Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947, Twentieth Century Fox. Starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield. Directed by Elia Kazan. B&W, 118 minutes.
Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) has moved with his mother (Anne Revere) and ten-year-old son Tom (Dean Stockwell) to New York to take on a new job as a magazine reporter. When he’s given an assignment on anti-semitism, his editor confidently tells him his particular skills will give the topic a strength it hasn’t had in the hands of lesser writers.
He struggles with the idea, uncertain at first if he even wants to tackle it. However, a few searching questions from his son and some dry observations from his mother change his mind. Trying to find a fresh, workable angle is proving impossible. Then Phil, who is not Jewish, hits on the idea of living as a Jew in New York City for however long it takes to get the story he needs.
He’s met and fallen in love with Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), a seemingly liberal woman whose deeply ingrained prejudices start to show as he begins to face the realities of bigotry. She is among a handful of people who know his real identity, and she’s careful to make sure the right people also know that truth.
Added to the mix is Phil’s childhood friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield), who’s just moved to New York after serving in the war. Dave, of course, knows the truth about Phil’s heritage. As a Jew, he lends insight to the research.
The film won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm, as the magazine’s fashion editor and Phil’s confidante). It was nominated for five others, including Best Actor (Peck) and Best Actress (McGuire).
John Garfield, who was Jewish, generally played leading men, but accepted the supporting role because he believed in the importance of the film. The part of Phil’s son, Tommy, was played by Dean Stockwell, the veteran actor with one of the longest careers in Hollywood.
Gentleman’s Agreement was made in the years immediately following the Holocaust, when Americans were learning increasing amounts about the persecution of Jews and becoming sensitive to bigotry in their own country. Filmmakers, too, after the horrors of World War II, began to focus on more serious issues. They took on “real” topics, such as alcoholism in The Lost Weekend and the trials facing returning veterans in The Best Years of Our Lives. Audiences responded well.
Interestingly, however, the film never mentions the Holocaust, a deliberate decision on the part of the film’s producer and director. Another point of interest is the use of racial slurs; words that are considered on par with profanity today were used in the movie without reservation and any apparent objection by censors.
The movie is still noteworthy for its ability to bring forth intelligent discussion of anti-semitism. Critics note that it focuses on only one region in the country, that is, the upper-crust society in which Philip Green lives. Whether or not that is a fault of the film is debatable. This is one movie’s take on the topic, and it can’t be responsible for portraying the whole of the problem.
Gentleman’s Agreement is complex, as is its topic, well-acted and thought-provoking. It remains a worthwhile movie for anyone interested in what a film can do for shining light society’s ills, as well as those who enjoy classic movies at their best.