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Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

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Score: 8/10

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 58 min.

Release Date: November 11th, 1947 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Elia Kazan Actors: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, Anne Revere, June Havoc, Albert Dekker, Jane Wyatt, Dean Stockwell

C

alifornians Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), his mother (Anne Revere), and his young son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) are sightseeing in New York, where Phil also waits to see about a job opportunity with the liberal Smith’s Weekly Magazine. When he meets with editor John Minify (Albert Dekker), they discuss a series of articles about anti-Semitism. That evening, Green goes to Minify’s house for a dinner party, where he meets Minify’s divorced niece Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), a woman who just might be perfect for Phil, since he lost his own wife some years ago.

Although Phil would rather write a story about a subject he finds fascinating, the importance of an anti-Semitism piece becomes clearer when Tommy asks his father the next morning to define a Jew, and to explain to him why some people harbor hatred toward them. After gaining enthusiasm for the project, Phil is consternated to realize that Minify doesn’t want just another story about facts and figures. He wants a unique angle – a potent perspective that will attract readers. But after a week’s worth of brainstorming, he’s still at a loss. That is, until he thinks about old pal Dave Goldman (John Garfield), a Jew who would know exactly how to feel about the current state of anti-Semitism. But Dave is still in the service, which prompts Phil to wonder whether or not pretending to be a Jew might give him the same viewpoint as a real person of that faith.

The premise (though based on the novel by Laura Z. Hobson) is similar to “Sullivan’s Travels” or “Black Like Me,” with a religion serving as the basis for temporary transformation. One of the immediate problems is with how long it takes to explain the setup. Despite a one-line synopsis that could have cut out the first 30 minutes of screentime, the picture opts to develop characters and a love story that couldn’t be more plain or expected. It’s a generic assemblage of characters with nonexclusive details, which makes it just that much more tedious when the pacing is so unhurried.

However, as soon as Green goes undercover as a Jew, the events grow more interesting. They’re unsurprising, still, but apt at relaying their messages about prejudices, double standards, or the habit of pretending that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist (or complacency towards intolerance, known as a “Gentleman’s Agreement”). Immediately, Green’s secretary reveals that she had to change her name to get her own job application considered, and that she regularly passes judgment over fellow Jews; his doctor recommends a non-Jewish associate to avoid overcharging or drawn out visits; and even Kathy trips up by hastily questioning Green’s religion, despite insisting that it doesn’t affect her feelings toward him.

The reiterations aren’t particularly eye-opening, yet they’re nevertheless of great consequence. The film goes on to explore the confusion about using the term “Jew” for both a race and a religion, its identification as a source of pride, the idea that certain Jews don’t possess features or mannerisms that might designate them as such (and that this can be exploited), the reality that many Jews are insulated to anti-Semitism by years and years of negative experiences, and the sentiment that many friends and family members won’t be as progressive or as understanding as they ought to be (or as they pretend to be) – prompting silence for the sake of ease or the convenience of avoiding tension. Curiously, even with all the potent commentary on anti-Semitism and the hypocrisy of nearly everyone’s actions, it’s Phil and Kathy’s relationship – full of quarrels, realizations of true love, and further fights about their sincerity towards the Jewish plight – that rings truest. In the end (aided by a momentous parting shot), the human drama feels just as powerful as the morals.

– Mike Massie

 



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