Gentleman’s Agreement offers poignant commentary about anti-Semitism on its way to a Best Picture win at a time when studios didn’t want this film getting made.
Other studios didn’t want this film to be made because of the subject matter. The fact that it took a non-Jewish producer to get the film made is very telling. And yet, the prejudice was still showing in the years that followed World War 2.
A New York City journalist, Phillip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), changes his name to Phil Greenberg when magazine publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker) assigns him to investigate anti-Semitism. Through Green’s investigation, he learns his own secretary, Elaine Wales (June Havoc), is Jewish and had to change her name from Estelle Wilovsky. Green meets Minify’s niece Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire) at a party. He learns that she is the one who suggested the article. Green’s own sexism shows in being shocked that women can think. For the purposes of the article, Green starts dating Kathy. His identity remains a secret.
It took a non-Jew pretending to be Jewish in order to expose the anti-Semitism around him. His son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), gets harassed in school. When he shows up at Kathy’s family X-mas party, nobody wants to even be in the same room. Kathy might be liberal in her views but it’s not a pretty relationship. It’s so much that Green starts becoming friendly with fashion editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm).
Dave Goldman (John Garfield), a childhood friend), comes to live with the Greens shortly after moving to New York. It isn’t surprising that Dave shows both concern and support for his friend’s job assignment. Dave has his own personal experiences with anti-Semitism, which also includes landlords not renting to Jews. And yet, Kathy could have rented a vacant cottage to Dave’s family. The fact that she chose not to do so because of her neighbors is most telling. Moreover, her silence when a party guest makes a bigoted joke shows her own complicity in anti-Semitism. Kathy realizes what’s wrong with remaining silent when Dave asks what she did about it. She does the right thing and relations improve with Green.
Silence is complicity and it remains so even in 2020. There is no justifiable excuse for anyone to be anti-Semitic. If you see something, say something. The burden should not always be on Jewish people to call out anti-Semitism for what it is. Non-Jews need to call it out, too. It’s a virus. I’m sorry to get personal like this in a review but there’s no fun in experiencing anti-Semitism especially in left-wing spaces. We see this on both the left and right. Nobody is immune to the virus. Nobody.
Despite studio moguls largely being in Jewish during this year, it was hard to find many Jewish characters on screen. Jewish actors were largely considered to not take on Jewish roles on screen. Despite the content matter, you can’t find a single reference to Jews in the Oscar-winning film, The Life of Emile Zola. The moguls themselves also dealt with anti-Semitism in their own lives. Darryl F. Zanuck was a non-Jewish mogul but the Protestant filmmaker wasn’t afraid to see this project to the screen. Moss Hart adapts Laura Z. Hobson’s novel for the screen draws on Zanuck’s own real-life experiences in the dialogue. The film would be a landmark achievement and groundbreaking in its own right. Note that Production Code chief Joseph Green was very anti-Semitic.
Both John Garfield and Anne Revere found themselves on the Blacklist for either refusing to testify or name names. Garfield later died. A lot actors weren’t willing to sign onto the film because of the controversy including Cary Grant. The other thing is that nobody wanted ordinary Americans to know they were Jewish. Gregory Peck was brave to take on the role. Again, nobody wanted to ruin their career. And yet, Gentleman’s Agreement would be released to critical acclaim shortly after the first HUAC Hollywood hearings. Because of the film’s social message, other similar films would follow. The film’s importance would lead to three Oscar wins in eight nominations. Elia Kazan took home a win for Best Director and Celeste Holm won Best Supporting Actress. Zanuck took to the stage when the film won Best Picture.
Gentleman’s Agreement is the sort of film that contains the usual drama for a Zanuck movie but the subject matter is what makes the film so groundbreaking.
DIRECTOR: Elia Kazan
SCREENWRITER: Moss Hart
CAST: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, Anne Revere, June Havoc, Albert Dekker, Jane Wyatt, Dean Stockwell