Gentleman's Agreement (1947) 20th Century Fox/Drama RT: 118 minutes No MPAA Rating (anti-semitism, mature themes and adult situations) Director: Elia Kazan Screenplay: Moss Hart Music: Alfred Newman Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller Release date: November 11, 1948 (NYC premiere) Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, Anne Revere, June Hovoc, Albert Dekker, Jane Wyatt, Dean Stockwell, Nicholas Joy, Sam Jaffe. Box Office: $3.9 million (US)
Unfortunately, I can say that I found Gentleman's Agreement only mildly interesting, that's not good considering the gravity of its subject matter, the prevalence of anti-Semitism in upper class American society. It's a subject that would be better explored in the 1992 drama School Ties, but that's another review for another time. Right now, I'm talking about the 1947 film that took home the Best Picture award as well as two other Oscars (Best Supporting Actress, Celeste Holm, and Best Director, Elia Kazan).
In my not-so-humble opinion, Gentleman's Agreement is way too talky as it tells its story of a widowed journalist, Philip Schuyler Green (Peck, The Guns of Navarone), who takes on a bold new assignment. His new boss, magazine publisher John Minify (Dekker, The Wild Bunch), asks him to write an article on anti-Semitism and even though he's not excited about it at first, Green decides to take a unique approach to the material and pose as a Jewish man. Calling the article "I Was Jewish for Six Months", he adopts a Jewish identity (Phil Greenburg) and writes about his own first-hand experiences with bigotry. Phil meets John's daughter Kathy (McGuire, Old Yeller) at a dinner party and it turns out that she's the one who suggested the article. Although they appear to like each other, her constant acquiescence to bigotry reveals so much about her hypocritical nature that he questions whether he really wants to be with her or not. Green also has a young son, Tommy (Stockwell, Blue Velvet), who finds himself facing anti-Semitism for the first time in his life and an aging mother (Revere, A Place in the Sun) who becomes ill with a heart condition. With all that happens in the movie, one would think that it would be a more compelling affair, right? I thought so, but it looks like I was very wrong.
As a counterpoint to Peck's character, John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice) plays Dave Goldman, Phil's childhood friend who really is Jewish. Whereas Phil can drop the charade at any time, Dave doesn't have that luxury and has no choice but to put up with people's crap. Dave has recently arrived in New York because of a job but he has to find a place to live, so he stays with Phil while he looks for a home for his family, one with a landlord that's willing to rent to Jewish families. Kathy owns a vacant cottage in Darien, Connecticut and she could rent the place to the Goldmans, but it's a "restricted community" and Jews aren't allowed. Kathy isn't willing to offend her neighbors and that's what finally makes Phil call off their engagement. Young Tommy faces some problems at school because of his father's assignment, he's told to neither confirm nor deny being Jewish to his peers and it results in his getting beaten up by bullies and getting called a "dirty Jew". Kathy makes matters worse when she consoles him by telling him that the bullies' taunts are wrong because they're inaccurate rather than immoral and mean. Gentleman's Agreement has so much going for it, but the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. The actors all turn in great performances, but they don't often do much more than talk and talk. I'm not saying that Gentleman's Agreement is a bad movie, but I sure wish that it had been a much better one. Now I'm fully aware that others don't share this opinion, this movie did win the Best Picture Oscar and it's considered a film classic by many film critics. Just remember that film (like any other medium) is subjective and everybody has their own opinion about different films, I still stand by my positive review of Howard the Duck!
In terms of acting, you can never go wrong with Gregory Peck. He even elevates B-movies like The Omen (1976) and The Boys from Brazil (1978). He delivers a very good performance in Gentleman's Agreement, although I'm not 100% sure if I'd believe he's Jewish. One of the top performances in the movie comes from June Havoc (Can't Stop the Music) as Elaine Wales, Phil's private secretary who reveals (1) that she is Jewish herself and (2) that she is prejudiced against the wrong kinds of Jews. She's one of the more interesting characters in the movie. Garfield also turns in a terrific performance, one feels great regret that this actor died so young (age 39), he showed such awesome potential that it would have been nice to see what he had in store for audiences down the road. In case you're wondering, the young actor who plays Peck's young son is the same Dean Stockwell who would go on to appear in David Lynch movies like Blue Velvet and Dune as well as the popular 90s sci-fi TV series Quantum Leap. Director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) has a way of tapping into the seedy undercurrent of the American way of life, whether it's bigotry or poverty or rape, he takes on subjects that most filmmakers wouldn't touch at the time. It's not exactly what one would call light-hearted, feel-good entertainment, but it's important nonetheless because it's enlightening, the films talk about relevant subjects and spark intelligent debates among educated moviegoers. Like I said, while I didn't necessarily like Gentleman's Agreement, I do appreciate the movie and I recommend watching it at least once just for the experience of taking in the film's important message and enjoying Gregory Peck's magnificent performance.