Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gentleman's Agreement (1947): A Review (Review #85)


Knowing Me, Knowing Jew...

"If you want to send a message, go to Western Union".

So said Darryl Zanuck, I believe, when it came to 'message pictures'. That advise was not taken by Gentleman's Agreement, the first film I know of that tackled the serious issue of antisemitism. I've had a long-standing quarrel with films that don't seek to entertain but to 'send a message', even if I agree with it. That's not to say they only thing I expect a film to do is merely entertain. A film can be both entertaining as well as informative of a viewpoint (case in point: District 9).

However, when it is so earnest in its intent to be a serious film, an important film, a groundbreaking film, without other than its message to back up its claim, one will end up only with a lecture/sermon.

Gentleman's Agreement, while doing a good thing by tackling the bigotry against Jewish people that even "good" people have, is so determined to beat this over our heads that it starts being tedious to the point of insanity.

Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) is given a new writing assignment by Mr. Minify (John Dekker), the editor of liberal magazine Smith's Weekly. It is to be a series on antisemitism, but Green (whose first name is Phil, using his middle name as a nom de plume), just can't get a good handle on the subject. He struggles at this while caring for his mother (Anne Revere) and his son Tommy (Dean Stockwell).

Eventually, he hits on a novel idea: why not get the Jewish perspective! One of Green's best buddies is Jewish: Captain David Goldman (John Garfield), but he decides not to write to him for help to get things from a real Jew. Then, he hits upon an even more novel idea: why not get the Jewish perspective by pretending to be Jewish himself! With that original notion, he decides to be Phil Green (sometimes Greenberg) and create his damning exposé, "I Was A Jew For Six Months" (I guess that beat out the other choice: 'I Was A Teenage Rabbi').

Since few people know him in New York, he's easily able to get away with this. The editorial board at Smith's Weekly, including fashion editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), all believe he's Jewish when he tells them so. So does his secretary Miss Elaine Wales (June Havoc), who is hiding her Judaism by not using her birth name of Estelle Walovsky. This does complicate matters with his WASP girlfriend/fianceé Kathy Lacy (Dorothy Maguire), who while not prejudiced herself is remarkably tolerant of intolerance.

Gentleman's Agreement was released in 1947, and while the full horror of the Holocaust, the ultimate act of antisemitism wasn't covered or mentioned (I figure it was far too soon for a horrified world to see on screen); the film under director Elia Kazan and writer Moss Hart (adapting Laura Z. Hobson's novel) goes out of its way to show how everyone in New York City and Darien, Connecticut is an anti-Semite, or at least willing to accept it as a nature course of life.

As a side note, it does remind me of a line from Auntie Mame, where she complains that the trustee to her nephew wants to make him "an Aryan from Darien".  Just a thought.

Take the scene where the doctor he's called to examine his mother is asked about recommending a specialist. When a "Dr. Abrahams" is mentioned, Dr. Craige (Nicholas Joy) has this look of sheer horror, then suggests that the particular doctor in question may try to overcharge Green.  Not-so-subtle message from WASP to WASP: Jews are greedy!

Even worse is when Phil tries to go to a hotel known to be 'restricted', in spite of having reservations for his honeymoon there. Green asks the manager flat-out if he's hotel is restricted to Jews, the manager matching him by asking flat-out if Green's of the Hebraic religion.

In retrospect that scene is a fitting way of looking at Gentleman's Agreement altogether. The film makes its case (antisemitism is bad, and its all around us) with such a fiery determination that it becomes so hopelessly heavy-handed.

All the good intentions in the world cannot make up for a weak (or at the very least, dated) film. Even that could be tolerated (no pun intended), if only for the fact that Gentleman's Agreement really isn't about the evils of antisemitism. It's really about how antisemitism gets in the way of a "beautiful love story".

For most of the film, the real story was the relationship between Green and Kathy. He's hopelessly in love with her and dazzled by her beauty, but puzzled as to why she would be so passive in her casual acceptance of bigotry. We didn't get to really see how being Jewish is an impediment on the whole (other than a slight glimpse from Miss Wales) because so much damn time was wasted going into the romance of the leads. We never got to see/hear when and if Green was rejected for jobs, for service, for homes in certain neighborhoods because of his perceived background. It was not an interesting love story, especially since Kathy was such an uninteresting character.

The performances were never really realistic. Almost everyone in Gentleman's Agreement wasn't speaking dialogue so much as making speeches. Speeches decrying bigotry, speeches defending themselves against charges of being bigots (or giving aid and comfort to bigots), speeches about what it is to be Jewish and what exactly a Jew is. It gets boring and tedious and ponderous and almost hectoring.

Good actors can usually rise above such ponderous material as Gentleman's Agreement (even if it came from a talented writer like Hart, co-author of You Can't Take It With You and the first remake of A Star Is Born), and at times Peck and Revere do give actual performances. There is one scene between Peck and Stockwell after Tommy was taunted by neighborhood bullies for supposedly being Jewish that is especially effective.

However, for most of the film Peck is just making one speech after another about how it's hard out here for a Jew (which came as a big surprise to him). There's a scene near the end of the film that is particularly awful. In it, he's handed in the first three sections of his exposé (now called "I Was A Jew For Eight Weeks"--I figure he found it too hard to go on for another four months).

Miss Wales is shocked to discover he isn't Jewish, and he tells her he's still the same man: same eyes, face, hands. I seriously was expecting him to tell her about his "dimensions, organs, passions" and that maybe she should "prick him to see if he would not bleed".  Shakespeare already tread that ground in a much better production than this.

Maguire was almost totally blank for the course of the film (which felt far longer than its running time of nearly two hours). It's as if she's not just not merely unaware of her accepting of other's bigotry, she's apparently unaware that Kathy should have more than one facial expression.

The supporting players were far better. Garfield, most known to audiences of the time as a tough guy, played against type in his gentle portrayal of Capt. Goldman, a man who's seen the ugly side of bigotry but unlike Green doesn't have the luxury of turning Gentile all of a sudden. Havoc could have brought the conflict of someone "passing" for Gentile (which to me does make being Jewish the 1940s equivalent of being gay: something that can be kept in the closet where like one can "pass" for straight, but I digress), but she wasn't given a big enough part to do so.  It would have been a much better film if we'd seen things from their perspective versus the WASPy dishwater-dull Peck and Maguire.

The only person who gave a fully rounded performance was Holm. This is due to the fact that she was allowed to play a genuine person as opposed to a symbol or a message. Anne is a complete character: she is the only one around Green who treats him well, who never says anything negative, who shows compassion and who seems to have a jolly exterior but can also show her hurt when Green continues to pine over Kathy when a far better woman (one who shares his views) is right in front of him.

Anne is the only character who doesn't exhibit signs of antisemitism or any other kind of bigotry. She likes Phil for Phil, not for what she thinks he is or would like him to be, which makes Phil's final decision (and open-ended conclusion) of him running off to join Kathy even more bizarre.

This is ultimately what makes Gentleman's Agreement so difficult to believe: just how dumb Green is. The fact that he's genuinely shocked, SHOCKED, that Jewish people were not accepted or wanted in certain circles already makes him look naive. The fact that he still prefers Kathy over Anne makes him look hopelessly stupid.

At the end of the film, even after Anne tells Phil how she feels for him (Jew or Gentile, she doesn't care, and she's willing to fight for and alongside him), Phil still runs to Kathy after learning she has let David use of her home in Connecticut, restrictions be damned. One good act, apparently, can make Phil realize the woman he wants sexually is now more acceptable than the one who has stood by him.

I wrote in my notes when I saw Phil running up the stairs to embrace Kathy as Alfred Newman's music swelled (curiously, about the only time I heard music throughout all of Gentleman's Agreement), I HOPE HE'S NOT GOING BACK TO KATHY!!! (No exaggeration: I wrote that sentence in capital letters).

In fairness, Gentleman's Agreement did a good thing by just having the guts to face this oh-so genteel form of bigotry. In doing that, in making antisemitism the subject of the film (though I'd argue, not the central point of the film) it took a positive step to allow subject matter that needed to be addressed brought to the screen.

However, I felt there ultimately something disingenuous to Gentleman's Agreement. Phil Green can go back to being Gentile and to how his life was before. For those who are Jewish, or black, or today gay, or Hispanic or Arab/Muslim (the last two are not the same thing), they don't have that luxury.

Perhaps films like Gentleman's Agreement paved the way for America to be a more open, diverse, and accepting society (though I doubt this film had that much power). However, today the film is dated, hopelessly preachy, and as subtle as a sledgehammer.

I ultimately found that Gentleman's Agreement was not at all kosher.


1948 Best Picture: Hamlet

It is my goal to review every Best Picture winner. Please visit the ever-growing collection.

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