US Release Date: 11-11-1947
Directed by: Elia Kazan
- Gregory Peck, as
- Philip Schuyler Green
- Dorothy McGuire, as
- Kathy Lacy
- John Garfield, as
- Dave Goldman
- Celeste Holm, as
- Anne Dettrey
- Anne Revere, as
- Mrs. Green
- June Havoc, as
- Elaine Wales
- Albert Dekker, as
- John Minify
- Jane Wyatt, as
- Dean Stockwell, as
- Tommy Green
- Nicholas Joy, as
- Dr. Craigie
- Sam Jaffe, as
- Professor Fred Lieberman
- Harold Vermilyea, as
- Lou Jordan
- Ransom M. Sherman as
- Bill Payson
Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and John Garfield in Gentleman's Agreement
Gentleman's Agreement is a heavy handed message film on bigotry and tolerance. Today it seems extraordinarily melodramatic and uber sensitive. I imagine it made a greater impact in 1947 than it has since. The story of a Christian pretending to be a Jew is hardly a plot worth even discussing today, but in 1947 it was a very hot topic.
Gregory Peck plays Phil, a single father who moves to New York with his son and his mother to write for a weekly magazine. He is given the assignment to write on anti-Semitism. The entire first half hour is simply him trying to decide how to write the article while he falls for a wealthy woman named Kathy.
Almost exactly at the 30 minute mark, Phil kneels by his mother’s bedside and has his epiphany, “Ma, I've got it! I've got the idea, the angle, the lead. I'll be Jewish! Why, all I've got to do is just say it! No one around here knows me. I can live with myself for six weeks, eight weeks, nine months. Ma, this is it!” His mother responds just as dramatically, “It must be. It always is when you're this sure.”
Phil then tells everyone his name is Phil Greenberg. At an editor’s meeting, he tells the rest of them that he is Jewish. Later that day his new secretary already knows that Phil is Jewish. Apparently that type of news was gossip worthy. To empathize that point, one editor makes the comment to Phil, “Why, some of my best friends are Jews.” To which the lone female editor adds, “And some of your other best friends are Methodists, but you never bother to say that.”
When Phil tells Kathy, “I'm going to let everybody know I'm Jewish.” She responds suspiciously, “Jewish? But you're not! Are you? Not that it would make any difference to me. But you said, "Let everybody know," as if you hadn't before and would now. So I just wondered. Not that it would make any difference to me. Phil, you're annoyed.”
Gentleman's Agreement is like one long lecture on how even when we think we are not acting with malice we may still be. One lesson being that it is as nearly as bad to listen to a bigoted joke as it is to say one. The pontificating becomes tiresome and the love story seems very forced.
There are only a couple of decent dramatic moments. My favorite is when the underused John Garfield nearly kicks a drunk’s ass for calling him a kike. The other happens when Phil’s son comes home crying, “They called me a dirty Jew and a stinking kike, and they all ran away.” Phil and Kathy try to comfort the distraught child, with Kathy saying, “Oh, darling, it's not true. You're no more Jewish than I am. It's just some horrible mistake.” She means well but does not realize just how rude she is being. Phil does and yells at her, “Kathy!”
For me, there is a big elephant in the film that is never mentioned. Gentleman's Agreement came out a couple of years after the concentration camps were liberated, yet the Nazi holocaust against the Jews is never even referred to. Peck is playing a former soldier and Garfield is still in uniform. No doubt the stories were out there. It was American soldiers who liberated some of the camps after all. I wonder if the topic of the final solution was just too raw to discuss in 1947.
Gentleman's Agreement won the Academy Award for Best Picture but it is not a very entertaining film. It has a moral lesson that still applies to any number of social minorities today but it is also a pile of hypocrisy. The military and public schools were still racially segregated in 1947. Every time someone in this film made some speech on equality I wondered why there were no black actors in the movie. Acting bigoted, even when we do not think we are, is rallied against throughout the movie yet no one ever thinks to comment on separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites.
Gregory Peck and Dean Stockwell in Gentleman's Agreement.
Gentleman's Agreement certainly struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. It was Fox's top grossing movie of 1948 and took home three Oscars. Besides Best Picture it also won Best Director for Kazan and Best Supporting Actress for Holm. The timing of it probably helped. As Eric mentioned, the liberation of Nazi concentration camps was still a fresh memory in everyone's mind, and in America Jews were being persecuted along with communists in both Congress and Hollywood.
As referenced in the movie, at this time in America duly elected officials like John E. Rankin of Mississippi still used words like kike and nigger on the floor of the House of Representatives. And many Jews (or simply people with “foreign” sounding names) were brought before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which was technically investigating communism but seemed to suspiciously favor Jewish suspects. From this particular production Darryl Zanuck, Elia Kazan, John Garfield, and Anne Revere were all called to testify. The so-called Hollywood Ten blacklist had been announced just a month before this film's premiere.
Ironically, although most of the studio heads were Jewish (or at least of Jewish descent – why is it that a Jewish person's religion is considered something that is passed down genetically from generation to generation?) it was the Gentile Darryl Zanuck who had the guts to make this movie. He acted against other studio heads' complaints that he would only stir up trouble. Zanuck's impetus was his being refused membership in the Los Angeles Country Club because they mistakenly believed him to be Jewish, proving there is no stronger motivation towards fighting prejudice than being the victim of it yourself.
Eric, I agree with your point that there were other glaring examples of bigotry and ignorance in the country at that time but in regards to the issue of racism they did at least give Peck this one line, “Miss Wales, I'm going to be frank with you. I want you to know that words like yid and kike and kikey and coon and nigger make me sick no matter who says them.”
As for the cast, I thought Peck was good. He always had that center of implacable moral authority about him and he uses it to good effect in this role. As usual Anne Revere was better than the material she was given to play. June Havoc shines in her small role, stealing her scenes right out from under Peck's nose. John Garfield and Celeste Holm bring a spark of levity to the dreary proceedings with their lively personalities. Garfield insisted on playing the rather small role for scale and he has rarely been better. Holm doesn't get much to do although she makes the most of it. Her Oscar win was most likely awarded out of a sense of solidarity with her character's beliefs more than for Holm's acting prowess.
The young Dean Stockwell proves himself a natural and he's completely believable in all his scenes. His big moment after being bullied in school is one of the film's best dramatic moments as well as being one of the least dated. As for Dorothy McGuire I found her drab and dull. I agree with Eric that the love story between her and Peck seems forced. I found her character unlikable and her storyline tedious. Her final scene with Garfield is the most preachy, and least convincing, in the entire movie.
Gentleman's Agreement meant well and served a much needed purpose in 1947. Sure it seems like a quaint relic today but its historical social relevance should not be ignored or forgotten.
Photos © Copyright Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (1947)