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Gentleman's Agreement

Directed by Elia Kazan with Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Albert Decker, June Havoc, Celeste Holm and Dean Stockwell, black and white, 118 minutes, 1947
Dorothy Maguire, Albert Decker and Gregory Peck

Magazine publisher Albert Decker intoduces newly hired writer Gregory Peck to staff writer Dorothy Maguire

By Carter B. Horsley

Prejudice in American society persists, sadly, and is an ugly indictment that the country is not perfect in practice.

In his excellent review for Turner Classic Movies, David
Sterritt maintained that "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947) "ranks with the best of the 'problem pictures' made by Hollywood in the wake of World War II, when social ills began to creep out from under the rug where they'd been swept in earlier decades."

"The plague of anti-Semitism was certainly not new in American society," he continued, noting that 'Gentleman's Agreement,' won the Oscar for best picture and the Oscar for best producer was given to Darryl F. Zanuck.

"Gentleman's Agreement" is based on a novel of that title by Laura Z. Hobson, who knew this territory well," according to Mr. Sterrett.

"Her maiden name was Zametkin - hence the Z in her byline - and she started the book after reading that a Congressman from Mississippi had called newspaper columnist Walter Winchell a 'kike,' and nobody in the entire House of Representatives had condemned the slur. Zanuck took an interest in the novel when a Los Angeles country club mistakenly blackballed him as a Jew, even though he was actually the only gentile among the studio chiefs of that era. Before and during World War II, most Jewish studio execs had been wary of anti-Semitism as a subject, afraid they'd be accused of special pleading on their own behalf; accordingly, some warned Zanuck not to take this story on...."

Gregory Peck

Gregory Peck

"Gregory Peck plays Philip Schuyler Green, a journalist and single dad putting his life back together after his wife's death. Moving to New York for a job with a big magazine, he settles into a new apartment with his mother (Anne Revere), who helps take care of Tommy (Dean Stockwell), his eleven-year-old son. Then he meets with his new publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), to discuss ideas for articles. Minify suggests writing about anti-Semitism, but Green thinks a series on the topic would turn into a dull account of facts and statistics. His objections disappear when he gets the idea of experiencing anti-Jewish bigotry first-hand, posing as a Jew and describing the changes he encounters in the ways he's seen and treated by others.

Anne Revere and Gregory Peck

Anne Revere and Gregory Peck

"The changes are obvious and for the most part ugly, and Phil finds some of them right at his magazine. His secretary (June Havoc) reveals that she adopted her present name, Elaine Wales, after a job application under her real name, Estelle Wilovsky, was rejected by the very publication where they work; on top of that, Elaine herself is an anti-Semitic Jew, worried that hiring just anyone would let undesirables in the door....The physician treating Phil's mother belittles a Jewish specialist; a 'restricted' hotel refuses Phil a room; and his Jewish friend Dave Goldman - played by John Garfield, whose pre-Hollywood name was Jacob Julius Garfinkle - can't find a nice 'unrestricted' place to live.

Dorothy McGuire

Dorothy McGuire

"...trouble starts between Phil and Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), his new girlfriend. Kathy is Minify's niece, and the idea of articles about anti-Semitism originally came from her. She's also one of very few people in on the secret of Phil's pose; he's still new in New York, and he's been passing as Jewish since shortly after he arrived....When she and Phil decide to get married, her sister Jane (Jane Wyatt) volunteers to host a reception in a posh suburban town, and Kathy seems eager to tell the suburbanites that her fiance isn't Jewish, insisting to Phil that it's just for the sake of honesty....The climax arrives when Tommy is bullied by anti-Semitic kids at school. He comes home in tears, and when he tells Kathy what happened, she tries to comfort him by absurdly explaining that since he isn't really Jewish, he shouldn't be upset! This is too much for Phil, who ruefully breaks up with her. All is not lost, however. Having a drink with Dave, she talks about how horrible she felt when anti-Semitism fouled the atmosphere at a dinner party she attended. Dave helps her realize that simply feeling bad wasn't enough - she should have taken a stand and spoken out...."

"Some critics accused 'Gentleman's Agreement' of pulling punches by focusing on a hero who suffers the blows of anti-Semitism on a temporary basis. "The movie's moral," cracked the politically liberal writer Ring Lardner, 'is that you should never be mean to a Jew, because he might turn out to be a gentile.' Bosley Crowther, chief reviewer at The New York Times, criticized the film for focusing on a limited cross section of Americans, noting that Phil's investigation is 'narrowly confined to the upper-class social and professional level,' and that he generally experiences only 'petty bourgeois rebuffs, with no inquiry into the devious cultural mores from which they spring.'...
found the picture both courageous and commendable, offering particular praise to the 'brilliant' directing by Kazan and to the forthrightness of the screenplay (by Moss Hart, the celebrated playwright) in naming actual anti-Semites in American public life, including the proudly racist senator and Mississippi governor Theodore G. Bilbo, the white-supremacist Louisiana minister Gerald L.K. Smith, and congressman John Rankin, the very politician (although Crowther doesn't mention it) whose bigotry spurred Hobson to write her novel."

"Gentleman's Agreement still comes across as a smart, incisive, and engrossing drama, and although times have changed since 1947, the subject it so boldly tackles remains timely and relevant to this day," Mr. Sterrett concluded.

In his 2016 review, Derek Winnert noted that it is "important never to forget that while a liberal movie like this did enormous good in challenging prejudice and changing traditional American attitudes, it also managed to stir up the enraged response of the witch-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, crushing a whole generation of liberals, left-wingers and actual communists, and staining Hollywood for ever."

"Kazan," he continued. "himself testified before the HCUAA in 1952 at the time of the Hollywood blacklist, which helped end the careers of various colleagues. Many liberal friends and co-workers attacked him for this, and continued to do so even five decades later when he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1999.

John Garfield

John Garfield

John Garfield died of a heart attack the night before he was scheduled to testify against his wife before the House Unamerican Activities Committee and the DVD edition of the movie has an excellent 26-minute film about the committee.

Celeste Holm

Celeste Holm

Celeste Holm, who played an editor at the magazine, won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

The sophisticated film is low-keyed in its handling of bias and contemptible conduct but its strong message is very clear.  The acting is superb and Darryl F. Zanuck is to be applauded, loudly, for producing it.

  This film is ranked 92nd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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