Today, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s fourth film; “Gentleman’s Agreement.” It’s easy to dismiss this cautious exposé of anti-Semitism from today’s perspective, but it was quite courageous back in 1947. Sadly, some ministers and churches of that era perpetuated bigotry and racism. Protestant minister and political demagogue, Gerald L. K. Smith,* is specifically cited in this film as a promoter of anti-Semitic hatred. The review below was first posted on January 1, 2017 and has been slightly revised.
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm, and John Garfield
20th Century Fox, 1947, 118 minutes
Fox studio mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck, frequently examined social injustice in his films and he eagerly sought the rights to Laura Z. Hobson’s 1947 novel, “Gentlman’s Agreement,” which dealt with anti-Semitism in the United States. Zanuck had a personal dog in the fight. He had applied for membership to the “prestigious” Los Angeles Country Club, but was denied because it was assumed (incorrectly) that he was Jewish. The heads of the other Hollywood studios, all Jewish, pleaded with Zanuck, not to make the picture, fearing a backlash, but the Fox boss pressed ahead, selecting rising talent, Elia Kazan, to direct.
Journalist Phil Green (Gregory Peck) moves to New York City with his young son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), and mother (Anne Revere) to write an expose on anti-Semitism for a liberal, weekly news magazine. Green racks his brain trying to come up with a story angle, eventually deciding to pose as a Jew himself. His fiance, Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), is privy to the scheme, but tensions arise when she insists on letting her family know her boyfriend isn’t actually Jewish. Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), a writer at the magazine who is more in synch with Green’s values, competes with Kathy for his affections. Green discovers prejudice everywhere, even at the liberal magazine’s offices. His good friend, discharged serviceman, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), an actual Jew, wants to move his family to New York, but (amazingly) not one Gentile in the entire NYC metropolitan area will sell him a house! Green’s expose is finally published, Kathy overcomes her accommodation of bigotry, and the two live happily ever after.
“Gentleman’s Agreement” was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won Best Picture while Kazan won Best Director and Holm took home Best Supporting Actress. Peck, McGuire, Revere, editor Harmon Jones, and writer Moss Hart were also nominated. Wooden Indian Peck plays one note throughout the movie as the over-earnest, crusading journalist. Dorothy McGuire is actually quite good as the effete, high-society snob. Kazan would later pay McGuire a back-handed compliment by saying she was perfect for the part. The repeated tiffs between Phil and Kathy begin to grate after awhile. Holm plays a decent part as the romance-starved, gal Friday. June Havoc does a great job in the role of Green’s Gentile-ized Jewish secretary while Garfield shines in his small but important part. Young Dean Stockwell does a nice job as Tommy.
Although the success of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Kazan’s fourth film, catapulted him to the Hollywood director A-list, he was highly critical of the movie in his later writings and interviews. While it might seem like a candy-coated look at bigotry from today’s perspective, as was his next film, “Pinky,” it was brave and cutting-edge cinema for its day. The scene where Green attempts to book a room as a Jew at a restricted hotel is absolutely riveting even seventy-years later. However, Ann Revere’s unfortunate “Popular Front” soapbox soliloquy at the end of the film practically begged the House Un-American Activities Committee to intervene and they complied by subpoenaing Kazan, Zanuck, Revere, and Garfield. Revere was eventually blacklisted, as was Garfield, who died of a heart attack at the age of 39 that many ascribed to the stress of the committee proceedings. Kazan eventually testified as a friendly witness in 1952, which earned him the lifelong condemnation of the American Left
The “Gentleman’s Agreement” DVD includes an informative commentary from film critic, Richard Shickel, with additional comments from Celeste Holm and June Havoc.
Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective
Anti-Semitism was quite popular in 1947 and continues even today. The Lord certainly condemns all forms of hatred and bigotry. Christians are to love everyone, even our enemies. However, while Christians must abhor hatred and prejudice, we are called to remain faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation. Such fidelity is frowned upon in today’s climate of relativism, plurality, and tolerance. It’s also not acceptable in the judgement of many to point out pseudo (c)hristian denominations and sects that do not preach the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, but we must please our Lord and Savior rather than men.
*”Protestant” minister, Gerald L.K. Smith (d. 1976), was a close ally of the infamous, anti-Semitic, radio priest, Charles Coughlin. Smith’s enduring legacy to his hateful and contradictory brand of (c)hristianity is his “Christ of the Ozarks” monument and religious theme park complex at Eureka Springs, Arkansas.