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Gentleman's Agreement (1947) ranks with the best of the "problem pictures" made by Hollywood in the wake of World War II, when social ills began to creep out from under the rug where they'd been swept in earlier decades. The plague of anti-Semitism was certainly not new in American society, but when notable movies of 1947 were nominated for Academy Awards, this powerful exposé found itself competing for Best Picture honors with Edward Dmytryk's thriller Crossfire, which treated the same theme in film-noir terms. Prejudice and bigotry were being explored more forthrightly than ever by trailblazers like director Elia Kazan, still near the beginning of his provocative film career, and producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who had already presented such thoughtful movies as John Ford's compassionate drama The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Edmund Goulding's spiritual fable The Razor's Edge (1946). It was an exciting time for movies that invited audiences to think as well as feel.
Gregory Peck plays Philip Schuyler Green, a journalist and single dad putting his life back together after his wife's death. Moving to New York for a job with a big magazine, he settles into a new apartment with his mother (Anne Revere), who helps take care of Tommy (Dean Stockwell), his eleven-year-old son. Then he meets with his new publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), to discuss ideas for articles. Minify suggests writing about anti-Semitism, but Green thinks a series on the topic would turn into a dull account of facts and statistics. His objections disappear when he gets the idea of experiencing anti-Jewish bigotry first-hand, posing as a Jew and describing the changes he encounters in the ways he's seen and treated by others.
The changes are obvious and for the most part ugly, and Phil finds some of them right at his magazine. His secretary (June Havoc) reveals that she adopted her present name, Elaine Wales, after a job application under her real name, Estelle Wilovsky, was rejected by the very publication where they work; on top of that, Elaine herself is an anti-Semitic Jew, worried that hiring just anyone would let undesirables in the door. And so things continue. The physician treating Phil's mother belittles a Jewish specialist; a "restricted" hotel refuses Phil a room; and his Jewish friend Dave Goldman - played by John Garfield, whose pre-Hollywood name was Jacob Julius Garfinkle - can't find a nice "unrestricted" place to live.
Most surprisingly, trouble starts between Phil and Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), his new girlfriend. Kathy is Minify's niece, and the idea of articles about anti-Semitism originally came from her. She's also one of very few people in on the secret of Phil's pose; he's still new in New York, and he's been passing as Jewish since shortly after he arrived. In practice, however, Kathy's attitudes toward Jews are less broadminded than one would hope. When she and Phil decide to get married, her sister Jane (Jane Wyatt) volunteers to host a reception in a posh suburban town, and Kathy seems eager to tell the suburbanites that her fiancé isn't Jewish, insisting to Phil that it's just for the sake of honesty. He prevails on her to tell only Jane, but word gets around and puts a damper on the festivities.
The climax arrives when Tommy is bullied by anti-Semitic kids at school. He comes home in tears, and when he tells Kathy what happened, she tries to comfort him by absurdly explaining that since he isn't really Jewish, he shouldn't be upset! This is too much for Phil, who ruefully breaks up with her. All is not lost, however. Having a drink with Dave, she talks about how horrible she felt when anti-Semitism fouled the atmosphere at a dinner party she attended. Dave helps her realize that simply feeling bad wasn't enough - she should have taken a stand and spoken out. Seeing the error of her ways, she repents and wins Phil back.
Gentleman's Agreement is based on a novel of that title by Laura Z. Hobson, who knew this territory well. Her maiden name was Zametkin - hence the Z in her byline - and she started the book after reading that a Congressman from Mississippi had called newspaper columnist Walter Winchell a "kike," and nobody in the entire House of Representatives had condemned the slur. Zanuck took an interest in the novel when a Los Angeles country club mistakenly blackballed him as a Jew, even though he was actually the only gentile among the studio chiefs of that era. Before and during World War II, most Jewish studio execs had been wary of anti-Semitism as a subject, afraid they'd be accused of special pleading on their own behalf; accordingly, some warned Zanuck not to take this story on. To their great credit, Zanuck and Kazan ignored the advice and broke that barrier at Twentieth Century Fox, just as Dmytryk and company did at RKO that year.
Some critics accused Gentleman's Agreement of pulling punches by focusing on a hero who suffers the blows of anti-Semitism on a temporary basis. "The movie's moral," cracked the politically liberal writer Ring Lardner, "is that you should never be mean to a Jew, because he might turn out to be a gentile." Bosley Crowther, chief reviewer at The New York Times, criticized the film for focusing on a limited cross section of Americans, noting that Phil's investigation is "narrowly confined to the upper-class social and professional level," and that he generally experiences only "petty bourgeois rebuffs, with no inquiry into the devious cultural mores from which they spring." Some also faulted it for being preachy. "It is a tract rather than a play," wrote Robert L. Hatch in The New Republic, "and it has the crusader's shortcomings."
But even these critics ultimately came down solidly in favor of the film. Hatch wrote that story "goes far beyond overt Jew-baiting and the sleazy subterfuges of restricted neighborhoods and selected clienteles. Right-minded people readily deplore these abnormalities, but Gentleman's Agreement goes on to the right-minded people themselves," placing them in a corner "where their code of acceptable behavior will no longer shield them, and [asking] them how they stand." Crowther likewise found the picture both courageous and commendable, offering particular praise to the "brilliant" directing by Kazan and to the forthrightness of the screenplay (by Moss Hart, the celebrated playwright) in naming actual anti-Semites in American public life, including the proudly racist senator and Mississippi governor Theodore G. Bilbo, the white-supremacist Louisiana minister Gerald L.K. Smith, and congressman John Rankin, the very politician (although Crowther doesn't mention it) whose bigotry spurred Hobson to write her novel.
Gentleman's Agreement reaped high rewards for its bravery, intelligence, and entertainment value. Zanuck took home the Academy Award for Best Picture, Kazan received the Best Director prize, and Celeste Holm was honored for her supporting performance as Anne Dettrey, the magazine's fashion editor and everyone's pal. The film's total of eight Oscar nominations beat out Crossfire, which garnered five and won no statuettes. Gentleman's Agreement still comes across as a smart, incisive, and engrossing drama, and although times have changed since 1947, the subject it so boldly tackles remains timely and relevant to this day.
Director: Elia Kazan
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Moss Hart; based on Laura Z. Hobson's eponymous novel
Cinematographer: Arthur C. Miller
Film Editing: Harmon Jones
Art Direction: Mark-Lee Kirk, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
With: Gregory Peck (Philip Schuyler Green), Dorothy McGuire (Kathy Lacy), John Garfield (Dave Goldman), Celeste Holm (Anne Dettrey), Anne Revere (Mrs. Green), June Havoc (Elaine Wales), Albert Dekker (John Minify), Jane Wyatt (Jane), Dean Stockwell (Tommy Green), Sam Jaffe (Fred Lieberman)
by David Sterritt