Sunday, June 23, 2013


I combed through several old reviews of “Gentleman’sAgreement” to get an idea for how others responded to this film. Generally speaking, it seemed like contemporary reviewers resided in one of two camps of thought. The first camp praised the film for still retaining its relevancy on the subject of anti-Semitism, while the second claimed it to be drained of its potency through its naïve and simple examination of the topic at hand. Ultimately, I think the answer to this debate is situated in a third camp somewhere in between these two points, settling closer to the former.

Directed by the provocative Elia Kazan, “Gentleman’s Agreement” stars all-around good guy Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and John Garfield, among others, accruing eight Academy Award nominations before taking home three, including Best Picture for 1947. In the same year as the release of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Kazan became a founding member of the New York-based non-profit workshop called the Actors Studio. As an author of the Actors Studio, Kazan guided his students to mine the depths of their talents through the method style of acting, efforts which produced such notable alumni as Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Maureen Stapleton. Throughout his career, Kazan directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, of which nine led to actual wins. 
Elia Kazan.
It should be no surprise then that half of the nominations bestowed on “Gentleman’s Agreement” were acting nominations, with Celeste Holm accounting for the only win for Best Supporting Actress. Across the board, the film is alive with remarkable performances, particularly from Peck and McGuire. The former plays Philip Green, an investigative journalist on assignment to write about anti-Semitism for a progressive New York magazine. On the precipice of declaring himself inadequate for the assignment upon failing to find a viable angle, Green decides to pretend he is Jewish and write about his subsequent experiences. This state of affairs creates shifting ground beneath Green’s recent engagement to his editor’s niece Kathy, who deplores prejudice in all its form, but still sits on her hands under pressure from her WASPy social circles. As the assignment wears on, both Philip and Kathy are forced to confront walking the walk regarding morally correct principles or whether they’ll decline in favor of not risking certain aspects of their lives.

I don’t think it’s fair to say this film is naïve and simple-minded in its presentation of the material. First of all, prejudice in any form is a complicated and expansive topic, incapable of being wholly captured and examined in one film. On that note, any filmmaker is going to have to be realistic in their approach to this type of subject, narrowing their scope to a sensible degree. “Gentleman’s Agreement” adheres to this notion of a more manageable scale, focusing mainly on anti-Semitism among the professional, upper-echelons of society, as opposed to inspecting it in all of its forms in every class and environment. Simple-minded is simply a misnomer then. I think the presentation is more aptly named practical and restrained, which, in the end, is a savvy move.

Dorothy McGuire and Gregory Peck in "Gentleman's Agreement."
The whole point of a socially conscious film like “Gentleman’s Agreement” is to bring awareness to an issue that purports an injustice that is morally antithetical to a society’s foundations. In order to deliver the message, it has to be packaged in such a way that is clear and digestible so that it will resonate with the largest audience possible. In other words, the deliverables have to be practical and sober in order to avoid confusion or the message risks a failure to communicate.

“Gentleman’s Agreement” is powerful in this ability to communicate because it simplifies the conflict rather than attempting to illustrate overly ambitious, extreme or bruising examples of anti-Semitism. An audience could easily dismiss the film’s message had it been expressed in more intense terms because, generally speaking, most people don’t nurture or personally associate with hardcore prejudices that lead them to engage in dramatic examples of it. However, the experiences of Philip and Kathy are much more every day, more relatable, particularly in the debate of condoning prejudice through silence and inaction. Caving in to social pressures over defending a moral principle in a public situation is probably something that a lot of people have regrettably experienced, and therefore cannot dismiss it so easily. In making this scenario a core component, “Gentleman’s Agreement” is effective in highlighting the fact that a toxic force like anti-Semitism begins to find its remedy through the actions and words of everyday people.

While a lot of the success of “Gentleman’s Agreement” should be pinned on Elia Kazan’s direction, a lot of the credit should also be attributed to the film’s confidently nimble script by Moss Hart, which he adapted from Laura Z. Hobson’s novel of the same name. It’s an expertly paced script that does an excellent job of blending snappy dialogue together with grounded mini-speeches about social injustice and equality, preventing it from feeling self-indulgent and preachy. The script also does a good job at handling its topic by demonstrating the myriad of dynamics that give life to anti-Semitism, rather than boiling it down to just resonating from a group of Connecticut Gentiles. For example, Philip Green’s Jewish secretary, Elaine Wales, has experienced prejudice to the point where she has resorted to changing her last name in order to avoid discrimination. However, in one scene with Philip, Elaine reveals her flippant prejudice toward other classes of Jews, whom she considers inferior. In her mind, she can lay claim to credibility in justifying this belief because she is Jewish herself. But, as the film rightfully points out, inter-community prejudice only allows others outside of a particular community to justify and find validation in their own expression of prejudice.

Despite its strengths, the film does have two obvious flaws that seemed particularly puzzling to me, especially given that the rest of the film was intelligent and so carefully crafted. The first is the fact that Philip is given to so much shock and amazement upon experiencing anti-Semitic prejudice once assuming a Jewish identity. For me, this presented a major inconsistency for a character that is a respected, veteran investigative journalist. Someone with this type of background should not have had such a naïve reaction to the realities of prejudice. For Philip, the whole experience seems to be a complete loss of innocence, which doesn’t seem consistent for a man who has seen as much of the ugly side of the world as Philip has. 

Celeste Holm and Gregory Peck in "Gentleman's Agreement."
The other curious flaw in “Gentleman’s Agreement” is the fact that there is no mention of WWII or the events therein. This is a pretty amazing omission for a film about anti-Semitism being released a few years after the end of WWII and the shocking atrocities committed against the Jewish people in Holocaust. I would have thought at some point, those events would have come up in conversations between the characters. But the fact that it isn’t included in the film made me wonder if it was omitted on purpose so as not to tie the film to any particular historical event or time period. No matter the reason, I think it is a mistake for the film to have omitted any reference to WWII because it is beyond a powerful example of what unchecked hatred and prejudice can lead to. 

In the end, I still think “Gentleman’s Agreement” is a film that has aged remarkably well. The simplicity of the film is what helps it to retain its youthful relevancy because it is able to be so easily transferable to other minorities facing similar struggles in different scenarios and different time periods. Even though time and culture may alter the landscape, the issues of prejudice and bigotry will always remain the same, even when packaged in different forms. As long as they exist in the world, a film like “Gentleman’s Agreement” will always retain a level of relevancy and power.

Favorite Line: For their honeymoon, Philip and Kathy plan to stay a resort that doesn’t allow Jewish clients. Upset and frustrated, Philip decides not to cancel the reservation remotely, but to go to the hotel, confront them and force them into telling him face-to-face that he cannot keep his reservation because he is Jewish. Kathy pleads with him not to go, telling him it isn’t worth the trouble, to which Philip responds, “They are more than nasty little snobs, Kathy. You call them that and you can dismiss them, it’s too easy. They’re persistent little traitors to everything that this country stands for and stands on and you have to fight them! Not just for the poor, poor Jews, as Dave says, but everything this country stands for.”

No comments:

Post a Comment