Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

This 1948 Best Picture Oscar winner was filmed from a screenplay written by Moss Hart (for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing) based on a novel by Laura Z. Hobson. Elia Kazan received his first Oscar as Best Director for his efforts with this film. This bit of trivia synchs very well with the plot of the movie: “Studio bosses - most of whom were Jewish themselves - urged Elia Kazan not to make the film.” While Wild River is my favorite Kazan film (especially looking back from today’s vantage), Gentleman’s Agreement also ranks as one of his best.

The story begins on the streets of New York City with Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) and his young son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) talking about their past in California and their new home in the city. The discussion gives their family’s back-story: a widowed father and son, the father with a new job and his mother helping them keep house. When Mrs. Green (Anne Revere) meets them she takes Tommy to shop for new shoes while his dad goes to meet his new boss.

John Minify (Albert Dekker) hired “Schuyler” Green (his byline) based on his reputation of hard hitting journalism. When the editor meets with Phil, he outlines his latest hot idea for a series of articles: an expose of anti-Semitism in America. As background, although this may not seem like a hot topic today, the Nuremburg trials -- which tried Nazi leaders for their war crimes and genocidal treatment of minorities in Germany -- took place not long before this movie’s release.

At first, Phil does not react with enthusiasm for the new project. However, when Minify invites him to a party Phil meets Minify’s niece Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire) who reminds her uncle the series on anti-Semitism originated with her suggestion. Kathy, a divorcee, and Phil, a widower, seem to hit it off very well and quickly become an “item,” and not long after plan their marriage.

Phil initially draws blanks with the anti-Semitism series. However, when he recalls to his mother how with past writing projects he used his own experience, he comes up with the central idea for his series: he will “become Jewish” and again write about his experience. When he tells Minify of his idea, the editor reacts positively. At a staff meeting they announce the anti-Semitism series. Phil stresses his enthusiasm for the project arises not only because of his Jewish heritage. That “news” travels fast in the “liberal” magazine’s channels until a bit later that day Phil learns about it from his secretary (June Havoc).

Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal in this role), fashion editor at the magazine, also finds Phil attractive. She invites him to a party at her place. Phil asks if he can bring his girlfriend. When Anne discovers that Kathy and Phil are serious she hints there might be trouble with Kathy’s relatives. Kathy’s sister Jane (Jane Wyatt) invites the couple to a party in her exclusive neighborhood, but only the “safe” neighbors attend. While there Phil tours the “dream house” Kathy built which now stands empty.

Dave Goldman (John Garfield, excellent in this supporting role), Phil’s lifelong friend, also comes to New York about a new job: a great opportunity for him. However, finding a place for his family to live proves difficult. In addition to Dave’s situation, they also discuss the anti-Semitism writing project and Phil’s method of attack on it. As a Jew, Dave expresses an interesting point of view on the project.

I hope I’ve given enough information to set the scene and pique your interest. As a topic anti-Semitism has cooled since the early post-war era. However, other forms of racism still command a great deal of attention. Since all forms of racism employ prejudice based on a person’s membership in some group rather than their individual merit, as an idea racism opposes individualism. Gentleman's Agreement as both novel and movie appeared several years before Black Like Me which used similar methods to explore anti-Black racism in America.

The solution eventually proposed by Dave Goldman does not involve using the power of the State. Instead it recommends individual action against racism. Looking back from our current vantage on this issue, I believe this movie had it right. I hope you view Gentleman's Agreement and enjoy its portrayal of how we may still solve this problem.   

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