I've been watching all the movies that won a Best Picture Oscar, and the next on my list was Gentleman's Agreement, the 1947 winner, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire.
The film tells the story of a reporter, Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who tells people he's a Jew in order to research a series on anti-Semitism. While at times the film feels preachy or dated, nonetheless the film played an important role in changing societal attitudes.
This message movie beat out its competitors: The Bishop's Wife, Crossfire, Great Expectations and Miracle on 34th Street. In addition to winning the Oscar for Best Picture, Elia Kazan won Best Director, and Celeste Holm won Best Supporting Actress.
The movie is based on a novel by Laura Z. Hobson, which was published initially in magazine installments. The title comes from the so-called "gentleman's agreement" where communities implicitly agreed not to sell or rent to anyone ethnic. The book went on to become a bestseller. Yet, studio after studio turned down the option to secure movie rights, in part because of a fear that making such a movie would lead to a backlash.
The only producer willing to touch it was Darryl Zanuck, whose Dutch surname was often mistaken for a Jewish name. When he began the project, Zanuck heard from his colleagues the same sort of argument that Gregory Peck's character hears from a Jewish executive at a business meeting, who criticizes him for stirring up trouble, insisting that the less attention drawn to the problem, the better.
Instead of changing his name or going to any extraordinary lengths to appear Jewish, Phil Green simply interjects the information into conversation when it becomes appropriate, sometimes after a prejudiced statement and sometimes as a factual matter. He applies to different schools and jobs, both under the name "Green" and under the name "Greenberg," with the help of his secretary, who herself has changed her name from an ethnic-sounding name (which ironically, actress June Havoc had also done so, changing her surname from Hovick).
As Phil learns, the overt anti-Semitism isn't always the most damaging, because as his Jewish friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), tells him, at least you know where those people stand. More problematic are those who simply fail to speak up: the so-called "nice people," like Phil's girlfriend, Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), who for example, might hear an ethnic joke at a dinner party and, while it sickens them, remain silent. As Phil faces more and more problems, both subtle and overt, Kathy prefers to take the easy way out, leading to growing distance between the two lovers.
Gregory Peck was cast as Green because he was an intellectual everyman, and the filmmakers hoped the audience would find him sympathetic. Dorothy McGuire as Kathy plays the role with a sweetness that contrasts with her sometimes unthinking or insensitive actions. Though she's not anti-Semitic, her actions and statements often serve to promote prejudiced thinking, rather than challenge it.
Phil is frequently surprised by the reception he gets from the same establishments and people who treated him better when they assumed he was Christian. Consequently, he has difficulty suppressing his righteous anger. His friend, Dave, tells him that he simply hasn't grown a thick enough skin yet.
Of course, in his role as Phil Green, Peck often delivers the high-minded rhetoric of the film, and in those moments the film feels preachy. But the filmmakers probably didn't want to miss any opportunities to make their message clear.
The supporting cast does an excellent job. Celeste Holm plays a witty fashion editor, Anne Dettrey, who befriends Phil and serves as a confidante. This was her first dramatic role: up until then, she was cast only in musicals. After winning the much-deserved supporting actress Oscar, she launched a film and television career that continues to this day, with the comedy Driving Me Crazy currently in post-production.
John Garfield was a marquee name who signed on in the supporting role of Dave Goldman. He did so because he felt it was important. Garfield had changed his name from Garfinkle, as was the practice in Hollywood, to hide his Jewish identity. To play an openly Jewish character was very brave. It's significant, as well, that he plays a returning war officer. War veterans were regarded as America's finest, which, in combination with Garfield's reputation, likely helped viewers to sympathize with his character.
The supreme irony of this film is that it came out the very year that the House Un-American Activities Committee began holding hearings to identify the red threat in America. Several members of the film cast and crew were called to testify, in part because they'd made such a left-leaning film. John Garfield was called before the committee, and while he admitted his own leftist leanings, he refused to name any others. The original names of several ethnic-sounding actors, such as Jane Havoc, were read aloud by the committee as a litany of shame. Anne Revere refused to testify and was blacklisted, not acting in another film for 20 years.
Elia Kazan, who many believed was respected enough to weather pressure from HUAC, actually named names. Later, he refused to apologize for his actions, even when the question resurfaced as he was presented a special Oscar in 1999 to honor his career.
Kazan's complicated legacy cannot be denied, but thanks in part to movies like Gentleman's Agreement, overt racism and overt anti-Semitism are universally condemned. Even so, complacency still aids and abets prejudiced thinking. It is just as important as it was in 1948 for people to take a stand and take action.
In a speech near the end of the movie, Anne Revere, who played Phil Green's mother, says, "You know something, Phil? I suddenly want to live to be very old. Very. I want to be around to see what happens. The world is stirring in very strange ways. Maybe this is the century for it. Maybe that's why it's so troubled. Other centuries had their driving forces. What will ours have been when men look back? Maybe it won't be the American century after all... or the Russian century or the atomic century. Wouldn't it be wonderful... if it turned out to be everybody's century... when people all over the world free people found a way to live together? I'd like to be around to see some of that... even the beginning. I may stick around for quite a while."
The writers had no idea how prophetic a prediction that would be, just how much turmoil the country would endure before equality was expanded: the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, the gay rights movement, and the countless struggles that continue into the new millennium.
Even if the sets and lighting are uninspired and the directing conventional, Gentleman's Agreement was remarkable for bringing a dirty secret into the open. However dated the film looks to modern viewers, however heavy-handed the dialogue, it's an important marker in the history of film.
Rating (out of 5): ***
We've come a long way, but it's important to remember how we got here.