#TBT Reviews: Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

As of the time of publishing, this film is available for streaming on Netflix US.

The debut entry into this series from last week felt timely due to the unfortunate passing of Jonathan Demme, but also due to my recent watching of the original The Manchurian Candidate. My only issue was that I felt like a 13 year-old film wasn’t all that removed from the present, and something more of a deep dive would be much more fun to look into.

Well how about a 70 year-old film instead?

For this weeks installment of Throwback Thursday Reviews, I decided to look into Elia Kazan’s 1947 film, Gentleman’s Agreement, which just happened to win Best Picture at the 20th Academy Awards. That’s not too bad of an achievement, eh?

For competition, it had Miracle On 34th Street and David Lean’s Great Expectations, along with Crossfire and The Bishop’s Wife. In addition to winning Best Picture, Gentleman’s Agreement also won the Academy Awards for Best Director Elia Kazan and Best Supporting  Actress Celeste Holm. The film received five other nominations, including Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Editing, Screenplay, and a second Supporting Actress.

How does the film work 70 years later? Let’s find out.

 

Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) is a journalist who just moved to New York City. His new boss suggests a piece to him on antisemitism, which he initially doesn’t like. While struggling with the idea of how to write it, he comes up with the idea of pretending to be Jewish himself, adopting the new identity Phil Greenberg. Soon after, he meets Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), the niece of his boss, and it turns out she was the one who suggest the piece in the first place.

The film really puts it’s views on the table in a conversation between Phil and his young son. Little Tommy doesn’t understand how people can hate each other because of their religion, and Phil has some trouble explaining it since it inherently doesn’t make much sense. They come to a conclusion about how prejudice is harmful and should be avoided.

Phil and Kathy start dating, but things become difficult between them in relation to his piece. He expects her to fully understand his position and his goal, but her immediate reaction is to question whether he is actually Jewish or not. The key issue is that Phil doesn’t believe it should matter one way or the other, and it clearly matters to Kathy.

Phil’s new secretary, Elaine Wales (June Havoc), tells him stories of her applying for jobs with her original (and more Jewish-sound) name and with a new name. Naturally, her second application is the one that got the job. However, she has reservations about Phil wanting their hiring process to be more open-minded, claiming that they need to be careful about “the wrong Jews” getting through. He also meets fashion editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), who is much more understanding, but also problematic for his relationship with Kathy.

Phil’s childhood friend Dave (John Garfield) comes back home and needs help finding a new home. Since he is Jewish, many people are unwilling to rent to him, so he stays with Phil for a bit. While out for dinner, a bigoted soldier tries to pick a fight with Dave, which shows even more prejudice that Jews have to go through.

Phil continues to collect and document more examples of the prejudice he experiences by simply saying that he is Jewish. A doctor recommends he avoid Jewish doctors to not be ripped off. The janitor in his building doesn’t want a Jewish name listed on the mailbox. A hotel concierge is unwilling to even sign him and recommends a cheap hotel down the street.

More tension arises when Tommy is bullied at school for being Jewish. He comes home clearly distressed, and Kathy tries to fix things by telling him that he isn’t actually Jewish. Naturally, this doesn’t play well with Phil, who would rather condemn the message behind their insults than just relish the fact that they are false.

Things build up when Phil and Kathy announce their engagement. She wants to tell her family that Phil is pretending to be Jewish, but he won’t give in to that. Instead, she only tells her sister about the situation. When they arrive, they find that several of the more conservative families weren’t able to make it at the last minute, meaning their invitations were revoked due to their bigotry.

Dave desperately needs a place to live, and while Kathy’s family has a cottage, she doesn’t like the idea. Kathy knows that the neighbors will not be receptive to Dave, and wishes to save him from a bad situation, not realizing how unhelpful she is. Fed up, Phil and Kathy break off the engagement.

At a bar with Dave, Kathy explains how disgusted she felt while hearing a bigoted joke. He asks what she did about it, which makes her realize that silence is the same as contributing. She sets Dave up at the cottage, and reconciles with Phil.

Classic Hollywood ending to an important story.

Now, I’m certainly no expert on what Jewish people have gone through. I also don’t feel qualified to analyze how the message specifically holds up over time. What I do know is that this film was important to the producers at the time that they were willing to risk their jobs over ensuring the production. Several people involved were called in by the House Un-American Activities Committee for their role in making the film.

It was important then, and it should still be important now.

Granted, Gentleman’s Agreement may come off as a bit dated and heavy-handed. However, sometimes the existence of the message is important enough, and it might not be perfect immediately. It’s clear how seriously producer Darryl Zanuck took the story, and audiences needed to see it play out as bluntly as it did.

Both Kazan and Peck believe that they didn’t do their best work on this film because they didn’t get along well, but it’s not like they phoned it in either. Gregory Peck is one of Classic Hollywood’s most talented actors, and he brings a much-needed gravitas to an important film. Kazan’s directing may not be as flashy as his work on A Streetcar Named Desire or On The Waterfront, but knowing when to stay out of the way of the story is a necessary skill to have.

Celeste Holm absolutely deserves her recognition as well. While she wasn’t a pivotal role in the film, her presence lights up the screen for every frame she gets.

Even if a 70 year-old film doesn’t feel contemporary in it’s ideas anymore (and could you really blame it?), it still does ring through with truth about acceptance of people and their differences. It was skillfully executed enough to earn the Best Picture award, and that alone means it should be worth the watch. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with digging a little deeper into Classic Hollywood films, and Gentleman’s Agreement certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

 

Gentleman’s Agreement: 8/10

Nick Potter

Co-founder of The Filmsmiths. Degree in Broadcast & Cinematic Arts with a minor in Cinema Studies from Central Michigan University. Pretty much the barbecue sauce of people but I'm doing my best.

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