NOW! IT COMES TO THE SCREEN WITH NOTHING LEFT UNSAID AND NO EMOTION UNSTRESSED!
This film caused quite a stir on its arrival and ended up being awarded an Oscar for Best Picture, even though studio bosses initially thought making the movie was a bad idea. Some of them were Jewish and believed that making a film about anti-Semitism could only make things worse. America had just fought a war against people who had murdered six million Jews, but not even the news reports from the death camps could end anti-Semitism at the time.
Widowed journalist Phil Green (Gregory Peck) has just moved to New York City with his son (Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere). He’s eager to start working again and his publisher has an idea; actually, it turns out that it was his niece Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire) who did it. Why not do something on anti-Semitism in America? Phil has doubts; what could he say about the subject that hasn’t already been said? He meets Kathy at a dinner and decides to give it a try. Eventually, he comes up with the right approach. Why not walk in the same shoes as the people he’s trying to write about?
Since he’s new in town, he starts presenting himself as Jewish and lets very few people know the truth, including Kathy whom he has started a relationship with. It doesn’t take long for Phil to grasp what it feels like to be a Jew in America; New York is full of people who are friendly and helpful as long as they don’t know that Jesus Christ is not your savior. Phil also notices what a burden his experiment turns out to be in his romance with Kathy.
Portraying an era that’s largely gone
Unfortunately, director Elia Kazan doesn’t build the romance in a convincing way; we get the impression that already after five minutes Phil and Kathy are prepared to marry each other. But their subsequent problems are more successfully defined. Modern viewers will realize that the film portrays an era that is largely gone and that there’s an awful lot of preaching going on here. The characters say the usual, expected and sensible stuff and even some critics at the time wrote about the naiveté of Phil Green. But one can’t help think that apparently the obvious needed to be spelled out at that time, in a country where millions of people were living separated and unequal. The African Americans were treated with open racism, but the Jews faced invisible walls everywhere.
In spite of its flaws, the drama is still fascinating to watch and it’s a pleasure to see the dialogue hit against well-known racists like Gerald L.K. Smith. The actors do their best. This is one of Peck’s seminal roles in his early career; his performance is not outstanding, but his seemingly courageous and upstanding nature is important for the part. McGuire is good as his newly found love who lacks the guts to do anything about racism in her circle of friends. Celeste Holm won an Oscar for her portrayal of a seemingly plainspoken party gal and is quite moving in a scene where she reveals her true feelings.
Writer Moss Hart never plows any depths, but the film does make you wonder how racism has changed since 1947, how much more discreet and devious it must have become. Now more than ever, the Phil Green approach is what’s needed to disclose the modern equivalents of a “gentleman’s agreement”.
Gentleman’s Agreement 1947-U.S. 118 min. B/W. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Directed by Elia Kazan. Screenplay: Moss Hart. Novel: Laura Z. Hobson. Cast: Gregory Peck (Philip Schuyler Green), Dorothy McGuire (Kathy Lacey), John Garfield (Dave Goldman), Celeste Holm, Anne Revere, June Havoc… Jane Wyatt, Dean Stockwell, Sam Jaffe.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Holm). Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Supporting Actress (Holm).
Last word: “For the first time someone said that America is full of anti-semitism, both conscious and unconscious and among the best and most liberal people. That was then a much bolder statement than it is now…. It was saying to the audience: You are an average American and you are anti-semitic.” (Kazan, TCM)