Tuesday, December 6

Good 40s Films: Gentleman's Agreement

1947 Drama
From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Elia Kazan

Gregory Peck
Dorothy McGuire
John Garfield
Celeste Holm
Anne Revere
June Havoc
Albert Dekker
Dean Stockwell
Jane Wyatt
Sam Jaffe
The year 1947 wasn't an easy one around Hollywood on several fronts and one of them was the Jewish issue.  The injustice of their treatment during the war seemed to be alive and thriving in those hills around Hollywood two years after war's end.  Who didn't know in 1947 that anti-Semitism, practiced so routinely by the nice folks around town, was rarely openly talked about?  Messy or not, there were those who wondered why the film industry didn't address the subject.

All of the studio heads were Jewish, except one.  Certainly one of them could corral his contract writers into fashioning some sort of vibrant screenplay on the subject.  Well, one did and isn't it funny that he was the only Gentile of the pack?  Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, thought he may have a little something he could work with.

Laura Z. Hobson wrote Gentleman's Agreement to critical acclaim. It concerned anti-Semitism, alright, but it had an angle that would provide more drama to the story. Its hero is a well-regarded writer who is recruited to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism by a Manhattan-based magazine. He is reluctant at first because he can't get a fix on how to lay it all out.  The publisher wants something out of the ordinary.  The writer finally recalls how he once went underground as a miner to discover how the men in those caves dealt with life.  So he decided to live life as a Jew.

For some years Zanuck had feelers out for novels that would be hot properties for his studio and he'd enjoyed remarkable success in this quest.  When word got around, one might think the other moguls would have complimented him for tackling a subject so in need of some sun shining on it, but it was not the case.  They told him to not rock the boat and he told them you make your pictures, I'll make mine.

At the same time, little RKO made it known that they were also going to put out a film about anti-Semitism, Crossfire (reviewed here a few months back), and everyone's knickers got all twisted. The truth is the two films had little in common.  Crossfire is a murder mystery, a yummy film noir, and only at the last minute before shooting began did they change the topic to anti-Semitism. It had been written by future director, Richard Brooks, on the subject of homophobia.  But that subject at that time was even more taboo, it seems, than anti-Semitism.

With no intention of bum-rapping Crossfire (I adored it!) but Gentleman's Agreement is a thoughtful commentary that attempts to shed some light on an important subject.  I was brought up to believe that racism of any kind stands against our democracy and human kindness and that thinking was certainly in line with Hobson's book and Moss Hart's reflective screenplay. 

There have always been those who would say that the screenplay was a little too sanitized to do much good (certainly so by today's less-than-refined standards) but for 1947 I think those on this film are to be commended for a nice step in the right direction. Zanuck, no fool, knew that to sell anti-Semitism to the public, it would have to be wrapped up in a love story.  And why wouldn't I want that, I say?  I wasn't planning on going to a documentary. 

The drama of the piece would have become a little lackluster were it not for one fact.  Our writer, noble though he may be, is woefully unprepared for the hatred and prejudice he experiences when people thought he was a Jew.  He tells people he is Jewish, keeping the truth even from his secretary who, in fact, has told him that she is a Jew masquerading as a Gentile.

He is supported by his loving mother and son, both of whom he lives with, and they have been sworn to keep the truth a secret even after the boy is beaten up for being Jewish.  The writer's Jewish friend, a military man about to end his tour, is also supportive but wonders why he'd put himself through such hell when he doesn't need to particularly when the friend himself is having a difficult time living where he wants.

The writer works with a fashion editor who falls a little bit in love with him and although she's been kept in the dark, is immediately supportive once she reads the truth at the opening of his article.

The problem comes in the form of the writer's fiance... yes, the other one involved in this love story.  She's a schoolteacher, well-connected, attentive, charming.  She knows the truth and agrees to keep it quiet until she begins coming up with exceptions to be made to that agreement and then the excrement hits the whirring appliance.

He comes to believe that she is prejudiced because she has more and more reasons for him to stop the charade, albeit it briefly.  At the time of a social engagement, she thinks he needs to come clean, lest they make a less-than-formal impression on her family or socially-connected neighbors.  She argues that he's taking things too far, is way too sensitive and unyielding and after all, hadn't it been she who suggested this entire anti-Semitism series to her uncle-publisher in the first place?

In trying to explain her position, which seems to rub up against the let's-leave-well-enough-alone dogma, she says that in the community she wants them to live once they are married, people there have a gentleman's agreement to just not discuss such untidy matters. That does it. He's done. She agrees.

In the film's penultimate scene, she meets with the military buddy, telling him that she and her writer fight about such big things, not the usual things that couples fight about but added that she is not prejudiced.  In this, also the film's best scene, the one that ties it all up, he tells her that he agrees she not anti-Semitic but that she needs to learn to sock back. It's no longer appropriate just to laugh at someone's tasteless joke. One simply has to say that something is offensive.  He points out that she is willing to go along with the deception as long as it isn't personally uncomfortable for her.  

You know how the final scene ends.  Don't you?  I mean, c'mon, it's 1947 America and Zanuck is trying to sell this film to its citizens.

In his 848-page autobiography, Elia Kazan, in directing just his fourth film, says he hardly remembers much about making it.  He signed a brief contract with 20th and learned early on that when Zanuck was the line producer on a film, things are really done more his way.  Things were pretty much firmly in place when Kazan arrived on the set.  Even the cast had been chosen for him. He did remember, however, winning his first Oscar for making this film.

Gentleman's Agreement reunited Kazan with the actress who starred in his first movie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Dorothy McGuire. And McGuire and Gregory Peck had good reason to be happy working together because they were already good friends. This same year they founded along with actor-director Mel Ferrer the La Jolla (California) Playhouse because all loved live performing. The playhouse is still open today.

For Peck, the role of the writer appealed to him not only because it was well-written and he was sought out by his brand-new boss (he was just trying out his wings at his new studio) but it spoke the sort of words the actor liked to find tumbling out of his mouth. Now he could speak them and get paid for doing so.

McGuire's fragile and vulnerable and yet tough and stubborn manner was a perfect hit here.  She is not a villainess by any stretch and her character is not so much unlikable as misguided. Nonetheless, it is certainly not one of her Disneyesque roles and I thought she was great fun to observe here. 

John Garfield had one of his softest roles. Interesting that he was borrowed from Warners for this supporting role. He was likely enamored of the subject matter. Interesting, too, that he was the male in the film's best scene. The often severe Anne Revere is as warm and lovely as one is likely to see her as the wise and loving mother of the main character. Celeste Holm won a supporting Oscar, perhaps because she had the wittiest lines. She and all main characters, however, all had at least one major speech, most bordering on a little too much cheer-leading. Dean Stockwell was always so delightful as a young actor.

This was a fine movie on several levels.  For me it was elevated in status because of a remarkable cast of actors, two of whom, Peck and McGuire, are among my all-time favorites.

Gentleman's Agreement won Oscar's best picture honor for 1947. As said, Kazan and Holm also won.  Peck, McGuire and Revere were also nominated, as was Hart's screenplay and Harmon Jones' editing. Here, have a peek:

Next posting:
Another 100th birthday wish

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