Cinema Classics: “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947)

Gentlemen’s Agreement” is not a favorite of mine. At times, it drags. Few of the characters are very likeable. Even director Elia Kazan later said that he didn’t care for this movie, despite winning an Oscar for it—the relationships, he believed, felt forced, and the film overall lacked passion. That much is true, but “Gentleman’s Agreement” remains worth watching for its perspective on anti-Semitism in American following World War II is an intriguing one.

The film follows widowed journalist Philip Green (Gregory Peck), who moves to New York City with his son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere). Magazine publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker) tasks Philip with writing an expose on anti-Semitism. Philip is unsure how to go about it at first, and then it dawns on him: being fairly new to town, he could pass off as Jewish for a few months and study peoples’ reactions. It isn’t long before he and his family experience bigotry firsthand. He is denied a room at a hotel because he is Jewish. Tommy is bullied by the other kids at school. Philip has also at this point begun dating Minify’s niece Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), who had the original idea for the article. But their relationship becomes strained when Kathy shows a few subtle instances of prejudice.

Gregory Peck and John Garfield in “Gentleman’s Agreement”

“Gentleman’s Agreement” doesn’t feature any big, crazy demonstrations. Most instances of prejudice in the movie are subtle but clear, and that’s what makes this movie interesting. For instance, as Kathy consoles Tommy—which is the most powerful moment in the film—she tells him that the kids were wrong to call him a “dirty Jew” because he isn’t really Jewish; she never says that it is wrong for anyone to call anybody that. But the instances of anti-Semitism don’t extend far from the middle/upper class circles Philip moves in, and that’s part of why it isn’t as powerful a film as it could have been.

In fact, the anti-Semitism witnessed by those making the movie was stronger than what was seen within the film. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was discouraged from making the movie by producers at other studios—most of whom were Jewish—for fear that he would stir the pot too much. Gregory Peck’s agent discouraged him from taking the role of Philip for fear it would damage his career. Several members of the cast and crew were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, as Judaism at that time was often identified with communism. John Garfield, who had a supporting role in the film as Philip’s Jewish friend, was Jewish in real life, and took on the role because he believed in the importance of the film’s message. He was blacklisted for a year and called before HUAC twice, but passed away suddenly at the age of 39 (his heart problems believed to have been brought on by stress) before the second hearing.

Despite the challenges involved, “Gentleman’s Agreement” was very well received by critics and audiences, and was nominated for several Academy Awards, winning one for Kazan, one for Celeste Holm as Best Supporting Actress (she played Anne, another of Philip’s potential love interests) and one for Best Picture.

“Gentleman’s Agreement” is currently available to rent on all digital platforms. Runtime: 118 minutes.

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