GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947)

Gentleman's_Agreement_(1947_movie_poster)

I had no preconceived notions about this particular film, except the day before we watched it my mother told me it was her all-time favorite movie. That did pique my interest. My mom is a pretty amazing woman. She was heavily involved in civil rights organizing from age 12 on, and in Little Rock, Arkansas she sat in at a segregated cafe at the counter, insisted she was one eighth black and demanded service. She was also heavily involved in anti-war organizing during Vietnam. I was very influenced politically by this woman, who also was part of the historic Milgram experiment, and was in the small minority of brave people who did not inflict any harm on others despite orders to do so. Needless to say, I wanted to see her favorite movie. And I can understand why this was it.

The premise of the film is that widower journalist Philip Schuyler Greene, new at a New York City magazine, is assigned to write an exposé on anti-semitism in America. To do so, he assumes the identity of a Jewish man. The only people wise to his true identity are his immediate family, his editor, and his editor’s divorced niece Kathy, with whom he begins a serious romantic relationship. The people around Phil are supportive of him, or at least profess to be. Not surprisingly, he encounters some instances of outright bigotry. Even more infuriating, he finds prejudiced attitudes internalized in otherwise decent people. He finds himself in conflict with Kathy repeatedly. While she abhors anti-semitism, she finds herself unable to defy the bigotry of her peers. This conflict reaches an acute stage after Phil’s lifelong friend Dave Goldman enters the story. Dave is an Army officer and engineer, preparing to return to civilian life. His search for employment is complicated by difficulty finding housing for himself and his family, a problem seemingly easy to solve since Kathy has an unused cottage upstate she could rent to Dave. Yet she does not, as it is in an “exclusive” community where the people observe unwritten rules against allowing in Jews. She has no hatred of Dave or his ethnicity. She just can’t bring herself to step outside the standards of her community.

This isn’t the first film to deal one way or another with prejudice or anti-semitism, but there is something forward looking in how the theme is presented here. The conflict isn’t centered around ranting bigots or violent mobs. It focuses instead on the unwritten rules and assumptions of society that allow one person to advance in life but quietly turn another away based on something as arbitrary as one surname or another. It is about the people who are sincere when they say they hate prejudice. Just not as much as they hate being the one who is rocking the boat. It’s a point worth making, but an uncomfortable one as well, because we’ve all been this person at some point in our lives.

As much as I appreciate this nuanced manner in which the film discusses the topic, the quality of dialogue doesn’t match. It seems like in exploring this controversial topic, Hollywood is still creating a vocabulary to discuss it. It’s a movie with pretty sophisticated thematic content, but some of the scenes read like an afterschool special on why prejudice is bad.

I agree with this assessment, but I think that some of the dialogue just comes across as dramatic flair specific to the time period. I noticed similar ebbs and flows to conversations between men and women in particular in other films we’ve seen from this era. Everything is so desperate, so passionate, so grandiose. I have also noticed that men in films from this era are constantly having to calm women down, whereas their flairs in mood seem to indicate great heart and grand feeling – not hysteria. It doesn’t help that in this film, Kathy has such weak moral fiber and sense of self. Thankfully, though, we as audience members have another female character we can connect with – Anne, the magazine’s fashion editor. Anne is assertive, playful, strong-willed, and compassionate – she cares deeply when racist insults are volleyed at Dave in a restaurant, and isn’t afraid to ask bigots to leave them alone. It is clear that Anne is attracted to Phil, and perhaps the attraction is mutual – she gains the courage to voice it when she sees for herself the breach between the two caused by their different feelings on anti-semitism.

There is no other way to say this: I. LOVED. ANNE.

And I wanted Phil to feel the same. To be moved by her character and conviction, and by the idea of entering a partnership with someone with whom he shared values. But sadly, that wasn’t to be the case.

That threw me as well. Near the end Phil falls out with Kathy due to her timidity in the face of moral crisis,  then Anne- whose character seems to made made of stuff much more like Phil’s-  approaches him with her own feelings. So he ends up with…Kathy?

I also noticed one ironic thing. Despite the film’s clear condemnation of bigotry, I don’t remember seeing a single black actor. I understand that at this time, it was pretty much standard practice to cut African Americans out of the business. But considering how clearly this film makes the point that what allows racism to live is its tacit acceptance by otherwise decent people who are cowed into silence by conformity, would it be too much to hope for something just a little better?

AGREED! I think the fact that he ends up with Kathy indicated to me that no matter how much he spoke of his convictions, he really wouldn’t make the leap for a partner who matched them. I can understand that with the news that Kathy had a change of heart and gave Dave the house she had out of the city so that he could take the job things were taking a turn for the better, but let’s be honest – Anne was the woman he had more in common with. Who knows – maybe he liked the drama. Maybe he liked “reforming” Kathy. Either way, the film is so fantastic in its message that this ending left me disappointed. I do still think it was powerful, especially for its time, and I liked the indictment of passive people. It shows how not doing anything can itself be an act of violence – a lesson we should all take to heart.

Gentleman’s Agreement may have been a daring and progressive movie for its time. Sadly, being daring and progressive at this time in Hollywood was becoming dangerous. Several of the actors would have their careers ruined shortly by the Hollywood blacklist. The director, Elia Kazan, would save his own career by providing names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, becoming one of Hollywoods most divisive figures in the process.

One more thing: Phil’s son Tommy is played by a young Dean Stockwell, best known to members of my generation as Al from Quantum Leap.

Next film: THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952)

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One Response to “GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947)”

  1. Robert Smith Says:

    Along similar themes, I would recommend that you both see if you can find a copy of Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982) http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Dog. It dealt with questions of racism and bigotry so starkly that it was denied general release in the US for a long time (& it may be hard to locate a copy to view.) It also deals with how animals have been institutionalized into humanity’s systems of racism.

    In the form of disclosure, Fuller was a very progressive leaning filmmaker who wore it on his sleeve, but the intensity of this film might allow it to be read by others in other ways.

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