GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT has lost much of whatever steam it possessed back in 1947, when it drew attention to widespread ingrained homegrown prejudice—in this case antisemitism—in a slickly handled, safe enough way to draw audiences, get good reviews and win “importance” awards. It isn’t the best film of that lackluster year, but the Oscars bestowed three wins, including Best Picture. *
“I know dear, and some of your other best friends are Methodist, but you never bother to say it.”
Investigative journalist ‘Schuyler Green’ (Gregory Peck) pretends to be Jewish in order to discover a new angle for a story his magazine wants on antisemitism. Soon enough, he runs into bigotry at work, in public places and within the suburban Connecticut family of his WASP girlfriend ‘Kathy Lacey’ (Dorothy McGuire)–even though she suggested the article to start with. He gets some input from childhood pal ‘Dave Goldman’ (John Garfield), who knows the subject without having to masquerade. His son (Dean Stockwell, 11) feels the sting from playmates, and Schuyler is repeatedly forced to temper his indignation when Kathy’s reserved approach to the subject strains their relationship. More open fashion editor ‘Anne Detry’ (Celeste Holm) makes her interest in him another personal wrinkle to the reveals, slights, insults and spats that pepper the the script. The wit and grit contests with some obvious, rather patronizing speeches.
The script was adapted by Moss Hart and the film’s director Elia Kazan. The seeds were planted when writer Laura Z. Hobson’s novel caught the issue-keen eye of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, whose own experience with prejudice dovetailed with Hobson’s accounting. **
Except for an encounter with a drunken lout in a restaurant, the prejudicial arena remains within the realm of more genteel and educated strata of Manhattan and well-off Connecticut’s “restricted” townships and hotels, so it’s kind of a soft-sell approach that has weakened the films reputation since. It does get tiresome when the focus returns to the central romance for the fourth argument around.
Though the pace is dullish and the script variable, the acting is quite good, especially Peck and Maguire. Garfield has a few effective scenes; I generally find him over-earnest and never quite bought into the mystique. Likewise with the banter-charm thing from Celeste Holm, though she has a strong moment near the end. Familiar character actor Roy Roberts scores as the hotel manager who ‘politely’ turns Peck away from checking into a ‘respectable establishment’ where he ‘might not fit in’.
Along with Picture, Kazan won for Direction and Holm for Supporting Actress (it was only her third film). Nominations went to Peck and McGuire in the leads, Anne Revere in support, the screenplay and film editing. The $1,985,000 Fox spent on the gamble that people would bite the touchy subject was applauded to the #12 spot that year, grossing $10,500,000. With Albert Dekker, June Havoc, Sam Jaffe and Jane Wyatt. 118 minutes.
* The best nominated picture was Great Expectations. Other ’47 features that play better than Gentleman’s Agreement: Black Narcissus, Captain From Castile, Miracle On 34th Street, Nightmare Alley.
** Hobson was perked to write her novel after witnessing Mississippi Congressman John Rankin refer to columnist Walter Winchell as “Jew boy” and “kike” on the floor of the Senate. His bigotry was no shock; what tore deep was that none of his colleagues spoke up. In fact they applauded. She recorded: “How antisemitic was this country, this America, these United States? Not just among the outright bigots like Congressman Rankin… but [among] other people, people who’d never call anybody a kike, people who said they loathed prejudice?” “Gentleman’s Agreement” sold over 2,000,000 copies.
Zanuck had been turned down trying to join the Los Angeles Country Club when they assumed he—like most of the studio moguls of the day–was Jewish. Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer pleaded with the feisty Darryl F. to not “rock the boat” by making the film, but he was not a man who could be easily dissuaded from an idea once he thought it could work. As to the Catholic-raised Peck, his comment was “We had a very good story to tell, with a good set of characters, and at the same time were able to get in a few good licks against bigotry, prejudice and hatred, all the things we think of as being anti-American.” Gregory Peck, where are you?