The 20th film to win Best Picture leaves Witney Seibold at a crossroads. Is Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement good, corny, or just dated?
I think Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement marks a turning point in Best Picture history. The 1940s – the height of the Studio System – were a time of increased focus on story and characterization. In the 1930s, films were typically inter-generational and historical epics. The films of the 1940s, in a very general sense, were more tightly focused on character and plot. This is true of Gentleman’s Agreement, a film about a reporter investigating antisemitism, but the tone is beginning to shift. The films of the 1950s, again very generally, tended to skew more corny, and earnest-but-not-really-hard-hitting “social problem” films would start to fall into vogue.
Gentleman’s Agreement, written by Moss Hart and based on a novel by Laura Hobson, is about antisemitism. It uses some nasty slurs I’d rather not type, hefty heaps of racial outrage, and some real-life instances of institutionalized prejudice, a very real thing in the 1940s. There are a few mentions of a man named Gerald L.K. Smith, who (and I had to look this up) headed an organization called the Christian Nationalist Crusade, which was essentially a hate group. The story follows a dark-haired reporter named Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), an innocent hayseed at heart, who proposes a piece on antisemitism to his enthused bosses. In the past, he would often take the jobs of his subjects to get a better sense of their working experience (he once worked as a coal miner), so he opts to take the same approach to prejudice by posing as a Jew. He drops the blueblood “Schuyler” from his name, and lets his religion “slip” in casual conversation. From there, the prejudice just rolls in.
The antisemitism that this film seeks to expose is not of the overt, hating variety, but – as the title implies – the unspoken contract of silence that seems to float around most forms of prejudice. It’s not that gentiles are beating and murdering Jews, but they are setting up “exclusive” hotels, which reject Jews as a matter of course. The film can be summed up in a conversation held near the end, wherein Green’s fiancee Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) and one of his old Jewish friends Dave (John Garfield) talk about how a friend of Kathy’s made numerous racist jokes at the dinner table once, and how she did and said nothing to confront him. She was outraged and disgusted, but she said nothing. Dave, wisely, takes her to task for her silence. We just don’t talk about it. That’s the Gentleman’s Agreement.
There is a lot of genuine outrage in Gentleman’s Agreement, and a lot of examples of the American Jewish experience in the 1940s. Well, at least within the upper crust, where the film dwells entirely; there is no look at or mention of the lower classes. But it was still bad amongst the wealthy. Kids were picked on for being Jewish. Some non-religious Jews still had to eschew their heritage. Jewish people changed their names to sound more Anglo, and dyed their hair to look more Western European. There were even “restricted communities” (Phil’s sister, played by Jane Wyatt, lives on one in Connecticut) upon which Jews were not welcome. I cannot fault this film for accuracy, or for its sense of moral anger.
Elia Kazan was a master of moral frustration and naturalist acting, and we’ll really see him shine in a few weeks when I write about 1954’s On the Waterfront. I will not yet mention his dealings with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But can Gentleman’s Agreement be a salient, good movie, and still be entirely too corny? Maybe it’s just because I’m looking back at it from the modern day, but Gentleman’s Agreement plays hokey and preachy a lot of the time. It’s sincere in its desires, but the emotional impact is more akin to listening to “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific. It’s clunky and obvious, and perhaps not as hard-hitting as it intends, despite the repeated use of a certain slur. At the time, I’m sure it was considered unbelievably daring – daring enough to warrant a Best Picture Oscar – but in 2014, after such stories have been dealt with many more times in a much more sophisticated way, Gentleman’s Agreement reads as quaint and old-fashioned. It’s a good film, but a hokey one too.
Join me next week for Hamlet.