The 1947 best picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement tells the story of widower Phillip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) and his young son Tommy (11-year old Dean Stockwell. Yes, Quantum Leap’s Dean Stockwell). The two arrive in New York for Phil’s new job as a writer for Smith’s Weekly magazine. His editor, at the suggestion of his niece Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), wants Phil to write an article on Antisemitism.
After struggling with how to best approach the subject he decides to pose as a Jew and document his experience first-hand. What transpires is what you’d probably imagine but the story dives way below the surface with many raw and unexpected realizations. It addresses prejudice and discrimination in a strong and direct way and it holds nothing back.
The first act sort of muddles around, bogged down a bit with the particulars of Phillip and Kathy’s love story. But the second act gets interesting in a hurry as Phil begins to experience the realities of those around him who believe he is Jewish.
I was very impressed by the way this film unpacked this story. It could have been a hard-sell, making all the prejudiced people mean and nasty enemies of all the enlightened knights on white horses. But frankly discrimination doesn’t work like that. Prejudice is more subtle and Gentleman’s Agreement presents that subtlety with great effect.
When Phil tells Kathy his plan she has to come to grips with the fact that even after this story is done it’s likely Phil’s faux Jewishness will follow them for years to come. Their dinner together at Kathy’s apartment is cold with a distance between them. The resolution is outstanding. No lazy writing here.
There was one moment the film seemed to be setting up that I kept waiting for. The payoff is smarter and better-executed than I was even hoping for.
Gentleman’s Agreement lays bare socially acceptable prejudice with even more subtle complexity than the more famous Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Anne Revere as Phil’s mother is excellent. Her naturalistic approach is striking against Peck’s performance as a writer who talks like he writes, with twice as many words as needed. This would be her third nomination for supporting actress in the last five years (she won in 1946 for National Velvet). She would lose to her co-star Celeste Holm who played Anne Dettrey, the fashion editor for Smith’s Weekly.
Two legendary directors would receive their first of their combined 12 best director nominations. Both David Lean (Great Expectations) and Elia Kazan were up for best director. Kazan would take home the statuette for this film.
In all Gentleman’s Agreement garnered a total of 8 nominations including Moss Hart’s screenplay and nods for McGuire and Peck.
I was really impressed how this mainstream film (#8 at the box office for 1947) pulled no punches, making repeated mention of three well-known, real-life public figures famous for their racism and Antisemitism at the time.
- Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-Mississippi), who advocated sending all African-Americans back to Africa.
- Congressman John Rankin (D-Mississippi), who regularly used racial slurs for blacks, Jews and Japanese publicly even on the floor of the House of Representatives.
- Socialistic “Share Our Wealth” leader Gerald L.K. Smith who denied the fact that 6 million Jews were murdered by Nazis during World War II.
Smith went to court, unsuccessfully trying to prevent Twentieth Century Fox from releasing Gentleman’s Agreement in Tulsa. He later tried to sue the studio for $1,000,000. In 1951 the case was thrown out of court.
This is a sharp, confrontational story and I found it personally challenging and I’m of Jewish descent. Where it gets you is making a distinction between just getting mad at the people who perpetuate discrimination and actually fighting against it.
“There must be a time you fight back. They’re persistent little traitors, to everything this country stands for, and you have to fight them not just for the ‘poor, poor Jews,’ as Dave says but for everything this country stands for.” – Phillip Schuyler Green
Gentleman’s Agreement is streaming on Netflix. Please watch it.