In its day Gentleman’s Agreement was a highly regarded movie. Based on the popular novel exposing American anti-Semitism by former Time journalist Laura Z. Hobson, it won the Oscar, the Golden Globe, and the prize of the New York Film Critics Circle as the best English-language film of 1947.
Gentleman’s Agreement is a “message movie”—a film whose principal aim is to spotlight a social condition that demands attention. However, its intellectual basis is more probing and sophisticated than this suggests. While the movie, today, strikes many as preachy, largely due to speechifying dialogue in Moss Hart’s script, it is an accomplished piece of work that selects an interesting target: not those who are overt bigots, who spew hate, but those who, quiet or timid or possibly ambivalent, help bigots along by not confronting and countering the bigots’ jokes, remarks, acts of cruelty, and unfair social, public and business practices. Usually, such films (for instance, those by Stanley Kramer) preach to the choir; but, far more intriguingly, Gentleman’s Agreement urges us all to look within and ask ourselves, “Have we done and are we doing enough to combat anti-Semitism?—or, without realizing it, are we ceding or assenting to it, and helping it along, by not doing enough?” Variably written, glossily produced and, in the principal role, horribly acted, the movie nevertheless retains considerable power.
Although anti-Semitism still exists in the United States, the Nazi-like vehemence against Jews has subsided. Christian leaders and reactionary radio and television commentators have other fish to fry nowadays than Jews. (For instance, liberals—a term once more or less synonymous with Jews.) Today, the American public would no longer assert in a poll, as they did in 1942, that Jews constitute a menace to the U.S. (Jews came in third, following the Germans and the Japanese, with whom at the time we were at war.) We now know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as president, refused to act to halt the mass murder of European Jews because he feared a backlash by American Gentiles against American Jews! However, the more submerged and elusive strains of anti-Semitism that infect American society, which periodically flare up into outright sickness, underscore the persistent relevance of the specific tack taken by Gentleman’s Agreement.
The film’s protagonist is Philip Schuyler Green, a crusading journalist who masquerades as a Jew for two months for a series he is writing. He is new to the magazine and to New York City, to which he has just arrived from Los Angeles. In short, those he tells he is Jewish have no reason to doubt his word. At a party that first night at his publisher’s home, he meets Kathy Lacey; sparks strike. She is a schoolteacher and a divorcée; Green is a widower with an eleven-year-old son. It is Kathy who first suggested the series on anti-Semitism to the publisher after a fellow teacher, who is Jewish, was discharged at the school where Kathy works. Kathy and Phil become lovers; yet when he clumsily tells her, in explaining his “angle” in the series, “I am going to tell everyone I’m Jewish,” her reaction gets to the heart of the film: “But you’re not—are you? Not that there would be anything wrong if you were. . . .” Kathy’s tongue keeps twisting; when it is finally straight, she voices distress at the angle, that it will mix people up, that people won’t know what Phil is. Kathy is concerned about her friends and family; a sister is part of the Darien, Connecticut, crowd. Darien is “restricted”; there is a “gentleman’s agreement” in force that residents will not sell property there to anyone who is Jewish. Phil may be the lead character, but I may have been wrong to identify him as the protagonist. In reality, Kathy is the central character because it is her pilgrim’s progress that the film charts; it is she who must look within and unravel her conflicted attitudes regarding Jews and being Christian and being a life partner for Phil. It is she who owns property in Darien by which she eventually shreds the “gentleman’s agreement,” electing to live nearby during the summer, at her sister’s, so she can face down anyone who might try to cause a flap. It is Kathy whose transformation testifies to the message that Gentleman’s Agreement succeeds in articulating with force, intelligence and sensitivity.
Meanwhile, as Kathy proceeds resistantly on the road to a fuller level of humanity, Phil, as “Phil Greenburg,” gets his nose rubbed into his being Jewish, including at a restricted hotel and regarding his son, Tommy, who comes home bloodied from school after having been assaulted by peers who called him a “dirty kike.” The words kike, yid, sheeny, nigger and coon are all used here, and the film even risked lawsuits by referring by name to three infamous American bigots of the day, including two U.S. congressmen. In 2004, while watching it, one still feels how brave Gentleman’s Agreement is. Darryl F. Zanuck produced the film for 20th Century-Fox, whose name (signifying the merger of two studios) has lost its hyphen in the twenty-first century.
Gregory Peck stars; Peck is a humorless actor who gives a typically wooden, smug, sanctimonious performance as Green. The “unctuous nobility” that critic Andrew Sarris condemned in Peck’s dreadful acting fifteen years later in To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) is, here, already in evidence. Peck is a drag on the film—a dead weight at the center, like Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt in almost anything today.
Fortunately, the other most important part is played by Dorothy McGuire, who gives the film’s most complex and intriguing performance—and has to, really, because Kathy begins at such a point of blindness and complacency that human growth very nearly seems out of the question. What a superb actress McGuire is!
But the film’s most wonderful performance is given by John Garfield, who plays Dave Goldman, a Jewish man who has been Phil’s best friend since childhood. The pivotal passage between Dave and Kathy where Dave acts as the catalyst for Kathy’s attainment of clear moral vision is as beautifully acted as anything I can imagine, especially when one considers the rigged dialogue that Hart’s script imposes. Celeste Holm, although she won an Oscar as best supporting actress, has less luck as Anne Dettrey, the brittle, prattling fashion writer at the magazine who has designs on Phil, I guess because he looks like Gregory Peck. Anne Revere is vivid and moving as Phil’s progressive mother, and Dean Stockwell, who won a Golden Globe, is marvelous as Tommy. Albert Dekker is efficient as Phil’s publisher, June Havoc is dead-on as Phil’s secretary, a Jewish person passing for Christian who confronts Phil with the complex issue of Jewish anti-Semitism, and Sam Jaffe is scene-stealing—he has but one scene—as Professor Fred Lieberman, who explains to Phil and Kathy at a party about the secularization of Jews, how Jews who are no longer religious nonetheless cling to their Jewish identity in specific defiance of hatred of Jews. Oddly, the Holocaust—the elephant in the room and in every room of the film—is never mentioned.
Of this cast, Garfield ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which hounded him to a youthful fatal heart attack, and Revere, Dekker and Jaffe were all blacklisted. (Had he lived, Garfield also would have been blacklisted.) Jane Wyatt, who plays Kathy’s sister, also was blacklisted but moved on to television, where she won three best actress Emmys for Father Knows Best.
I have saved the most bitter irony for last. Rather than have his career interrupted, the director of Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan, named names for HUAC and persisted to his death in his (at least public) complacency on the matter. Kazan won an Oscar for directing Gentleman’s Agreement. That same year, though, he also made a better film—his best film, in fact: Boomerang!
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