibson's drunken rant for an overt example), but in 1947, it was ingrained in the bedrock of society. The strides made by American culture during the past 60-plus years have advanced the level of tolerance within the melting pot society to a degree that surpasses the hopes of our most liberal grandfathers. Jew/Gentile intermarriage, a rarity in the '40s, is now commonplace. The Holocaust, seen through a prism of immediacy when Gentleman's Agreement was released, is now a chapter in a history book. Although it would be naïve to claim that anti-Jewish prejudice has been expunged, all but the most insular sectors of the United States have relaxed even subtle indications of bigotry against those with a Jewish heritage. Would that a similar statement could be made when considering all those of different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. True equal rights represents an elusive goal. Gentleman's Agreement remains as valid and relevant today as it was when it won the Oscar for Best Picture in the 1948 ceremony. Despite being designed as a concrete morality tale about anti-Semitism upon its release, the film now stands as an allegory and a reminder that prejudice has many faces, all of which are ugly but not all of which are obvious.

In certain European countries during the 1920s and 1930s, Jews became second-class citizens. The situation was never that extreme in the United States, but there was a degree of mistrust that, even with the coming and going of World War II, didn't dissipate. Select hotels were restricted to non-Jewish clientele. Some restaurants refused service or reserved a separate area. In parts of the nation, Jewish holidays were not recognized. This is the climate in which Laura Z. Hobson's novel, Gentleman's Agreement (originally serialized in Cosmopolitan), was written, and the climate in which the movie adaptation was produced.

The film opens with journalist Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) arriving in New York City to write an article on anti-Semitism for a liberal magazine published by Albert Dekker (John Minify). He decides on a unique approach - he will pretend to be a Jew and see how life is different from what he has experienced as a Christian. The only ones who know the truth are his mother (Anne Revere); his young son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell); Dekker; and Dekker's daughter, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), with whom Phil soon becomes romantically involved. It doesn't take long for the signs of prejudice to become apparent. A doctor treating Phil's mother advises against seeing a Jewish specialist. A hotel claims to be full when he "reveals" that he's Jewish. Tommy is bullied at school once the "truth" about his heritage becomes common knowledge. And Kathy wants Phil to drop his pretense when he attends a swanky party in Connecticut.

Gentleman's Agreement's treatment of bigotry starts out strident - a concession on the part of the filmmakers to make sure everyone in the audience understands the nature and meaning of "anti-Semitism." Consider, for example, the scene in which Green explains prejudice against Jews to his son - this sounds like a prepared speech out of a pamphlet. However, as the film moves past the introductory phase, it explores deeper and more subtle forms of prejudice. Kathy, for example, is an advocate of equal rights for Jews, but she doesn't want Phil or his son to be "mistaken" for one. The reason? She recognizes life is harder for Jews because of the widespread bigotry and she wants her loved ones to claim the easier path. Is that attitude anti-Semitic? And when someone tells a course joke about a Jew in her presence, she argues that she seethes inside with indignation, but she says nothing. Does her silence represent a tacit acceptance of an anti-Semitic status quo? Phil states the following in one of Gentleman's Agreement's most telling observations: "I've come to see lots of nice people who hate [Anti-Semitism] and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That's the biggest discovery I've made. The good people. The nice people."

Gentleman's Agreement earned Elia Kazan the first of two Best Director wins (out of five such nominations). Kazan, known throughout his career a champion of social causes, is probably best remembered for On the Waterfront, with Gentleman's Agreement coming in a close second. Kazan, who was as acclaimed for his stage work as for what he accomplished on the screen, was an actor's director and the most important thing for him was eliciting the best performance possible from each member of the cast. This quality is evident throughout Gentleman's Agreement. His legacy, however, will forever be marred by the controversy surrounding his testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he "named names." Two actors participating in Gentleman's Agreement, John Garfield and Anne Revere, were blacklisted as a result of that body (although not because of anything Kazan said).

Gregory Peck, who would reach the pinnacle of his career playing Atticus Finch in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird, was the second choice for Green. Kazan's number one, Cary Grant, turned down the part, and Peck accepted it over the advice of his agent, who feared it could damage his career. Instead, his strong, steady portrayal of a Righteous Man earned him a Best Actor nomination (although not a win). Other acting nominees from Gentleman's Agreement included Celeste Holm (who won the Best Supporting Actress trophy), Anne Revere, and Dorothy McGuire - exactly what would expect considering Kazan's attention to performance.

In Gentleman's Agreement, there are consequences to prejudice, and the character who stands in for many in the audience is Kathy. She appears to be the perfect correct-thinking liberal. She "talks the talk," but does she "walk the walk?" To a degree, yes, but there are hints that she will only sacrifice so much. The development of her love affair with Green is a weak point - it is hurried and happens so quickly as to stretch credulity - but it is necessary for events that happen later in the film. Gentleman's Agreement contrasts Green's stance against prejudice to Kathy's - and we find the hers to be wanting. She's not a "bad person," and he loves her, but when the time comes for him to choose her or stick to his principles, he is forced to sacrifice. This, in turn, creates a moment of crisis for Kathy.

Watching Gentleman's Agreement all these years after it first reached the screen, it struck me how relevant the material is, if not specifically for the treatment of Jews in today's society, but for how other minorities are regarded (especially gays and lesbians). Often, when someone wishes to rebut a charge of homophobia, he will declare: "Some of my best friends are gay." In Gentleman's Agreement, an individual with unquestionable anti-Semitic tendencies, states: "Some of my best friends are Jews." One point the film emphasizes is that the little, seemingly inconsequential details can be as indicative of prejudice as the big ones, and this is as true today as it was in 1947. Everyone understands that spewing hateful words and resorting to violence against a particular group is evidence of bigotry, but what some don't recognize is that smaller, more subtle gestures can be damaging. Many harbor prejudices but are unwilling to be honest about them, even to themselves. This is something Gentleman's Agreement forces the viewer to confront, and that's why the movie is as powerful today as when it captured the Best Picture Oscar a few years after Hitler's genocide ended in Europe.

Gentleman's Agreement (United States, 1947)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1