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Best Picture

Published on April 22nd, 2013 | by Clint Davis

Gentleman’s Agreement [1947]

Gentleman’s Agreement [1947] Clint Davis

Summary: Elia Kazan's Oscar-winning drama about antisemitism in post-WWII America doesn't fully practice its own message, but is one that still resonates today.


Damn Fine

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NR  |  118 min.

Director: Elia Kazan  |  Screenplay: Moss Hart (from Laura Hobson’s novel)

Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm (Oscar winner – Best Supp. Actress)

Studio: Twentieth Century Fox

Gregory Peck’s Schuyler Green has to answer some tough questions from his son Tommy.

When producer Darryl Zanuck bought the screen rights to the novel “Gentleman’s Agreement”, he knew exactly what he was getting into.  As every good producer knows, any press is good press–and the amount of controversy he would draw from making a drama that focused on the problem of antisemitism in post-WWII America would be all the publicity his movie needed.

Gentleman’s Agreement follows investigative journalist Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) who decides to pretend he’s Jewish for eight weeks in order to write a magazine series on antisemitism.  Green adopts the name “Phil Greenberg” and tells only his mother, son, girlfriend, editor, and best friend about the plan while letting everyone else believe the lie in order to gauge their honest reactions.  While living the masquerade, Green discovers different types of prejudice towards Jews, such as a famous scene where he’s excluded from staying at a restricted hotel, constantly hearing insensitive jokes, and most personally–when his own child is reduced to tears after being teased at school.

The first thing that struck me about this Best Picture winner from 1947 is how relevant it’s message still is today.  In one memorable scene, Green’s mother (played by former Oscar winner Anne Revere) says, she hopes the 21st Century turns out to be “When people all over the world–free people–found a way to live together.”  I’m sure Mrs. Green would be happy with where we’ve come since ’47 but unfortunately, we’ve still got a lot to learn.

Celeste Holm won the film’s only acting Oscar for her flirty portrayal of a fashion editor.

Director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named DesireOn The Waterfront) is able to pull strong performances out of his actors, picking up his first of two Best Director Oscar wins in the process.  When directing this movie, Kazan was still relatively new to film after having had a storied run as a Broadway director.  He didn’t stray far from his theater background–surrounding himself with strong stage actors like June Havoc and Celeste Holm, who pulled in the film’s lone acting Oscar winning Best Supporting Actress as the flirtatious fashion editor Anne Dettry.

One can only imagine how difficult it was to get prominent actors to appear in this movie because of the level of political controversy surrounding its subject matter.  Despite the fact that almost all of the studio executives were Jewish at the time, most would have rather ignored the issue of American antisemitism than rock the proverbial boat and risk upsetting audiences.  Zanuck didn’t care and when he was able to pull the immortal Gregory Peck in to star, the rest was immaterial.  Peck’s portrayal of Green comes off as a little self-righteous at times but ultimately feels like he’s playing a younger, more volatile version of Atticus Finch–the character he would make so famous 15 years later in To Kill A Mockingbird.

My complaints with Gentleman’s Agreement can be boiled down to the ultra-safe aesthetics of the film and the major lack of diversity for a story that preaches it so hard.  This movie lacks any memorable sets/costumes and has a very forgettable musical score.  The score can be so important in movies that are asking a lot of emotional investment from their audience, but here it feels like an afterthought.  As I noted, for a plot that’s central message is about equality, I can’t recall seeing a single person of color in the entire two hours.  I didn’t realize how white New York City was in the 1940s!

Prejudice bubbles under the surface of most scenes, but boils over in this exchange.

While Peck is certainly the leading man, this far from a one-man film.  The supporting performances are strong, including Holm, Revere, and especially John Garfield.  Garfield likely drew from his own real-life experiences as a Jew facing prejudice in portraying the film’s lone Jewish character Dave Goldman.  Garfield was known as one of the early method actor’s of Hollywood history, and you can see that intensity in a near-violent exchange at a restaurant in the film.  His best moment comes at the film’s most confrontational though, as he talks with Dorothy McGuire’s Kathy about her passive antisemitism after she ignored some bigoted comments rather than speaking up.

The message of the film isn’t simply that people who are blatant antisemites are bad people–it’s that people who stand idly by and simply ignore the problem may be just as guilty of prejudice.

Gentleman’s Agreement is an impressive film and certainly seems like a surprisingly bold choice for the Best Picture Oscar of 1947.  The movie’s performances sometimes feel overdone but are mostly spot-on especially considering the sensitive subject matter.  This one holds up better today than most of its black & white-era Best Picture contemporaries.  This movie shows Kazan as a young filmmaker who was already interested in taking risks and producing edgy projects.  His best work would later come from working with Marlon Brando, but with Peck he made a film that needed to be seen in 1947 and whose message of acceptance still resonates in 2012.

Buy Gentleman’s Agreement on Amazon.

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at TheClintDavis@gmail.com.

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