Nuances of Antisemitism in GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947)

Gentlemans-Agreement_poster

Despite urgings from industry colleagues to avoid predicted controversy (especially when three political figures are called out for their well-known antisemitism by name), producer Darryl F Zanuck fought hard to bring Elia Kazan’s GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947) to the big screen. With a love story mixed in, this film tackles the subject of American antisemitism as a cultural experience, much more directly than had been endeavored before. [Spoilers will follow]

Gregory Peck is Philip Schuyler Green, a highly respected writer who has come to New York with his mother (Anne Revere) and young son (Dean Stockwell) for a gig, writing a series on antisemitism. He meets his publisher’s niece Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), who originally suggested the idea, and soon the two fall for each other.

Gentlemans_Agreement_MaguireandPeck

At first he struggles with his angle to cover this series. Following an honest conversation at the breakfast table with his son explaining what antisemitism is, his mom encourages him not to give up because it would be nice not to have to explain bigotry to each generation. It’s only after he thinks to contact his chum since childhood Captain David “Dave” Goldman (John Garfield) to get his point of view as a Jewish man, combined with feeling sympathy for his mom’s angina attack, that he realizes he can only truly understand another person’s pain by experiencing it for himself. He must become a Jew.

From here, he sets the wheels in motion to let it be known to everyone that he is Jewish by casually dropping that into the conversation at a staff meeting, where he is first introduced to the Fashion Editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm). Only his boss, his mother, his son and his new love interest Kathy know the real truth. But that nugget of a lie spreads like wildfire.  Moments after meeting his new secretary Mrs. Wales (June Havoc), she reveals that she too is Jewish. Later his son Tommy asks his dad if they’re Jewish because the gossip mill has even reached the school playground.

"Gentleman's Agreement," the 1947 drama starring Gregory Peck as a journalist who pretends to be Jewish in order to write a story on anti-Semitism, was the 20th film to win the Academy Award® for Best Picture.  The film received eight Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars®.  (Pictured left to right: John Garfield, Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Celeste Holm.) Restored by Nick & jane for Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans Website: http:www.doctormacro.com. Enjoy!

“Gentleman’s Agreement” was the 20th film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The film received eight Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars. (Pictured left to right: John Garfield, Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Celeste Holm.)

This film does a decent job of showing many examples of a wide range of antisemitism, from overt to subtle:

Gentlemans_Agreement_MrsWhales

Mrs. Wales, the secretary: She displays internal prejudice with an air of superiority within her own ethnicity. She calls out “the sorts of Jews like us,” refering to other Jews as tacky and vulgar, and claims it’s okay for them to use the racist slur “kike” in a playful way.

The doctor: Racism apparently makes house calls. When the doctor (that Kathy recommended) cares for Phil’s mom, he refers another specialist to Phil. That specialist is Jewish, and the doctor slips in a few cracks about the “chosen people” before Phil points out that he too belongs to this same group.

Gentlemans_Agreement_drunkguy

At the restaurant: a drunk guy brushes past Dave, purposefully trying to antigonize him with a racial slur. This leads to Dave jumping up to his feet, ready to fight when the drunk guy’s friend intervenes, apologizing on his behalf.

gentlemans-agreement_hotel

At the honeymoon hotel: After becoming engaged, Phil and Kathy mention they have booked a hotel, the Flume Inn for their nuptials when Ann (Celeste Holm) points out that it’s restricted. This immediately sets Phil into action to discover for himself if they are willing to admit it to his face. When asked directly, the hotel clerk stammers and gets his manager. The manager won’t admit verbatim but he takes their confirmed reservation to suddenly being booked solid, refers them elsewhere and walks away.

Kathy: Here’s where we see the most dynamics of engrained, society-accepted racism. Kathy goes through a bumpy ride throughout the film in attempting to understand her own prejudices. She struggles with Phil at every turn. She asks Phil not to mention he’s Jewish at her sister’s party. When Dave announces he has to leave soon because he can’t find housing in order to accept the NY job offer, Phil argues with Kathy asking whey she can’t offer her empty cottage to him. She says it’s because that neighborhood would make him feel uncomfortable- she said there was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ regarding Jews in that neighborhood.

Just as Phil gets angry at her insulting comments, Tommy interrupts. He’s visibly upset, saying he was bullied at school with slurs like “dirty Jew.” Kathy’s response is even more shocking, “Oh darling! It’s not true, it’s not true, it’s not true! It’s all a horrible mistake!” Phil shuts her down fast and takes Tommy to get cleaned up and chat. Tommy: “They wouldn’t fight. They just ran.” Phil shares that grownups do the same thing.

Kathy’s big debate with Phil comes when she reaches a breaking point. She’s tired of “always being wrong,” she hates what this secret has done to them, she hates him for doing this, and she’s glad she’s Christian, like a person is glad to be good looking, or rich vs. poor. (um, WOW.) Note: she takes no accountability herself.

Phil turns in his the first of his drafts to be published. He’s ready to reveal the truth. (At 8 weeks, instead of his originally planned 6 months.) It didn’t take nearly as long as predicted to have his entire world completely turned upside-down by this experiment in bigotry.

Phil’s Advocates:

Gentlemens-Agreement_HolmandPeckChat

Confident Anne (appealingly portrayed by Celeste Holm) is a quick-witted, easy-going liberal-thinker and already onboard with tolerance. She’s open-minded and comfortable when issues of antisemitism are addressed. She’s been a good friend and companion to Phil. She chats very candidly with him about Kathy. She calls her out as a hypocrite that’s afraid to fight these battles because it’s easier to have someone like Phil do their dirty work for them as they remain comfy in their gated communities. She goes further to say that people should raise their kids with someone who espouses their same values.

Yes, Anne is biased because she loves Phil. But I agree with every single point she makes. She IS the better match for him. More importantly, Kathy is not. So I’ll firmly argue that in the question of Kathy vs. Anne… Anne is the winner HANDS-DOWN.

John Garfield gives a terrific performance as Dave, the solid friend. He’s there for Phil no matter what, always honest and supportive. He agrees to meet Kathy after her mega blow-out with Phil. She shares that she attended a dinner party earlier that evening and “felt ill about it” when a racist joke was told. Dave asks what she actually did about it. Nothing, she admits. He urges her to understand that in a marriage Phil needs her to be there for him on the deeper issues, to fight. Speaking in his military uniform he says, “this is a different type of war.”

I honestly don’t know why this wasn’t already obvious to Kathy. Dave educates her that she can’t accept the “gentlman’s agreement” and she must not passively allow antisemitism to continue, she must speak up in order to earn Phil’s respect. Somehow Dave’s speech finally clicked for her.

gentleman_agreement_fatherandson

Gentlemans_Agreement_peck-and-revere

Phil’s mom and son, Tommy: Mrs. Green is rightly proud of her son. She struggles with heart health but after reading her son’s initial draft on this antisemitism series, she is empowered. She gives a hopeful speech and announces she plans to be around for a long time to come. It’s clear he was raised by enlightened, tolerant parents. In turn, the simple kindness and wise-beyond-his-years morality shown by Tommy is a mirror of Phil’s parenting, as well. Scenes reflecting the bonding in these relationships between son and mother and between father and son are inspiring.

The film succeeds in addressing the social implications of antisemitism more deeply. Ultimately, I think it creates conversations and stirs up debate better than only focusing on overt examples of prejudice. This gets into the most likely bigotry going on in mainstream society.

I may not agree with Phil Green’s choice in love, but he’s a strong character as are his advocates. GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947) speaks to me because while speaking out against injustice in any form is a passion for me, bigotry based on race, ethnicity or gender/sexual orientation is particularly puzzling to me. Shockingly in 2015 we still have a long way to go in solving this problem, so I find it interesting this subject was featured 68 years ago.

Made just a couple years after the end of WW2 and the Holocaust, the timing was ripe to bring awareness to antisemitism. Unfortunately, not everyone was interested in a more tolerant world as a life lesson to follow the horrific tragedies of that genocide. Director Elia Kazan was one of the first targets of the right-wing paranoia of the McCarthy witch hunts of the “Red Scare”.

Sucumbing to pressure to name communists within his industry to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, he folded. Like a house of cards in a Kansas twister. As a result, despite the huge success and Oscar wins of GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, instead of making more films tackling issues of social injustice, Kazan went on to make very patriotic, pro-war propaganda films. It created a divide in Hollywood history that remains a hot issue.

Like Phil’s mother, I remain optimistic that we can still make changes to fight antisemitism and all areas of bigotry for the benefit of our future generations. It is our responsibility and our patriotic duty.

 

banner1947a

This piece is my contribution to the 1947 BLOGATHON hosted by Karen of Shadows & Satin and Kristen of Speakeasy. Explore their blogs for the recaps of all three days of the many, fascinating films of 1947.

%d bloggers like this: