Gentleman's Agreement March 10, 2018
1 Hr., 58 Mins.
lia Kazan’s Gentleman's Agreement (1947) smells of good intentions more than a local Abercrombie & Fitch reeks of a middle school locker room post-P.E. It's vociferously didactic, desperate to be noble. It's blatant Oscar bait determined to be a Great Movie. It's delivered almost entirely in moralizing monologues and unnatural lines of dialogue that practically beg for the film’s hero to shout, “hey, that’s just not right!,” and then follow up with an inflated rant delivered in
a sexy, stone-faced baritone.
The movie is about anti-Semitism, and akin to other well-intentioned but
entirely misguided prejudice-centric message movies like Crash (2005) and The Blind Side (2009), presents us with a universe where everybody is cinematically intolerant and a likable hero must fight against and bigotry in the most gallant of ways. I suppose one of the few things Gentleman’s Agreement does right is its subtextual declaration that discrimination often takes the form of an ophidian which can appear in myriad shapes and sizes: It can come in the form of beaten-to-death stereotypes, microaggressions, acquiescence; it can take the shape of unexplained turn-downs from jobs, hotel stays.
But it never digs into the nuances of its topic. And it doesn’t bother to mention the victimization of the Jewish population in Hitler’s Europe, and doesn’t dare address American society’s own discriminatory tendencies, namely the all-too-recent interning of Japanese-Americans. It's too tidy, stiff, and cleanly delivered to be a successful anti-prejudice movie.
It stars the all-American Gregory Peck as Phil Green, a widowed newspaper reporter who moves to New York City with the intention of better supporting his growing son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) and his ailing mother (Anne Revere). Though he expects to be given somewhat frivolous stories as a result of his being new to the area, his editor, John Minfy (Albert Dekker), sees promise in his showcased work and instead asks that he write something of a more in-depth human interest story. Envisioning a rather sensational, multi-part spread, Minfy asks that Green write a piece on anti-Semitism and its prominence in postwar society.
Green feels unfit for the task – he’s a gentile who’s never experienced discrimination – and so he initially balks at the idea. But then, perhaps inspired by the works of Nellie Bly or Martha Gellhorn, Green decides to unconventionally tackle the assignment. He will pose as a Jewish man, change his last name to Greenberg, and write about the prejudices he faced during a handful of months' worth of investigation. Obstacles expectedly arrive, but the ways in which they take shape catch him by surprise.
And us too, but maybe not how Kazan intended. Gentleman’s Agreement is undoubtedly an important movie – few Hollywood pictures of the era were so willing to deliver a semi-thoughtful look at the complexities of bigotry – but 70 years later does it feel uncomfortably self-righteous and calculated, like a movie whose progressivity was more informed by a yearning for little naked gold men than a genuine interest in trying to make a change in American society.
This is partially true. Legend has it that movie exec Darryl F. Zanuck was obsessed with winning the Best Picture Oscar following the failure of another would-be Oscar pic, Woodrow (1944), and figured that Laura Z. Hobson’s bestselling 1947 novel Gentleman’s Agreement would be just emotionally powerful enough and just artistically deviant from the norm to garner raves and awards. He was more concerned with his own triumphs, financial or otherwise.
Like Zanuck had hoped, the finished product was a smashing success: the movie was the eighth most popular feature of 1947, and was nominated for eight Oscars and took home three (including Zanuck’s desired Best Picture trophy).
But those deliberations have become more apparent. Like all the white, privileged liberals who as of late have increasingly seemed to have decided that the majority of our country’s problems have begun with the inauguration of President Donald Trump – not understanding that they’ve always been there and have merely been inflamed – Gentleman’s Agreement neatly picks and chooses the problems it addresses. It doesn’t bother to cinematize larger social inequalities and institutional issues, and goes with a moral-of-the-story style delivery all too simplistic for a movie trying to do so much good. It specifically focuses on upper-class social and professional circles, thus undercutting the troubles faced by the less privileged and the prevalence of hate crimes.
But its intentions – aside from Zanuck’s need to satisfy his famished ego – are admirable, and I like the way the movie argues that silently disagreeing with bigotry still perpetuates it. (This is exemplified by Green’s Dorothy McGuire-portrayed fiancé Kathy, who claims she’s liberal but, being high class and guarded, is willing to excuse the practices of those around her simply because she wants to keep peace.)
The film contains some good performances, too. Although Peck is something of a one-note mistake, all impossibly handsome goodness without a flaw to bring depth to his heroism, he delivers his lines with a sort of passion that suggests investment in the material. McGuire is fascinating as a woman who’s forced to readdress much of her complicit behavior; John Garfield, as Peck’s Jewish pal who experiences what the Greenberg persona does on the daily, is given plenty of opportunities to milk his “intense” image and excels. Celeste Holm is the best thing about the movie maybe because she, as well as the character she’s playing, is so unforced: sardonic and sexy, she plays a career woman so self-possessed – and quippy – we can’t help but want a comedic, Maisie-style spin-off in which she’s the star of the show.
But in the midst of so much effectiveness, Gentleman’s Agreement is still dated and accidentally impolitic – a true artifact of its times better looked at as a landmark movie than a timeless one. There’s good to be found here, but the wrongs are so plentiful – and pronounced – that it’s better it be kept a chapter in a film history book rather than be deemed a must-watch. C