Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gentleman's Agreement: The Importance of Being Not Too Earnest

The award magnet films of the late 1940’s were all films concerned with issues of social justice, and confronted audiences about everyday evils. The Lost Weekend tackled alcoholism. The Best Years of Our Lives reminded audiences that returning WWII veterans needed compassion upon their return to the homefront. Gentleman’s Agreement paints a big, fat target on anti-Semitism. Any film that targets a social issue always runs the risk of forgetting about character in favor of the message. Like its Oscar-winning predecessors, Gentleman’s Agreement is an honorably intentioned, earnest picture. However, the film is not as successful at balancing its social message with crafting compelling characters through superior filmmaking.

The film was adapted from a best-selling novel of the same name by Laura Z. Hobson. 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, acquired the rights to the novel and hired Elia Kazan to bring the adaptation to filmic life. The film was born of good intentions. Zanuck was denied entry into the exclusive Los Angeles Country Club because it was assumed—incorrectly—that he was Jewish, like nearly all of his contemporaries were. Shorty thereafter, Zanuck purchased the rights to Hobson’s novel, and he was immediately faced with pressure to not make the film. Samuel Goldwyn (who won the Oscar in the previous year for his own socially conscious picture, The Best Years of Our Lives), himself Jewish, told Zanuck that he would only “stir up trouble” if Gentleman’s Agreement was made.

Another argument cited as a reason to not make the film was risking offending the Hays Code—the rigid censorship guidelines that all Hollywood films were expected to adhere to. Joseph Breen, the head enforcer of the code, was known to make anti-Semitic remarks, and producers were particularly fearful of incurring his wrath. Spurred on by witnessing the hypocrisy in the filmmaking community, Zanuck felt even more compelled to bring Gentleman's Agreement to the screen. With respected stage director Kazan at the helm, Zanuck felt confident his picture and its message would resonate with American audiences.

The story of the film concerns a journalist named Philip Green (Gregory Peck) who is writing for a magazine called Smith’s Weekly (in the mold of publications such as The New Yorker). A recent widower, Green has moved to New York from California with his young son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) and his mother (Anne Revere) in tow. Phil struggles with finding a great subject to write about. His publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), suggests he write a piece about anti-Semitism, and while Phil feels the subject is worth reporting on, he cannot think of a fresh angle in which to approach it.

Sometime later, Tommy asks his father what prejudice is, and Phil is at a loss to give his son a satisfactory explanation. Inspired in part by wishing to explain prejudice to his son, and also in honor of his childhood friend Dave (John Garfield), a Jew serving in the Army, Phil accepts the assignment. His approach to the material is to go undercover as a Jew to truly sympathize with what he doesn’t understand (the notion of “putting on someone else’s shoes and walking around in them for a little bit” is a sentiment espoused by the character Peck would become most famous for playing fifteen years after Gentleman’s Agreement—Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird—and was a common denominator in the roles that defined Peck’s career).

Subsequently, Phil begins a romance with Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire)—Minify’s niece, who initially suggested that her uncle publish an expose of anti-Semitism in Smith’s Weekly. Kathy comes from an affluent community in Connecticut, where there is a “gentleman’s agreement” in place where the local realtors have a policy of not selling or renting to Jews. Though the extent of Kathy’s upbringing is not revealed until later in the film, Kathy is confused when Phil tells her about his controversial angle to his story—she is worried that Phil may actually be Jewish and has been keeping it a secret from her. Phil has gone a bit Method in his undercover act, adopting the last name “Greenberg” for not only himself but his son. His co-workers are even in the dark about his true identity, and like Cathy, have their prejudices quickly exposed. However, Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), the fashion editor at the magazine, supports Phil.

Anne, in the film’s most subtly developed subplot, becomes Phil’s closest confidante. She is one of the few people Phil can turn to when he experiences racism—like when he is called “yid” at a restaurant or faces discriminatory rules in his own apartment building. Conversely, as Phil and Kathy develop their romance, her sly bigotry is revealed. One example of how Phil’s adopted identity reveals Kathy’s ignorance is in a scene where Tommy comes home from school, the victim of anti-Semitic slurs and beaten up. When Tommy cries that he was called “a dirty yid” and a “stinking kike”, Kathy tells him the words should mean nothing to Tommy because he isn’t really a Jew. This incenses Phil—who thinks that Kathy should be saying the slurs are wrong in and of themselves. He also feels that Kathy is instilling a sense of Christian superiority in Tommy by telling him this, and that “nice people” like Kathy are sustaining anti-Semitic attitudes when they espouse Christian superiority instead of railing against the hateful remarks. Kathy also makes apologies for the anti-Semitic behaviors of her sister and the other members of her hometown in Connecticut when Phil wants her to take a stand. A deep part of the film’s message is to show how when the so-called good guys remain apathetic to bigotry, it only ripens an environment where bigotry is tolerated.

In that regard, I love how Gentleman’s Agreement is direct about that message. It’s far easier to demonize Nazis, Klansmen, cross-burners, lynch-mobs and other token racists in film than to suggest that ordinary, decent white Christians are equally condemned if they don’t use their privilege to eradicate bigotry. On the other hand, the messages in the film play less like natural character developments and more like a sensitivity training video.

Other scenes go as follows:

• Phil’s secretary Ethel (June Havoc)—a Jew who can pass as Gentile because of her fair skin and blonde hair—discloses that she originally applied to the magazine under her real, more traditionally sounding Jewish name, Estelle Walofsky, but was told that there were no open positions. When she applied as “Ethel Wales”, she got the job. Phil brings this to the attention of Mr. Minify, who promptly changes the company hiring policy to being “religion is a matter of indifference.” When told of the change, “Ethel” crows that more “kikey” Jews could ruin things for her at the magazine.
• At the engagement party for Phil and Kathy planned by Kathy’s sister Jane, Kathy warns Phil not to discuss the topic of anti-Semitism. Jane tells Kathy that she screened the guest list to only include the “safe ones”—people who are less overtly anti-Semitic—to specifically avoid any uncomfortable conversations. When Phil is surprised by the progressive attitude of the guests, Kathy does not disclose that the guest list was screened.
• When Kathy is with Dave at a restaurant, she tries to defend herself against Phil’s accusations of bigotry. Kathy tells Dave that at a dinner party she attended, a man told an anti-Semitic joke that nobody in her party objected to, and that it made her feel ill to hear in. Dave asks her, “What did you do about it?” He reinforces the idea that Kathy can’t simply feel ill when someone tells a hurtful joke, she has to speak up and out against it.

These are all scenes straight out of Sensitivity Training 101. I feel the script is well-intentioned, but it cares more about hitting its talking points instead of letting the characters dictate the action. I especially think the end of the film—where Phil forgives Kathy and resumes their engagement—is especially discrediting. I buy that Dave’s talk with Kathy opened her eyes to her own bigotry, but I don’t buy that the crusading Phil falls in love with her again simply because she promises to change. Kathy is never shown standing up to her sister, or telling off someone using an anti-Semitic slur. No visual evidence is given that Kathy has changed. I don’t buy it, especially given that Anne has been supportive of Phil throughout his assignment, and she is someone who uses her privilege to right anti-Semitism (the fact that the stunning Celeste Holm is about ten times more beautiful than the plain Dorothy McGuire doesn’t help, either). Not only do the film’s talking points play like a laundry list, the changes in the characters’ attitudes are made simply to give the Phil/Kathy romance the typical Hollywood happy ending.

I don’t think the noble failure of Gentleman’s Agreement lies at the fault of Elia Kazan or his actors. I do think that 20th Century Fox wanted to make a film that would aggressively court controversy. Zanuck was well intentioned in wanting to make the picture, but he was so wrapped up in the message that he wanted to bring to audiences that the film ends up preaching to us, instead of letting the audience grow and change along with the characters. In many ways Gentleman’s Agreement is so earnest that its message is not as effective as it could be.

However, Gentleman’s Agreement was a huge hit for Fox and held both popular and critical acclaim. Message pictures were big business in 1947, and maybe audiences actively wanted a film to bash them over the head with a socially conscious message. Kazan would fare much better seven years later, when he made an indelible message film in On the Waterfront, a work that certainly puts character first—and is all the more effective for doing so—when putting its lesson across.

The film also had unintended political consequences. Gentleman's Agreement significantly raised the profiles of Kazan, Zanuck, John Garfield, and Anne Revere; each of whom were called to testify in the hearings on anti-Communism held by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan and Zanuck made deals (Kazan infamously so, and many see On the Waterfront as his apology), but Garfield and Revere—both of whom refused to testify—landed on the Hollywood blacklist. Revere didn’t work as a film actress for twenty years, and Garfield died of a heart attack at age 39 shortly before his wife was called upon to testify a year later.

I don’t think Gentleman’s Agreement should have tempered its stance on anti-Semitism, especially in holding privileged WASP’s culpable for their complacency. I like how incendiary it is. Yet if the characters in the film were as memorable as the message (there’s a reason why Terry Malloy is a classic film character and Phil Green isn’t), Gentleman’s Agreement could have been a classic for all time instead of an obscure Oscar-winner.


Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan

Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm, John Garfield, Anne Revere, Dean Stockwell, Albert Dekker, June Havoc

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Total Oscars: 3 (Best Picture, Best Director—Elia Kazan, Best Supporting Actress—Celeste Holm) out of 8 total nominations (Best Actor—Gregory Peck, Best Actress—Dorothy McGuire, Best Supporting Actress—Anne Revere, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing)

NEXT: Hamlet

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